You Don’t Need Your Partner’s Agreement to Break Up With Them

I hear some version of this very often, usually from women:

“I want to break up with my partner, but they don’t want to so I guess we’re staying together for now.”

“I want a divorce, but my husband wants to keep working on the marriage, so I’ll try it.”

“I tried to end my relationship, but it didn’t really ‘take.’”

Sometimes people want to break up and then they change their minds. But often, they don’t really change their minds–they just believe that breaking up, like getting together, is something that has to happen by mutual agreement.

It doesn’t. You can end a relationship (platonic, romantic, and/or sexual) at any time, with or without your partner’s agreement, with or without explanation, with or without “working on it” first, with or without meeting with them face to face, with or without apology.

“But ending a relationship without any of those things is a dick move!” Maybe? But the majority of the time I see it happen that way, it’s happening that way for a reason. The dumper may feel unsafe around the dumpee, they may know or suspect that the dumpee will try to pressure them into staying if they sit down for a conversation about it, they may have already told the dumpee many times that they will need to leave if things don’t change, and now they’re done.

It’s definitely easier if both partners agree that it’s time to end the relationship and what their interactions should look like going forward, and it’s great when that happens. But you can’t force it. If there’s a disagreement, the partner who wants less intimacy gets their way–not because the other partner’s desires aren’t valid, but because doing it any other way is a boundary violation. If you want us to hug and I don’t want to, then we don’t hug. If I want us to go on a date and you don’t want to, then we don’t go on a date. Otherwise, I would be forced into a hug I don’t want and you’d be forced into a date you don’t want, and that’s not okay. It’s not okay for anyone to be forced into a relationship, either.

Here someone often brings up “compromise.” You want physical intimacy with me and I don’t. What you really want is sex, but since you know it’s clearly wrong to pressure someone into sex, can’t we “at least” cuddle? If I wanted to, sure. But as I said, I don’t want physical intimacy with you at all. Cuddling isn’t a “compromise.” It’s a violation of my boundaries.

Likewise with ending relationships. Sometimes both exes want to stay friends after the breakup, and that’s great. But sometimes, only one of them does, and it becomes easy for the other to pressure them into a friendship as a “compromise”–especially if the person who wants the friendship is the person who just got dumped. “Can we at least be friends, then, if you won’t date me anymore?” “Fine, I guess.”

Charitably, I could say that the reason this happens is because people are modeling their breakups on their other Big Relationship Decisions, most of which involved mutual agreement or at least compromise. In healthy relationships, people take all the big steps–becoming “official,” moving in together, getting engaged, whatever–because they both really want to. Maybe to them that means that a breakup should only happen when they both really want to, too.

Healthy relationships also involve some amount of compromise, because needs don’t always perfectly align. If I really want to go out with my friends but my partner is sick and can’t cook dinner for themselves, I might stay and make dinner for them–not because I want to stay home and cook rather than going out with my friends, but because I care about my partner and want to help them.

If you’re really used to making these kinds of decisions–and most people in serious relationships are–then deciding to break up can feel similar. You’re pretty sure you want it to be over, but your partner reeeeeally wants you to stay, so you figure, “Well, I could stay for a bit longer, or I could stay as a more casual partner,” but then “a bit longer” turns into “indefinitely” and “more casual” turns into “exactly the same as it was before, except with more resentment because I thought things were going to be more casual and you’re still expecting them to be the same.”

Less charitably, though, there are some bigger issues going on. First of all, many people still think of relationships in terms like “obligation” and “duty,” which makes them very difficult to end or change. If you feel that you “owe” your partner a romantic relationship because they’re so nice to you or because they want it so much, how are you supposed to end it?

Second, women in particular (and, by extension, people perceived as women) are usually socialized to prioritize their partners over themselves. For many people, that means that even if you really want to break up, a partner’s strong desire to stay together overrides your desire to leave.

Finally, many people are manipulative and controlling in their relationships. I’m not just talking about abuse, although the line between these behaviors and abuse can be very difficult to draw. A manipulative and controlling partner can easily make it seem like breaking up with them is a grievous and unacceptable offense, not a necessary step that you need to take for your own self-care and wellbeing.

So when I hear things like, “I want to leave but they want to keep working on it, so I’m staying,” that raises a red flag. Why do their preferences override yours?

I’m often hearing about how so many people “these days” just quit relationships at the first sign of trouble rather than trying to “work on it.” From where I’m sitting, I don’t see a lot of that. I see people deciding that they’re no longer invested or safe in certain relationships, so they end those relationships.

If you still love and care about someone and want to be with them, but you’re having issues in your relationship, it might be worthwhile for you to try to “work on it.” (But even then, you don’t owe them that.) If you no longer want to be with that person, there is no “working on it” to be done. You can’t “work on” the fact that you don’t love someone and don’t want to see them anymore. You can’t force yourself to want something you don’t want. And even if you could, you don’t owe them that.

“But what about the people who suddenly up and quit a perfectly good relationship without even talking about it?” What about them? Jerks gonna jerk. I’m less worried about occasional jerks than I am about an entire society full of people, especially women and people perceived as women, who feel obligated to stay in relationships they don’t want. Besides, any relationship that someone wants to end is not a “perfectly good relationship.” If it’s a relationship you don’t want to be in, it’s not good, even if the reason you don’t want to be in it is 100% about you and your own issues.

I should mention: getting dumped sucks. (Usually.) You deserve support if you’re going through that. But the person who just announced that they no longer want to be in a relationship with you doesn’t owe you that support, and they especially don’t owe you any further intimacy just because it hurts you to lose that intimacy. It sucks and I’m sorry, but you’ll need to find support somewhere else and in some other form.

And if you’re the one sitting around waiting and hoping that one day your partner will finally agree with you that it’s time to break up, know this: you don’t need their agreement.

It takes two to tango, but only one to leave the dance floor.


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You Don’t Need Your Partner’s Agreement to Break Up With Them

5 Ways to Navigate Consent with a Partner Who Has Trouble Setting Boundaries

New Everyday Feminism piece!

More than I regret any of my nos, I regret quite a few of my yeses.

To this day, I don’t understand why I’ve said “yes” to some of the things I’ve said “yes” to. Even after I discovered feminism and sex positivity, I kept agreeing to intimacy – physical and emotional – that I didn’t want, or quickly realized I didn’t want. The longer I went without admitting that I didn’t want it after all, the harder it became to speak up.

It didn’t help that when I did speak up, my partners were often confused – and even angry. “Why didn’t you just tell me before?” is something I heard often.

If that sounds a little like you – I hear you. You have a long journey ahead of you, but you’re not alone in making it. These resources can help.

And if that sounds a little like your partner, this article is for you.

Navigating a relationship with someone who has a hard time saying “no” challenges your ability to respect both your partner’s boundaries and their autonomy.

You want to trust their words and take them at face value, but you know from experience that that’s not always possible. You can do your best to create a safe space for your partner to let you know when they’re not okay with things, but they may not be ready to meet you in that space yet.

If your partner is a woman or is perceived as one, they are especially likely to have difficulty with this. Our society teaches women that their boundaries are invalid in many ways.

However, people of any gender may have a hard time setting boundaries because it’s not easy even in the best of circumstances. People with a history of trauma or abuse may have grown up with the belief that their boundaries won’t be respected no matter how hard they work at setting them, so why bother?

As much as you might want to, you cannot undo the things that made your partner who they are. You can work with them to build a relationship that honors that history while also helping them to heal.

Here are five ways you can try.

1. Remember That Only Yes Means Yes

When you’re involved with someone who has a hard time saying “no” directly, it’s important to be aware that responses like “okay,” “that’s fine,” or “I guess” probably do not mean “yes” – especially not when combined with non-responsive body language, lack of eye contact, and a monotone.

