How to get help with “emotional labor”

Step one: stop having a one-sided discussion

Emotional labor. I had never even heard of this term until a few weeks ago, and I’m still largely at a loss as to what, exactly, people (women) are upset about — and I say that in the most loving way possible.

I am confused AF by all this.

And as someone on the other side of the fence — someone also not doing this said “emotional labor” (despite being a woman — confusing; I know) — I thought I’d help facilitate the dialogue a bit. Because I also hear that women are not only frustrated about the one-sided labor; they’re also frustrated about not getting through to their partners. So here’s my two cents on how:

1. Know that venting ≠ problem-solving

These conversations, as they stand, aren’t actually meant to problem-solve. They’re meant to vent. They’re not actually written for men, and they’re definitely not loving towards men, which is why men are so turned off by them when we try to shove them in their face and get them to read and respond and change as a result.

Jezebel used this image in their article “Is it Even Worthwhile to Teach Men to Value Emotional Labor?”

And like… what the hell, Jezebel? What is that image? Did someone die?

If there was ever an image that would only speak to one side of this conversation, and leave the other side wondering what the hell happened, it’s this one.

This approach is bottled and emotionally-charged and awkward and combative from the start, and dudes don’t even have a fighting chance to first understand wait, what the hell is going on?

But a lot of readers and writers of these articles don’t actually care about dudes — they just want to feel heard. And that’s fine. But venting alone is a big part of why we’re not getting the change we also say we want.

2. Don’t do things out of “love” and then get resentful

Love and resentment can never coexist.

Pretending they do is toxic AF and we need to stop.

Same goes for “offering” to do something. If you do something on your own accord, even if you feel like you “have” to, you cannot later come back and use it against someone. That is so fucking manipulative and unhealthy.

From Avery Alder’s article “What is the purpose of naming something emotional labour?”,

“We’ve arrived at a place… where basically any form of acting kind or social is ready to be categorized as emotional labour (and therefore politically weaponized)… If we’re going to be politicizing basic kindness between friends and community members, I worry about doing so with the language of labour.”

I know you’re exhausted. I know you’re frustrated. I know you’re hurt. I know you want them to share the load. We know this, and we want a solution, too.

But you can’t give and then add the impression that doing so makes you exhausted or fatigued or frustrated. Because you know what self-respecting people do with that sort of toxic codependence? They pull away.

If people make us feel like shit when they do “nice” things for us, we aren’t going to want them to do nice things for us anymore — because making someone feel like shit isn’t going to make a self-respecting person want to lean in; it’s going to make them want to lean out.

And that’s the opposite of what you said you wanted.

It’s incredibly awkward to find out that someone is pissed about doing these things they’ve been doing — or, worse, demanding that you do them, too, without ever checking in to see how you feel about the matter.

3. Seek to understand your partner’s side, too

Right now, there’s only one group talking — and they’re taking the silence on the other side to mean that they’re right.

If we just want and need to feel heard, I get it. Vent away — let’s have it! You have every right to share your feelings!

But when we’re actually ready to rebuild our relationships, we have to listen, too. Because there’s another human being here, and there’s logic and reasoning on the other side that goes way beyond “eh, she’ll handle it,” as so many of us have assumed.

Most of us are thinking something more like:

  1. We thought you liked doing this!* And I say that in the most loving way possible. Like, I think my mom likes planning holiday shit, I think the office admin likes bringing in food, I think women who go into nursing or serving do it because, on some level, they enjoy care-taking! I mean, I should hope so! I’m not even a natural care-taker type but I understand (and enjoy) that it’s part of bartending — for both genders.
  2. With that in mind, we disagree on the stated “importance” of some of these things. You think it’s important. We often don’t.

*I am not saying “women like doing this” or, worse, “women are better at it.” I am a woman who doesn’t “like” doing this, so I definitely understand both the invalidity and toxicity of this belief. The “you” I’m addressing in the statement “we thought you liked doing this!” is not “women,” but the individual, specific “you” with whom we have interpersonal relationships. My mom, my office admin, “that” friend — as I noted.

4. Understand the limitations of opinion (on how important this stuff is)

And the fact that there are at least two of them at play. You may think this stuff “has” to happen… but does it, though? Does it actually?

Examples of emotional labor:

“Affirmation, forbearance, consultation, pacifying, guidance… Pretend to find you fascinating… Soothe your ego so you don’t get angry… Smile hollowly while you make a worse version of their joke… Listen to your rant about ‘bitches.’”

Girl. If you don’t want to do that anymore, fucking stop doing it. We fear the world will blow up, but it doesn’t.

In fact, everyone would be a lot better off in the long run if we didn’t placate and soothe egos and smile hollowly, and people would have a lot more respect for us if we stopped doing this and stopped pretending that it was required — of us or anyone.

“There is a detachment to home that I do not have the luxury of having… because if I did, then our everyday life would be a nightmare.”

A nightmare to you though. Would this be a nightmare to your partner? Their opinion matters, too.

“Someone has to do this!”

Is that actually true? Would your partner agree that this has to be done?

“If I didn’t do it, nobody would!”

Okay. And I get that that’s scary for you, but is that scary for your partner? What’s their threshold? Their comfort level and opinion matters, too.

“I take on that role. That’s not my authentic self, but I have no choice.”

But you have chosen. You choose this every day. I know it feels like you haven’t, but in fact you have.

5. Acknowledge choice

And don’t assume that what we’re choosing to accept as absolutes aren’t actually absolutes for everyone.

One woman asks,

“Why is it MY job to keep track of my husband’s mother’s birthday?… If you ask Bob, he loves his mother dearly, but he doesn’t care that much about birthday cards.”

Well. In response, I’d ask:

“Why do you make it (or ‘accept’ it as) your job to keep track of her birthday?”

Maybe we feel like we don’t have a choice in sending the card, like it has to be sent and nobody else will. But what we might miss is that we’re choosing to believe that it “has” to sent at all.

If my boyfriend — or hypothetical husband — didn’t want to send his mother a birthday card, his mother wouldn’t get a birthday card. End of story, moving on.

The fallout here is about what we choose to acknowledge and choose to give weight to. I know it seems like social expectations are everything — but therein lies a huge part of this discussion: those are personal values. Some people put a tremendous amount of weight on societal (and social/familial group) expectations, and others don’t. And the gap there is a lot of what causes this “emotional labor” problem.

When we’re truly done being held responsible for these, we’ll stop assuming it.

6. Understand values, and negotiate

Asking your partner to honor values is absolutely and perfectly understandable — and fair. Feeling fatigued being the only one in partnership working to honor those values is also understandable — and fair.

What’s not fair is (a) demanding that your partner agree with and honor them, too, especially (b) without acknowledging and honoring theirs in return.

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