Unless your partner has made it clear to you that they intend for these types of response to communicate consent, it’s safest to treat them as “no”s.

Many people have pushed back against the enthusiastic consent model. Asexual folks and sex workers especially have argued that consent need not be enthusiastic to “count.” Nonverbal consent can be established between close partners, too (and can also be quite enthusiastic itself).

While it’s important to listen to these narratives, we shouldn’t use them as an excuse to ignore potential signs that someone is not really consenting. If you’re not sure what it means when your partner responds to you in a particular way, ask.

Read the rest here.

5 Ways to Navigate Consent with a Partner Who Has Trouble Setting Boundaries

When Including Friends with Chronic Illness Feels Like Ignoring Boundaries

Text reads, "Plans? Yeah, I know...I cancel, I postpone, I reschedule, I delay committing. Illness sometimes controls my schedule, but I am determined it won't control me! Please keep inviting me."
I’ve been seeing a bunch of memes lately to the effect of, “keep inviting your chronically ill friends to things, even if they always say no/flake out/don’t respond at all/etc.”

(Chronic illness here refers both to mental illness and to chronic physical conditions like fibromyalgia and fatigue.)

That’s a bit of advice that I’ve endorsed and given myself, especially having so often been that exact chronically ill person. I do think that those who are close to someone with a chronic illness and want to be supportive should, if they can, make that extra effort and try to get past their own feelings of rejection to try to include that person, because even if they always say no, the invitations may be a heartening reminder that they’re still wanted and missed. That’s easy to forget when you’re in the throes of a chronic illness flareup, especially if it’s depression.

Lately, though, this advice has been giving me cognitive dissonance and I think I’ve figured out why.

Continue reading “When Including Friends with Chronic Illness Feels Like Ignoring Boundaries”

When Including Friends with Chronic Illness Feels Like Ignoring Boundaries

Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing

Lately I’ve been disturbed by the tendency among many progressive folks to conflate boundary setting with tone policing.

When I tell people that I have a very strong preference not to be yelled at or called names, they say, “But isn’t that kind of tone policing?”

If it is, then I’ll have to admit to tone policing, because being able to set boundaries in my own space is important enough to me to risk pissing people off. In fact, as anyone who sets boundaries with any regularity knows, it’s a surefire way to piss people off no matter what kind of boundaries they are.

This is a complex topic so I will do my best to be nuanced about it. I’m going to state upfront (and I will return to this later) that tone policing is a real and harmful phenomenon, and that sometimes (not always) setting boundaries can include tone policing. That is true, and it is also true that the concept is sometimes misapplied in ways that are intended to justify cruel or even abusive behavior.

What is tone policing?

Tone policing is when more-powerful people dismiss the real concerns and call-outs of less-powerful people because of the tone they use. For instance, if I see a person of color posting “FUCK these racist-ass cops” and I respond, “You may have a point there but aren’t you being a little too angry about this?”, then I’m tone policing. Either the person has a point or they don’t; the tone is irrelevant to that. More-privileged people tend to assume that if someone is being really angry about an injustice that affects them, then their assessment of the situation is not to be trusted because it’s too clouded with emotion. In fact, the opposite is probably true; they’re probably so angry because it’s so damn awful. Not only is it perfectly healthy and appropriate for them to express anger at situations that are truly infuriating, but that anger can be an important signal to those who don’t experience that particular injustice, because it lets them know: pay attention. There’s something going on here.

Tone policing can also happen in a more interpersonal context. If a man I know refers to another woman as a slut and I say, “Whoa, what the fuck, don’t ever call a woman that!”, it would be tone policing for him to totally dismiss my concern and respond by criticizing my tone. Tone policers often also add a patronizing little bit about how “if you’d said it differently I would’ve listened to you,” proving that they are, in fact, perfectly capable of listening, they’re just choosing not to in this moment.

Anger vs meanness, intent vs impact

Sometimes the concept of tone policing is over-applied. For starters, people sometimes conflate anger and meanness. It’s possible to express anger without being mean. For instance, you can say, “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit,” or you can say, “What you just said is really messed up and really pisses me off.” Part of the problem of tone policing is that people will often misinterpret the latter statement as mean and overly angry, too, but they would be wrong. The latter statement is honest and direct and not intended to hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s intended to express anger.

If someone hears “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit” and responds with, “Whoa, it’s not ok to speak to me that way,” they’re often told that they’re tone policing and trying to prevent someone else from expressing anger. That’s not the case. The fact that someone has a boundary around being referred to as a “worthless piece of shit” doesn’t mean they’re unwilling to hear that someone is angry with them, or that they think the other person’s feelings are invalid.

And yes, sometimes the person who’s angry is so hurt that all they’re able to say is “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit.” It happens, and I think we should all, if we can, try to practice compassion for people who say mean things from a place of deep (often structural) hurt.

However, that doesn’t actually negate someone else’s boundaries. As we’re all fond of saying, intent isn’t impact. I don’t have to accept being called a worthless piece of shit just because someone else is legitimately upset.

Continue reading “Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing”

Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing

How To Make Talking About Sex With Your Partner Easier

I have an article up at Everyday Feminism about why it’s hard for a lot of people to talk about sex openly with their partners, and ways they can make it easier.

I have a confession to make.

Despite writing about sex on the Internet, facilitating workshops about consent and sexuality for dozens or hundreds of people, and being openly queer, feminist, and polyamorous, I sometimes choke up when it comes to talking about sex with one of my actual partners.

I want to tell them what I want, or to set a boundary around something I don’t want, but all of a sudden, words completely fail me.

I feel like a hypocrite – but I think there’s more to it than that.

Even in spaces that emphasize celebrating rather than stigmatizing sex, such as feminism and LGBTQIA+ communities, people often have trouble putting their ideals into practice and opening up when talking about sex with partners.

Being part of a sex-positive community can create a lot of pressure: If we’re really sex-positive, shouldn’t we be ready to spill all our deepest fantasies to whomever we want to sleep with?

Not necessarily.

If you have a hard time talking about sex with partners, you’re not alone.

There are a lot of reasons why people might have difficulty with it, and many of them apply across cultures and subcultures. After describing a few ways in which our experiences and the society we live in can make talking about sex challenging, I’ll suggest some strategies for making it a little easier.

5 Reasons Why Talking About Sex Is Hard

1. Internalized Sexual Stigma

Even if you really want to believe that there’s nothing shameful or inherently dangerous about sex, it’s not always easy to internalize that when you’ve grown up in a society that stigmatizes sexuality, especially that of anyone who isn’t a straight, white, cis, able-bodied man.

This can make talking about sex embarrassing or anxiety-provoking, and it doesn’t mean you’re a “prude.”

2. Not Knowing the Words to Use

Sometimes talking about sex is hard because most of the words we know sound either cold and clinical (like vagina and erection) or vulgar and pornographic (like cunt or pussy).

Of course, there’s nothing about these words that makes them inherently wrong or weird to use, and many people do enjoy using them. But if we’re used to seeing them in the context of a high school health textbook or a terribly inappropriate OKCupid message, it might be hard to use them in a more positive way.

3. Cultural Scripts About Sex

In romantic films, the couple usually has an amazingly passionate and satisfying first hook up without ever talking to each other about what they like in bed.

Although we understand that movies aren’t real life, many of us nevertheless end up believing on some level that there’s no need to talk about sex explicitly, and that if the couple “really” clicks, they’ll automatically connect sexually without any prior discussion.

That’s just one example of sexual scripts and how they influence our behavior.

4. Bad Previous Experiences

Some of us are initially enthusiastic about discussing sex openly with partners, but after some bad reactions from others, we lose that openness.

I’ve had partners shut down in response to my attempts to tell them what I like or ask them what they like, or respond with “Uh, that’s weird.”

If this has ever happened to you, I can see why you might not feel too confident about talking about sex anymore.

When it comes to setting sexual boundaries, you may fear that the person will get angry or push you away because that may well have happened in the past.

5. Past Trauma

If you have a history of sexual trauma, sex may not be a topic that you can discuss casually, even with someone you’re close to. Conversations about sex may be triggering or just deeply scary and unpleasant.

This is not your fault, and you can heal with time. These articles may help you.

But whatever the reason discussing sex is tough for you (whether it’s one of these or one of many more), the good news is that there are ways to make it easier.

Here are a few you can try.

Read the rest here.

How To Make Talking About Sex With Your Partner Easier

On Conflicting Emotional Needs in Relationships

[Content note: personal discussion of emotional imbalances in relationships. If you’re struggling with feeling like a burden to your partner(s), you might want to skip my perspective on this. Or maybe not.]

On the one hand: you deserve to be able to express your feelings in a relationship, and if your partner refuses to hear and affirm your feelings, that’s probably not a healthy situation.

On the other hand: you deserve to be able to set your boundaries. If someone you’re close with is having a lot of strong feelings that they want to express repeatedly–especially if the feelings are about you or the relationship–that can be very difficult to reconcile with your own mental health needs.

I don’t really know what to do in these situations except end the relationship or transition it to a more casual one. (That’s my own approach, not my advice to others.)

I used to believe, back when I was more often in the first situation, that the right thing to do when you care about someone is to just make yourself listen to them even if you don’t really feel like it. Relationships Are About Compromise, after all.

I didn’t realize at the time how easily this attitude can lead to becoming your partner’s untrained, unpaid therapist, or having your own issues exacerbated or triggered. It’s nobody’s fault; it’s just an occupational hazard of being a human in relationship with other humans.

But the other thing I learned is that it also isn’t healthy for me to frequently feel like I’m reluctantly doing my partner a favor just because it’s The Right Thing To Do.

Of course not all favors that we do are reluctant. If a friend needs help moving, I usually help out if I can, even though I would never choose to move furniture just for fun. But I didn’t do it because it’s The Right Thing To Do; I do it because it’s ultimately rewarding and because I get to spend time with friends in the process.

Likewise, I’m (usually) happy to listen to my friends’ and partners’ feelings, even when they’re strong and negative and expressed “uncharitably.” I’m used to hearing lots of sad things; it’s sad to hear them but it usually doesn’t harm me in any noticeable way. Although I can’t solve my friends’ problems for them–and wouldn’t want to–these conversations can be very rewarding for both of us.

But by the point in a relationship where we’re having the tenth conversation about “I just feel like you don’t really love me that much,” there’s generally nothing rewarding in it. (Truthfully, I’m not sure it’s rewarding for the person sharing it, either.) At that point, I’m listening because I feel like that’s what I should do, not because I want to.

For a while this seemed like an okay thing to do. It even seemed like the ethically correct thing to do, until I thought about how it would feel if I know that someone was only doing things for me out of a sense of obligation or commitment, and not because it’s actually pleasurable, meaningful, or rewarding for them.

(Note that difficult conversations can be meaningful and rewarding, if not pleasurable. Difficult conversations can bring a conflict towards resolution, build emotional intimacy, and develop more understanding of each other, to give just three examples. But I’m not talking about those.)

In fact, when I realized that this was going on and that people in my life were listening to me basically just to avoid feeling like Bad People, it totally messed up my ability to open up about my feelings. I stopped trusting people to set boundaries with me, because I’d seen proof that they don’t–ostensibly to avoid the possibility of hurting me, but also to avoid their own guilt.

In fact, it probably would’ve been hurtful to hear, “Sorry, babe, we’ve already talked through this a lot and I don’t have the bandwidth to talk through it again. Is there another way I can support you?” But hurtful doesn’t always mean wrong. What’s ultimately more hurtful, the sting of having a boundary set with me, or the steady, years-long erosion of trust in everyone that happens when enough people I care about act dishonestly with me?

And maybe, in a perfect world in which everyone is honest and direct, some of my partners would have said that they weren’t able to listen to me talk about certain things. Maybe that would’ve been a dealbreaker and I would’ve found partners who do not have those particular boundaries, and I would’ve trusted them to let me know if that changed.

But there are no easy answers for people who can’t find anyone willing to support them at the level that they need (and who cannot access therapy, presumably). Quite a few of us with a mental illness history can probably even say that someone’s failure to set their boundaries ended up saving our lives.

I don’t know.

But thankfully, most situations are not life-threatening. It should be ok if your partner has already processed your fears of rejection with you and isn’t able to do it anymore. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you or aren’t committed to you, it just means their needs are conflicting with yours. And it shouldn’t be the case that the needs of the partner who needs more support automatically override the needs of their partner.

I think part of the problem is our cultural conception of romantic partners as The One and My Other Hand and such. Many people believe that you should be able to tell your partner everything and have all your emotional (and sexual) needs met by them. If you need some sort of support–for instance, someone to listen to you regularly talk about your fears of being dumped–your partner should be available for that, and if they’re not, there’s something wrong with the relationship (or with your partner as a person).

(While this sounds like it’s only applicable to monogamy, plenty of poly couples actually work under the assumptions. Their “primary” partner is supposed to be able to fulfill all of their emotional needs, and their “secondaries” are for a bit of fun on the side. Aside from the sexual component, the “primary” partner still has to be able to do all the emotional support stuff.)

This is the point where someone is tempted to protest But It Works For Us, but okay–if it works, it works. But for many people it doesn’t. Worse, they think that the problem is with them, and not with our collective assumptions. If you and your partner are being honest, open, self-aware, and respectful of boundaries, but you still can’t fully meet each other’s needs, maybe it’s time to explore other options–not necessarily breaking up, but adjusting your expectations about how much of the support you need should come from one person.

(By the way, that doesn’t even imply that you should try polyamory. There’s no reason why certain emotional support needs can only be met by partners and not by friends.)

My concern about these conversations is that we’re always auditing people’s boundaries and shaming them for not being available enough to their partners. (Even when we’re not those people’s partners, perhaps especially then. I get so many comments from people I literally don’t even know about how I must be a terrible selfish partner. Suppose I am. What’s it to you?) I could already hear the responses to this post as I was writing it–“So what, you’re saying it’s ok to refuse to listen to your partner’s feelings?” “So it’s ok for someone to just shut down all their partner’s concerns?”

It’s notable how words like “all,” “always,” and “never” end up creeping into these conversations when they were never originally there.

Well, first of all, there’s setting boundaries and there’s abuse. Setting boundaries is, “I’m sorry, I don’t feel like I can handle this discussion. What else can we do?” Abuse is, “Come on, you’re acting crazy. This isn’t a big deal. You should be grateful I’m still with you at all.”

Second–and this is basically the whole point of this post–expectations about what’s reasonable to ask of a partner vary wildly from person to person. For me, listening for hours per week to someone venting about work or school or people they know is totally reasonable, but having more than a few “I just feel like you don’t love me as much as I love you” conversations per relationship completely destroys my ability to stay in that relationship. For whatever reason, I just can’t with that conversation. I hate feeling like I have to prove my love, I hate feeling like we have to quantify the amount of love we feel and compare it, I hate feeling like I owe my partner stronger feelings just because they have stronger feelings for me, I hate being pressured to show my love in ways that I’m not comfortable with. I just hate all of it. But that’s me. And some of the things that I am happy to do for partners, others probably aren’t.

Finally, I’m not sure that “is that ok?” is even the right question to be asking in these situations. Is it ok for you? If not, then don’t date that person. Otherwise, it’s not really relevant. Relationships with zero or minimal emotional support do exist; they’re casual hookup situations and they work great for some people.

As always with needs and boundaries, the more extensive yours are, the pickier you’ll have to be about your partners. If you need a partner who is able to support you through your mental illness at a very high emotional level, many people will not be a good fit for you, and it’s not because they’re selfish and emotionally withholding. It’s because your needs are in conflict.

Likewise, if you need a relationship in which Serious Conversations About Feelings and Relationship Talks are minimal, many people will not be a good fit for you, and it’s not because they’re clingy and suffocating. It’s because your needs are in conflict.

Of course, everyone always tells me that it’s not as simple as “just don’t date the person who isn’t a good fit for you,” because you have strong feelings for them and you can’t just get over them. This is true, and being unable to date someone you really want to date is never a good feeling no matter what the reason. But I’m not sure that being in a relationship with strongly conflicting needs is any better, unless you’ve made a plan with yourself/your partner about how those needs are going to be met (outside the relationship).

Instead, people tend to assume that being single (for now) is necessarily worse than being in a very emotionally mismatched relationship, and then end up blaming and resenting their partner for not meeting their needs or for having needs that the relationship cannot accommodate. The belief that romantic relationships should provide for all of one’s needs makes it both impossible to accept the relationship as it is, and impossible to leave it.

Gently guiding that belief to the grave where it belongs is a topic for another post, but understanding the fact that many couples have conflicting emotional needs and that this doesn’t make anyone wrong or bad is a crucial first step.

~~~

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On Conflicting Emotional Needs in Relationships

"Oh so I can't say ANYTHING anymore"

Ready to get meta? Let’s get meta.

It seems that anytime the words “Please don’t say…” come out of someone’s mouth, someone else is always ready to start with the “Oh so I can’t say ANYTHING to anyone anymore” and “I guess we should just never talk to anyone ever again” and “What an awful world it would be if nobody ever said things to other people.” It also happens all the time with posts about street harassment (“Oh so now I can’t EVER talk to a woman again, how is the human race going to procreate”), racism (“Oh so everything is racist now, I guess I just shouldn’t talk to Black people except then I’m a racist anyway”), mental illness (“Ok so I should just never say anything to my friend with depression ever again, got it”), and probably others too.  I was prepared to get this response to my previous post about telling people they look tired, and oh, I got it.

And I decided that I’m tired of it and I’m not going to entertain this bullshit anymore. I’m not going to patiently repeat, “Well, I didn’t say you can’t say ANYTHING, and I even provided a list of things that are better to say…” and “No, as I said, it’s totally acceptable to say it when you’ve got that kind of relationship with the person…” Because you know what? Life’s too short. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, and all that.

I’m fully cognizant of the fact that this is only going to provoke even more “Well now I REALLY can’t say ANYTHING EVER AGAIN” like tribbles on the Enterprise, but here goes anyway.

Tribbles. So many tribbles.

First of all, it’s an annoying thing to say. It’s antagonistic and whiny. That wouldn’t in and of itself make it inadvisable to say; I’ve noted many times that it’s important to learn how to separate the message from the way the message makes you feel. So, sure, I could be annoyed at this for no good reason and maybe I should set that annoyance aside so that I can instead grasp at the nugget of truth hidden therein.

Second, in the context of a discussion, it adds nothing. It’s empirically inaccurate. It neither asks for clarification nor provides it. The only thing it accomplishes is that it expresses disapproval, but it does so in an indirect, passive-aggressive way that’s ultimately ineffective. You could, for instance, say “Now I’m worried that I’m going to offend someone through no fault of my own” or “So what can I say instead?” or “I still don’t understand why this is offensive, and that’s freaking me out because how am I going to know what else I’m not supposed to say and keep people from hating me?” (Hey, did you see that? Those were examples of things you can still say. See? You are still allowed to say things to people.) Passive-aggressiveness is a great way to annoy people and get them to ignore you, and not necessarily a great way to get your needs met.

Think about how ridiculous this argument would sound in any other context:

“I didn’t like Age of Ultron.”

“Wow I guess all movies are bad and should never have been made”

“Can you not tease me about that? It’s a sore subject.”

“So I’m not even allowed to talk to you anymore?”

“Can you please keep it down after 11? That’s when I go to bed.”

“Ok so I guess I have to be completely silent 24/7 and never communicate verbally or do anything that causes sounds”

Come on. It’s not fooling anyone.

Third, it derails and shuts down people who are trying to share their experiences. Most “Please don’t say” articles aren’t coming from Experts Dispensing Sage Advice; they’re coming from ordinary folks who are talking about difficult stuff they’ve gone through and how other people unintentionally made it even harder. If that’s not interesting to you and you don’t care about making their lives easier, that’s fine. That’s what the “close tab” button’s for, you know. If you do care about being a better friend or ally to people who are dealing with said issue, then read the article and consider it seriously.

It’s been suggested to me that “Oh so I can’t say ANYTHING” responses are coming from a place of fear of social disapproval and frustration with changing social norms. I believe it. Those are valid feelings. As someone who’s lived in three countries and six cities and has shifted political, religious, and sexual identities, I know the struggle of constantly trying to fit in and be accepted in new social spaces. It’s not easy.

Remember that ring theory thing I keep referencing, though? You need to find the right spaces in which to process your feelings about someone else’s feelings. The person who is having the original feelings–the Original Feeler, I suppose–is not the appropriate person on whom to foist your own feelings.

Just because your feelings and needs are valid doesn’t obligate anyone to do anything about them. That may sound harsh, but remember that it applies to everyone. You don’t have to take care of your friends with depression or fatigue or whatever, either. You don’t have to care about the shit that anyone else goes through. You only have to respect their stated boundaries.

Fourth, another consequence of this tendency to exaggerate someone’s actual criticisms into something grotesquely ridiculous is that, intentionally or otherwise, you’re poisoning the well. That entire line of criticism starts to be considered laughable, not something for serious people to actually contemplate, because the exaggerations become louder, more visible, and more accessible than the original criticism. Maybe you’ll even find some obscure, poorly-written example to prove your point and use that as a stand-in for the rest of the criticism. See! This feminist blogger says she doesn’t want men to ever speak to her for any reason, not even to yell “Fire!” when the building’s on fire. Here’s one random college student who thinks that every single classic novel contains sexism and racism and therefore should be permanently banned from their college curriculum. That’s definitely what street harassment and trigger warnings are all about.

It starts to turn into a weird sort of gaslighting. “I know you’re saying that you’re only bothered by these specific things, but actually you’re bothered by literally everything so the problem is with you and I don’t have to take you seriously anymore.” And so we have to focus our energy on preempting these immature and derailing accusations by insisting that there are plenty of men or white people or whatever that we do like, and plenty of compliments we do appreciate, and so on. Imagine how much easier things would be if we didn’t have to spend all that time stroking egos and could instead just state directly what we’d like you to stop doing, and you could either agree to stop doing it or disagree and take yourselves out of our spaces and lives.

There is no other option, by the way. If you don’t like my boundaries, you can choose not to interact with me, but you cannot choose not to respect my boundaries. And no, I’m not talking about honest mistakes. I said “choose.”

There’s something to be said for the weaknesses of “Please don’t say” articles, which is why many writers try to frame these things more positively, like “How to support your friend with depression” or “Some better things to say to people with chronic illness” or whatever. That can be a great idea. I try to do that when possible.

However, sometimes, that’s not enough. Sometimes I really do need someone to stop saying a particular thing that I don’t want to hear anymore, and I have the right to set that boundary. Whether or not you agree and are prepared to honor it, I get to set it. You don’t get to tell me I don’t get to set it.

And even when I do that, I usually provide alternatives. In that last post I had a bunch of them, which at least a few readers apparently either didn’t bother to read or considered so insufficient as to persist in claiming that WELL NOW WE JUST CAN’T SAY ANYTHING ANYMORE. Really? I literally gave you some stuff to say. I can’t exactly take it in good faith when you claim that I’m telling you you are not allowed to speak to other human beings ever, especially when I only gave you one sentence not to say. Does your entire vocabulary consist of the words “you,” “look,” and “tired” in various combinations?

Basically, I’m disturbed by these responses to folks attempting to set their boundaries. That is really weird to me. You (usually) have the option of not interacting with someone if you don’t like how they’re asking to be interacted with. Sure, that doesn’t always work for your boss or your child, but it certainly works for me, a random writer that you’ve probably never met in person and never will. If my boundaries bother you that much, close this tab. Do not return to this blog. Do not pause to leave a childish little comment about how you are closing this tab and not returning to this blog. Your irritation is not my problem.

And then do that with the other people in your life whose boundaries you’re not willing to respect. Do it for yourself, and do it for them.

Or, you know, consider respecting their boundaries. That works too.

~~~

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"Oh so I can't say ANYTHING anymore"

A Vacation from Emotional Labor

What follows are some (even) more personal reflections on the piece I wrote a couple days ago on emotional labor.

As I was writing that piece, I was feeling guilty. I kept thinking, “But some of these things haven’t happened to me for years. It’s gotten better. What right do I have to complain about this?”

As people (women especially) often do when speaking about their personal experiences, I kept questioning if it was really “as bad” and maybe I’m just unusually independent (or, as some would rather say, cold or selfish) and maybe none of this would be a problem for anyone besides me and maybe a few other people. It’s funny that I thought this even as I copy-pasted excerpt after excerpt of other people talking about this exact issue, and quoted two articles written by women who have dealt with it too.

Of course, whenever we talk about things like imbalanced emotional labor, others are eager to tell us that we’re the fucked-up ones, and pity to everyone who has to deal with us. These days, my response to that is a mental “okay,” because after years of very intense self-doubt (more intense than I expressed above), I’ve more or less reached a place where that shit just slides right off.

But other people are not at that place yet, and for those people (as well as for myself), I want to say this: even if you are Very Weird, and Entirely Too Selfish or Fragile, you still get to set boundaries for your relationships and to try to find ones that work for you. Yes, if you have more needs or dealbreakers than the average person, then you will find, on average, fewer compatible friends and partners. That’s rough, but that’s okay. That doesn’t make you “wrong.” That doesn’t make it okay for others to ignore your communicated boundaries because they expect or wish that they were different, more statistically normal.

And that brings me back to why it is that my experiences with emotional labor have been a lot more agreeable lately. That’s because a few years ago, I started really setting boundaries in ways that 1) attracted great people who know how to take responsibility for their own emotions, and 2) alienated people who wanted to take advantage of me. I left all those paragraphs-long messages unanswered, or answered them as monosyllabically as they answered my own attempts to share about my life. I started writing tons of blog posts about boundaries. I made Facebook posts in which I clarified my own boundaries to others. I mostly stopped having serious romantic relationships (not just for this reason, though–I’ve just lost interest in them). I decided that making sure that other people are happy is not my problem. I made it very obvious, in every way I knew how, that if you want a friend or partner who will take care of you, that cannot be me. If you want a friend or partner who will care for you, then that can absolutely be me.

Throughout all this, and still, I’m not always very nice. “Nice” is bending over backwards to accommodate people while silently resenting them for encroaching on your mental space. Instead, I try to be kind. Kindness, to me, is being honest and upfront about my limitations and needs and making space with/from people before it gets to the point of passive-aggressive sniping. Kindness is avoiding assuming the worst about people unless I have a good reason to. So when someone clearly wants things from me that I can’t give, I try to train myself out of assuming that they want to hurt me or take advantage of me. Instead, I say to myself, “We just need different things.” Kindness is making sure that whatever I do to support or help the people in my life, I do with all my heart, not grudgingly. I make sure they know that, too. I don’t want people to ever feel like they’re my obligation. I want them to know that I chose them. On purpose.

I do think that I probably overcompensated. Sometimes I guilt-trip myself about it, about how little emotional work I do nowadays. “You just want everything to be easy,” I berate myself. Maybe. On my better days, though, I understand that this makes complete sense. After years of wearing myself out with emotional labor, I’ve decided to just take it easy for a while. Consider it a nice long vacation after accumulating a decade’s worth of vacation days.

Moreover, I’m not sure I trust myself with emotional labor right now. I’m not sure I know how to get the balance right, so for now, to protect my own mental health as I went through grad school and as I take on the challenge of starting a career, I err on the side of doing very little. That’s why things are relatively easier right now.

Of course I worry that I’m a terrible friend and partner. I try to make sure to ask very little emotional labor of my friends and partners, so that it’s still about equal. (That’s why I’ve only asked for affirmation about not being a terrible friend/partner once that I can think of, in all these years.)

That said, I also trust my friends and partners to make their own decisions about me. I hope that if they decide they need more from me, they will ask, and if I say no, they will either accept that or choose to make more space between us, whatever feels right for them. I hope that if they feel that I’m asking too much, they will let me know. I think they will.

It’s super important to point out that nobody is A Bad Person in this situation. I am not A Bad Person for having limits, even if they are more limiting than other people’s limits. My friends are not Bad People if they were to want more from me. They also wouldn’t be Bad People if they decided that this doesn’t work for them and made some space or left.

I suppose some would call me selfish. I’m definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m anything but selfish. A selfish person thinks only of themselves without ever considering their impact on others. I think about my impact on others constantly, and I try to make sure that it’s a net positive. The challenge is doing that without burning myself out. I think it’s working okay so far.

~~~

I’ll close with one last example of gendered emotional labor that I forgot to include in the previous piece and haven’t seen discussed anywhere else. Men, you need to stop demanding that women laugh at your jokes and getting upset when they don’t. This is exhausting. Forcing laughter, especially believably, is difficult. But what else can I do when every time I fail to laugh at one of your jokes, you start with the “But you didn’t laugh!” “Hey, why didn’t you laugh?” “You’re supposed to laugh!” “Uh, that was a joke!”? Yes, I’m aware. It wasn’t funny. Learn from that and make a better joke next time. Or, if you can’t handle the relatively minor embarrassment of making a joke that doesn’t get laughed at (which everybody, including me, has done at some point), then don’t make jokes. Because if you ask me why I didn’t laugh and I tell you honestly that I didn’t find it funny, then I’m suddenly the mean one. Someone tell me how that makes any sense.

And especially stop demanding laughter at jokes that are sexist, racist, otherwise oppressive, or simply cruel.

Women are not your Magic Mirrors, here only to tell you that you are the funniest and the manliest in the land.

~~~

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A Vacation from Emotional Labor

Emotional Labor: What It Is and How To Do It

Ages ago, I read this fantastic piece about practical things men can do to support feminism. Almost every item on the list really resonated with my experience, and this was one of the most resonant:

2. Do 50% (or more) of emotional support work in your intimate relationships and friendships.

Recognize that women are disproportionately responsible for emotional labour and that being responsible for this takes away time and energy from things they find fulfilling.

Since this was just a list, that’s all it had to say about this very important topic. As I shared the article and discussed it with others, especially men, I realized that many men don’t actually know what “emotional labor” means. That, I think, is part of the problem.

I kept meaning to write a piece that explains the concept, but life happened, and I forgot. Then I read this brilliant thing:

We are told frequently that women are more intuitive, more empathetic, more innately willing and able to offer succor and advice. How convenient that this cultural construct gives men an excuse to be emotionally lazy. How convenient that it casts feelings-based work as “an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depths of our female character.”

This, in turn, spawned this great Metafilter thread in which people discuss their experiences with emotional labor. And, that, finally, led to this Ask Metafilter thread, which addresses the very question I initially meant to address: what is emotional labor and how do you know if you’re doing your fair share of it?

If this topic interests you, I encourage you to read these resources, because they’re extremely useful and accessible. I wanted to highlight some of the contributions to the Ask Metafilter thread here.

The original Ask Metafilter post:

# Partnered Life

* Am I checking in with my partner to see if they had a rough day?
* If so, am I stepping up to make their life easier in other ways (cooking, cleaning, etc.)?
* Am I open and clear about my wants, and not forcing my partner to guess/drag it out of me?
* Am I contributing constructively to planning of meals, events, trips, etc?
* Am I actively trying to make my presence feel safe for my partner?
* Do I try to do nice things for my partner without being asked (flowers, treats, etc.)?
* Do I take care of my own administrative life (paperwork, bills) without needing to be repeatedly reminded?
* Am I supportive of my partner’s decisions, big and small?
* Am I respectful and validating of my partner’s emotions?
* Am I vocally grateful when my partner goes out of their way to do something nice for me?
* Am I nice to my partner’s family [if that’s a thing they want]?

# Friend Groups

* Do I work to coordinate peoples’ schedules so that we can have a nice picnic/party/board game night/etc.?
* When planning an event, am I conscious of possible interpersonal conflicts?
* When planning an event, do I take into account different peoples’ preferences for food, beverages, music, etc., so that no one feels excluded?
* Do I actually have everything prepared in advance for an event I’m hosting, or at least clearly and fairly delegated?
* If there is an imbalance of emotional or physical labor occurring, am I willing to risk social awkwardness to improve the lot of those negatively affected?

# Third Party Relationships (Familial & Otherwise)

* Do I remember to make phone calls and visits to people I care about and want to have relationships with?
* Do I remember to send cards to people I care about?
* Do I send thank you notes to people to acknowledge their emotional labor for me?
* Am I actively sensitive to and supportive of people who are experiencing a difficult time (death of spouse/child/pet, etc.)?

User phunniemie adds:

I’d add “am I going to the doctor regularly” to what you have.

I hear a lot of guys (I take it you are a dude) complain (complain, or even just mention offhand) all the time about x, y, or z weird body thing that they have going on, but 9 times out of 10 (actually more, but then we’re getting into fractions) when I ask if they’ve talked to a doctor about it their response is no, or it’s not that big a deal, or they can’t because they don’t have a doctor despite living in the same place for 5+ years. So now they’ve involved me in concern for their Problem Freckle but have no ability or intention to manage it themselves.

Make sure you’re taking care of yourself and being proactive about your healthcare (physical and mental) so that the women in your life don’t have to feel like your nurse.

WidgetAlley adds:

Huge one for me, especially in reference to mental illness or trauma or disorders: are you doing your own emotional work?

This means asking for support and accommodation for your feelings and your illness if you need it, and negotiating with your partner about your needs, but also not making your problems their problems. If you have depression or past trauma, tell your partner– don’t make them guess. Ask them to make reasonable adjustments to their behavior and interactions if you can, or if you’re not sure what you need, just keep them in the loop as much as you can.

And then, do your own work and get to a doctor, a therapist, or another appropriate person who can help you in a solid professional context. It’s reasonable and sane and wonderful to ask for support and love and reassurance, but don’t make fixing your own internal workings your partner’s problem any more than you can help it.

wintersweet adds:

Do I pause to observe the context (my partner’s body language or current activity, what’s been happening today, etc.) before I involve my partner in something me-focused? (Whether that’s a request or a touch or whatever.)

Am I answering my partner’s bids?

Am I taking responsibility for my own reminders by putting things in a calendar app or whatever reminds me to do things?

Am I aware of all the unseen work involved in things like meal preparation*, and am I educating myself so that I can share the work?

HotToddy adds:

How often am I saying knee-jerk defensive things like “I forgot,” “I’m trying,” “I’m doing my best,” “It’s not a big deal,” vs “Oops, shit, I’m sorry, let me [take independent action and come up with my own fucking idea for how I can finally make this change that you’ve repeatedly told me is important to you and that I’ve said I would do but still haven’t].

RogueTech adds:

Am I difficult as hell to work with and expect everyone to work around it because I present as male?

E. Whitehall adds:

Are you interrupting your partner unnecessarily? Is their busy-ness less valuable to you than a question you could likely just Google instead of interrupting them? Consider whether you really need to ask them, specifically, right now, about this particular thing. Consider whether you’ve actually looked for answers. Have you googled? Have you checked the most likely places? Several times? Have you actually reached in and looked with your hands for whatever you’ve lost?

There are a lot more great examples in the thread, but this should give you some sense of what emotional labor is.

You might notice that some things in the thread sound like “bare minimum for being a decent friend/partner” type things, such as respecting and validating others’ emotions. Others sound like things that aren’t necessary (or even desirable) in every relationship. The important thing is that there’s a balance. If you and your friend or partner have the kind of relationship where you share household responsibilities and expenses, for instance, it’s unreasonable for your partner to always have to remind you to do your duties when they never need a reminder from you.

Of course, it’s easy for people to look at these lists and immediately start doing this thing: “Well, but, my partner’s so much better at planning things than I am, so of course they plan all of our social events as a couple” or “Well I have a mental illness and my friend doesn’t, so I can’t always be expected to remember to ask about their day the way they ask about mine.” Okay. This isn’t a be-all end-all list, and different people’s situations have their own particular needs and restraints. I encourage you not to get too hung up on any particular item on the list, and instead focus on the concept itself.

The point is that, for the most part, women are expected to do a lot of these sorts of things in relationships and friendships, and men are not. It may well be that men are on average objectively worse at them than women are, but that’s only because they’ve never been held responsible for these things and therefore haven’t developed the skill. Most men have gone their whole lives hearing that women are “naturally” suited for these things and men are “naturally” not, so why bother working on it? Gender essentialism doesn’t exactly foster a growth mindset, and many people don’t realize that things like communication skills and empathy can actually be improved to begin with.

After reading these articles and threads, I started to understand my frustrations with my male friends, roommates, and partners much better, because these imbalances have touched every single relationship I’ve ever had with a man. Male partners have consistently ignored glaring issues in the relationship so that I had to be the one to start the difficult conversation every single time, even though they supposedly had as much of a stake in the relationship as I did. Male roommates have made me beg and plead and send reminder texts to do even the most basic household management tasks. Male friends have tried to use me as a therapist, or drawn me into worrying about their physical health with them while refusing to see a doctor even though they had insurance.

Well-meaning men of varying roles in my life have consistently ignored my nonverbal cues, even very visible ones, forcing me to constantly have to articulate boundaries that ought to be obvious, over and over. (For instance, “Do you see how I’m intently reading a book right now? That means that I’m very interested in the book and am not interested in having a conversation right now.” “Did you notice how I’m hunched over with my arms folded over my stomach and a grimace on my face? This means that I’m in pain and probably not in the mood for cheery small-talk!” “Pay attention to how I’ve got huge headphones on and am staring at my computer screen and typing very quickly. This is why I didn’t hear a single word you just said and now is probably not a good time to chat about your day!”)

This is why being in relationship with men, even platonically, is often so exhausting for me. As much as I love them and care for them, it feels like work.

Like all gendered dynamics, of course, this isn’t exclusive to male-female interactions and the imbalance doesn’t always go in the same direction. It can happen in any relationship, romantic or platonic, serious or less so. I’m pointing out the gendered dynamic here because it’s so extremely prevalent and so very harmful, but if, for instance, you’re a man realizing that you’re doing the bulk of the emotional labor in your relationship with someone of whichever gender, you still have a right to try to sort that out.

I strongly suspect that the emotional labor imbalance underlies part of the problem men often say they have with forming and maintaining friendships with other men. When neither of them is able to rely on the other person to do the emotional labor, relationships fall apart. In friendships and relationships with women, men are able to trust that we’ll handle all that messy feelings stuff.

I also suspect that this underlies the fear and anger with which some men respond to women’s emotional unavailability. That’s not to excuse the manifestations that these emotions often take, but to explain them. I empathize with this, because it must be terrifying to feel like you can’t deal with your own stuff and the person you thought was going to help you is refusing to. It must be especially terrifying when you don’t even know where the feelings are coming from, when you can’t even tell yourself, Okay, this is scary because I’ve never had to do this for myself and now it’s time to learn how.

It would be like if you’ve gone your whole life having fully prepared meals just suddenly appear in front of you whenever you’re hungry (or whenever you say the words “I’m hungry”), and suddenly you’re being told that not only will the prepared meals not be provided anymore, but now you have to go out and hunt and gather for yourself. Whaaaat.

Emotional labor is often invisible to men because a lot of it happens out of their sight. Emotional labor is when my friends and I carefully coordinate to make sure that nobody who’s invited to the party has drama with anyone else at the party, and then everyone comes and has a great time and has no idea how much thought went into it.

Emotional labor is when I have to cope, again, with the distress I feel at having to clean myself in a dirty bathroom or cook my food in a dirty kitchen because my male roommate didn’t think it was important to clean up his messes.

Emotional labor is having to start the 100th conversation with my male roommate about how I need my living space to be cleaner. Emotional labor is reminding my male roommate the next day that he agreed to clean up his mess but still hasn’t. Emotional labor is reassuring him that it’s okay, I’m not mad, I understand that he’s had a very busy stressful week. Emotional labor is not telling him that I’ve had a very busy stressful week, too, and his fucking mess made it even worse.

Emotional labor is reassuring my partner over and over that yes, I love him, yes, I find him attractive, yes, I truly want to be with him, because he will not do the work of developing his self-esteem and relies on me to bandage those constantly-reopening wounds. Emotional labor is letting my partner know that I didn’t like what he did sexually last night, because he never asked me first if I wanted to do that. Emotional labor is reassuring him that, no, it’s okay, I’m not mad, I just wanted him to know for next time, yes, of course I love him, no, this doesn’t mean I’m not attracted to him, I’m just not interested in that sort of sex. Emotional labor is not being able to rely on him to reassure me that it’s not my fault that I didn’t like the sex, because this conversation has turned into my reassuring him, again.

Emotional labor is when my friend messages me once every few weeks with multiple paragraphs about his life, which I listen to and empathize with. Afterwards, he thanks me for being “such a good listener.” He asks how my life has been, and I say, “Well, not bad, but school has been so stressful lately…” He says, “Oh, that sucks! Well, anyway, I’d better get to bed, but thanks again for listening!”

Emotional labor is when my friend messages me and, with no trigger warning and barely any greeting, launches into a story involving self-harm or suicide or something else of that sort because “you know about this stuff.”

Emotional labor was almost all of my male friends in high school IMing me to talk about how the girls all go for the assholes.

Emotional labor is when my partners decide they don’t want to be in a relationship with me anymore, but rather than directly communicating this to me, they start ignoring me or being mean for weeks until I have to ask what’s going on, hear that “I guess I’m just not into you anymore,” and then have to be the one to suggest breaking up. For extra points, then I have to comfort them about the breakup.

Emotional labor is setting the same boundary over and over, and every time he says, “I’m sorry, I know you already told me this, I guess I’d just forgotten.”

Emotional labor is being asked to completely explain and justify my boundaries. “I mean, that’s totally valid and I will obviously respect that, I just really want to understand, you know?”

Emotional labor is hiding the symptoms of mental illness, pretending my tears are from allergies, laughing too loudly at his jokes, not because I’m just in principle unwilling to open up about it, but because I know that he can’t deal with my mental illness and that I’ll just end up having to comfort him because my pain is too much for him to bear.

Emotional labor is managing my male partners’ feelings around how often we have sex, and soothing their disappointment when they expected to have sex (even though I never said we would) and then didn’t, and explaining why I didn’t want to have sex this time, and making sure we “at least cuddle a little before bed” even though after all of this, to be quite honest, the last thing I fucking want is to touch him.

Although these discussions cause it to have a negative connotation, emotional labor is not inherently bad. In any healthy, balanced friendship/relationship, the participants are all doing some amount of it, though the total amount varies based on the type of relationship and the needs of those involved. Emotional labor becomes bad when certain people are expected by default to be responsible for the bulk of it even though we’d rather be focusing on other things if given the choice. It becomes bad when it’s invisible, when it’s treated as an assumption rather than as something that the participants of a relationship intentionally discuss and negotiate together.

What might that look like in practice? Here are a few examples:

“I’m struggling with depression right now and am also extremely busy with my dissertation, so I’m not going to be able to do X, Y, or Z in this relationship. Instead, I’m going to make an extra effort to do A and B. Is that okay for you?”

“If we’re going to be living together, I need to make sure that we both do an equal share of X. Does that work for you?”

“I know you’ve had to give me a lot of reminders lately to do basic things for myself and for our household. I’m working on getting better at remembering on my own by [setting reminders on my phone/bringing this up in therapy/starting medication/cutting back on some stressful things]. While I work on this, are you okay with continuing to remind me? If you don’t feel that things have gotten any better in [timeframe], will you let me know?”

“I’ve noticed that you manage a lot of our interactions with my family. I feel like you get along a lot better with them than I do, so maybe it makes sense that you’re the one who plans our get-togethers, but is this okay with you? Do you need me to take more of an active role in this?”

“I’ve been the one who initiates the majority of our plans together, and while I always enjoy seeing you, I need some clarity about this. If you’re not that interested in spending time with me, I need to know. If you are, I’d really appreciate it if you sometimes invited me to do things, too.”

Remember that one way in which imbalances in emotional labor manifest themselves is that it always ends up being the job of the person who does the bulk of it to start these conversations and to let you know that they’re overwhelmed by the amount of emotional labor they have to do. End that cycle. Be the person who brings it up and ask your partner if this is okay for them. Remember that a lot of people who are doing the bulk of the emotional labor, especially women, might initially try to claim that it’s okay when deep down they feel that it isn’t. Leave room for them to change their minds as they feel more comfortable with you, and don’t pull the “But you said before that it was fine” thing.

I absolutely recognize that this work is not easy. If what I’ve described sounds exhausting and overwhelming and maaaybe you’ll just let your girlfriend/friend/etc deal with it instead, I get it. It is hard. But it would be a lot easier if that labor were distributed more fairly. Emotional labor isn’t a silly fluffy girl skill. It’s a life skill.

It’s hard, too, because most men have been intentionally deprived of the language and tools to even think about these sorts of issues, let alone work on them. That’s why so many men don’t even know what emotional labor is, and why they have no idea what to do when they feel really bad except find a woman and outsource the labor to her–often without even realizing why they’re doing what they’re doing. As I said before, this sounds absolutely terrifying and I do not envy men in this regard.

But you can’t get better at what you don’t practice. Start the tough conversations. Pause before speaking and intentionally observe your partner’s body language. Ask yourself, “What could I do to make life easier for her? What things is she doing to make life easier for me, without even being asked?” Spend some time listening to your own emotions and learning to name them before rushing to either unload them on someone else or drown them out with something that feels better.

I do not exaggerate one little bit when I say that if more and more men learn to do these things, we can change the world.

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Although I chose to examine gender dynamics here because that’s what I feel most qualified to talk about, it’s very, very important to note that imbalances in emotional labor also happen along other axes. In particular, people of color often do emotional labor for white people, especially in conversations about race. Just as I was finishing this article, a friend on Facebook posted this poem, which illustrates this dynamic.

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Update: Maecenas, who started the Ask Metafilter thread, has compiled it into this really useful google doc.

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Emotional Labor: What It Is and How To Do It

Keeping Others Happy At All Costs Is Manipulative

[spoilers for Orange is the New Black]

For a long time, and to a much lesser extent now, I have struggled with feeling like I have to keep everyone happy at all times and at all costs. I’m sure this is a common experience for many people, women especially.

When I facilitated a workshop about setting and respecting boundaries last week, I asked the participants what makes setting boundaries difficult at times. The most common response I got was that people are afraid of upsetting others by setting boundaries with them.

Being afraid of upsetting others is what leads me to “consent” to sex or other interactions that I don’t actually want. It leads me to carefully manage my public persona in ways that aren’t designed just to ensure my own safety and comfort, but also to avoid hurting others’ feelings. In some ways, this is good–it means I try to avoid doing things that are rude or mean, for instance–but in other ways, it stifles my self-expression and causes me to take much more responsibility for others’ feelings than I ought to. For instance, I shouldn’t be worrying that merely allowing a conservative or religious friend to see my Facebook posts will hurt their feelings. Yet I worry about that constantly.

I’ve tried all sorts of things to get myself to stop being such a people pleaser. As you might expect, reminding myself that It Doesn’t Matter What Others Think wasn’t necessarily helpful. Neither was getting shamed for it by others (often men, who don’t face the same pressures I do). You can’t always rationalize your feelings away.

The thing that helped the most was having this realization:

It is manipulative to try to keep the people around you happy at all times.

It can be difficult to think of yourself as someone who does something manipulative, but we all do in one way or another, so bear with me for a bit.

When we take responsibility for other people’s emotions and try to keep them happy at all costs, we’re manipulating their emotions. Sometimes, we’re even manipulating their reality: at its extremes, this sort of approach leads people to lie to others, sometimes about major things, in order to keep them from being upset. (Of course, sometimes lying to keep someone from being upset is necessary to keep yourself safe–that’s an abusive situation and not the sort of thing I’m discussing here.)

We often rationalize this sort of behavior by claiming that it’s “for their own good” and that we “just want them to be happy.” More often, though, it’s more for our own good: making people unhappy or upset is painful, and many of us have been taught that if we ever make anyone unhappy or upset, that makes us Bad People. Keeping others happy becomes a way of keeping ourselves happy, or at least keeping that self-hatred under control.

It took interacting with other people like this–other people like me–to realize that it’s manipulative. When people would admit to not being fully honest with me even when I asked for the truth because they worried that it would hurt my feelings, I felt manipulated–why didn’t they let me deal with my own feelings? Coming from men, it felt patronizing, like I’m some sort of fragile flower that needs to be protected from the force of my own emotions. Coming from neurotypical people, it felt ableist, like they thought that just because I have a mental illness, I can’t be trusted to handle my own emotional responses. Over and over, I heard “I didn’t want to tell you about my new partner because I thought you’d be upset” or “I didn’t want to tell you that I was exhausted of listening because you were just so sad” or “I didn’t want you to have to worry about yet another thing so I just arranged this whole situation that involves you without consulting you about it.” It was well-intentioned, but it was manipulative all the same.

Unfortunately, the impulse that many of us feel to keep others happy doesn’t come from nowhere. Sometimes people really do act like they think their emotions are our responsibility, and this realization that I had isn’t necessarily helpful for those situations. But it’s helpful for situations in which people really haven’t asked me to help manage their emotions for them.

In the new season of Orange is the New Black, there were some scenes that illustrated this vividly. In Episode 2, Red finally confronts Piper for lying to her about her family store, which Piper claimed to have visited on her furlough but which has actually been closed for ages:

Piper: Red, you’re back and you’re not talking to me. Now what did I do?

Red: My post-slock resolution was to stop giving liars second chances.

P: When did I lie to you?

R: “Business is booming. There’s a line out the door.” You were much more convincing than my husband, but you were just as stupid. You could have said you didn’t make your way there. Instead, you said you ate my vatrushkis.

P: I’m sorry. I–I thought that I was doing the right thing.

R: By lying? We read different children’s books.

P: You know many cultures value a person’s dignity over the truth. In Korea, they actually call it kibun. I heard that on The World with Marco Werman.

R: In Russia, we call it “bullshit.”

P: Look, there was nothing you could do about it, and I thought that I was saving you some pain.

R: You thought if you didn’t bring me bad news, I won’t kill the messenger.

P: I said what I said because I am a nice person and it felt right.

R: Nice is for cowards and Democrats. You’re a selfish little person. You wanted me to like you. Now I like you less.

Screenshot 2015-07-26 22.45.30
Red confronts Piper in Season 3, Episode 2 of Orange is the New Black.

I don’t mean to imply that everyone who lies or twists the truth in order to keep others happy is quite on the level of Piper (who is many folks’ least favorite OITNB character for a variety of reasons), but something about Red’s anger is very familiar to me. Red sees right through Piper’s excuses about being “nice” and “doing the right thing” and “saving you some pain,” and calls it what it really is: trying to get Red to like her, and failing spectacularly.

That, I think, is ultimately what’s so manipulative about it. Refusing to be honest with someone in order to keep them from disliking you is a way of saying, “I know you would probably want this information, but I’m going to withhold it from you because what’s more important to me is that you like me.”

There are subtler forms of dishonesty than what Piper did, to be sure. When I shy away from setting boundaries with someone even though I know they would want to know what my boundaries are, I’m lying by omission.

I totally, 100% get–because I’m living this myself right now–that a lot of this feels like an act of self-preservation. Especially for folks who have survived abuse, it might never feel safe to set boundaries, to be honest, and to allow people to dislike you. We feel that if we don’t keep everyone around us happy, we’ll never be safe. If you’re still living in a context like this, you know your situation best. Not everyone is able to set boundaries and be honest safely, and, as with everything else interpersonal, power and privilege play a role.

But if not, I think there’s a point at which our (understandable) fear of being disliked–even hated–becomes an excuse to avoid saying what needs to be said. I’m writing this as much for myself as for anyone else, because I’m getting exhausted of managing others’ emotions and I desperately need to be able to stop. Realizing that what I’m doing is actually manipulative has been very helpful. I can’t stand it when people try to withhold information from me in order to keep me happy, so I’m doing my best to stop doing it to them.

The advice Red finally gives Piper at the end of the episode resonated with me, and not only because Red and I share a heritage. She says, “Awaken your inner Russian. No more bullshit. Na zdorovie [to your health].”

Na zdorovie is what Russians say when we make a toast, but it’s applicable literally, too: my (mental) health can’t handle the stress of keeping everyone happy at all times, at all costs. Moreover, nobody asked me to manage their emotions for them. Let them deal with their own emotions, just like I deal with my own every day.

And now, since this is such a difficult topic, here’s an actual dog I visited today:

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It is important, though beyond the scope of this post, to address the distinction between “not taking responsibility for others’ emotions” and “being a huge raging asshole and then claiming that it’s not your responsibility if people are hurt.” Nooooope. No.

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Keeping Others Happy At All Costs Is Manipulative