At first it sounded like a typical argument where my siblings are concerned.
Little Brother: “[Little Sister], give me your phone.”
Little Sister: “Why?”
“So I can take a photo.”
“Use your own phone.”
“Mine is out of battery. Give me yours.”
“No. That’s your own problem.”
“Give me your phone!”
“Come on. I just want to take some photos. What’s the big deal? Just give me your phone.”
“I SAID NO.”
“Where is it?”
“It’s in Mom’s bag.”
[Little Brother looks for Mom’s bag, but she had taken it with her when she left to use the restroom.]
“Why did you leave it in her bag?”
“None of your business. It’s my phone.”
“You should’ve taken it out of her bag before she left.”
“It’s MY PHONE.”
“Mom, give me [Little Sister]’s phone so I can take a photo.”
Mom jumps in: “What’s wrong with you? He just wants to take a photo. Why are you being so selfish?”
“I just…I don’t want him to use up all the battery…he shouldn’t have used up his whole phone charge on Pokemon Go…”
“But he’s only going to use it for a few minutes!”
On and on it went.
If that’s all you heard, you might assume that my sister really is a petty and selfish person. Is it that hard to lend your phone to a family member for a few minutes so they can take a photo of a beautiful sunset?
What you wouldn’t know is that my sister is in fact a remarkably selfless and caring person. When it’s me or our parents asking, she never hesitates to help us out, lend us some of her very limited money when we’ve forgotten to bring cash, provide words of support that sound remarkable coming from an 11-year-old, give fashion advice, join in our joys even when she personally doesn’t care about the thing we’re happy about, and ask if we’re okay when we seem like we’re not.
Leaving aside the fact that it’s still her phone and she still gets to decide who gets to use it and for what–a very important fact that I’m only leaving aside because I’m writing about something else–our brother has a pattern of entitled, demanding behavior towards her. He treats her time, belongings, and energy as if they’re his to take. Unfortunately, that happens a lot to selfless and caring people.
Because of that pattern, my sister has stopped being as giving with our brother as she used to be. Often she angrily refuses to do even tiny favors for him, like letting him borrow her phone for a few minutes to take some photos. Occasionally he makes his requests in a more appropriate way, but sometimes she still reacts with knee-jerk irritation and, raising her voice, tells him no.
Watching the argument unfold, I couldn’t help but remember myself in some of my past relationships. Only I wasn’t being asked to lend a phone or fetch something from the kitchen; I was being asked for emotional labor, for support, for validation, for “can you just remind me again that you really do like me,” for “can you please explain to me again why you’re not interested in [sex thing] because I mean it’s fine that you don’t want to do it but I just want to understand.”
At first, I gladly provided what was asked for, even though, if I were really honest with myself, I’d admit that I didn’t always like the way the requests were made. But over time, the quantity of emotional labor expected was just too high, and–more importantly–I felt that my partner felt entitled to it. Although they would never be so obvious about that entitlement as my younger brother was in his–they’re much too well-versed in feminism for that–in other ways, subtle ways, they made it clear that they considered that labor to be my obligation as a partner and that if I couldn’t or wouldn’t provide it, I was doing something wrong.
Once I realized that my partners thought that it was my job to do emotional labor for them, I started rapidly losing the desire to do it. I started saying no more often, although I was never as blunt about it as my sister is. I would say, “I’m sorry, I’m not in a good place to listen right now.” (True.) I would say, “We’ve already talked about how you feel like I don’t really like you and you’re not good enough for me, and I don’t think there’s anything else I can do to make you feel otherwise.” (I didn’t add that they were well on their way to turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy, though.) I would say, “I already explained that to you. If that explanation didn’t suffice, another one won’t help.”
Even now, even to myself, I sound selfish and cold. But so does my sister, out of context. Neither of us is selfish or cold. What we are is exhausted. What we are is tired of being unable to set any boundaries. What we are is totally done doing things for people who have never, ever asked us what we need.
And before you judge either of us as selfish based on a few snippets of conversation, ask yourself what could happen to make someone act and talk that way.
When someone’s reserves of compassion get drained like that, they start setting boundaries that are much stricter and tighter than what they would’ve been otherwise. No, you can’t borrow my phone for even a few minutes. No, I don’t want to listen to your feelings at all. No, I honestly don’t even have enough emotional energy to give you a compliment to make you feel better about yourself.
That slow draining away of compassion is so hard to notice and understand that many of us don’t even realize what’s happening or why. When pressed for explanations, especially couched in language that naturally makes us feel defensive–“Why are you so selfish?” “Why don’t you even care enough to ask me about my day?”–we stumble around in the dark until we think we’ve found something. “I don’t know, I just don’t want him to use up my phone battery.” “I’ve just been having a hard time lately.” “I guess I just don’t want the kind of relationship where we support each other all the time and talk about stuff like that.” (Oh, how false that last one turned out to be. I’m in a relationship like that now and it’s wonderful.)
Asking people questions that start with the word “why” is dangerous precisely for that reason–it puts them on the spot and forces them to come up with an explanation (not all of us are comfortable answering “I don’t know” to a question about our own internal processes, even though that would be the honest and accurate answer). The confabulation that often results is rarely intentional or conscious. Unless someone already has a clear and self-aware understanding of their actions–not likely in emotionally charged situations like this–“why” questions are more likely to hurt than help.
Maybe in that moment, my sister really did feel that she was worried about her phone’s battery draining. When our irritated mom demanded an explanation, her brain helpfully supplied one. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the real answer was that…she just didn’t want to. She really, strongly didn’t want to. Because others’ entitlement often shuts down our desire to help them, and when we’re constantly afraid that our boundaries will be ignored, one strategy that many of us feel compelled to use is to start loudly, bluntly stating and defending those boundaries, as if to remove any plausible deniability from the person who continually crosses them.
Believe me, I’ve seriously considered the possibility that I’m just selfish. I even bought into it for a long time, until I got into some relationships where I’m able to give gladly of myself and where I find that the more I give, the more I want to give. Yes, with certain partners I got to the point where I couldn’t bring myself to even the smallest act of emotional labor (at which point those relationships obviously collapsed). Yet with others I would drop what I’m doing to bring them food when they’re sick or listen for hours to their worries.
What’s the difference? No, it’s not How Much I Like Them; I was head over heels for all of them at some point, and besides, I often do lots of emotional labor for people who are practically strangers. The difference was entitlement. When people act entitled to emotional labor from me, I stop wanting to do it. When they treat my emotional labor as an act of love that I get to choose to give, I want to give it more and more.
These days I’m not optimistic about rescuing relationships that have broken down to such a point. If every request for emotional labor that your partner makes causes you to feel overwhelmed, irritated, or angry, then that relationship isn’t working out. If your partner is refusing every request for emotional labor no matter how respectfully and non-entitled-ly you make it, then that relationship isn’t working out. I don’t know whose “fault” it is and it probably doesn’t matter. But if you’re more optimistic than I am, I suggest getting counseling as a couple. Otherwise, things tend to devolve counterproductively into “Well, you’re just selfish and never want to do anything for me!” and “Yeah, well, you ask for too much and act entitled to it!”
These days I’m also trying not to label myself with negative character traits. Personality is fluid and entirely context-dependent. Some people bring out the worst of my selfishness; some people bring out the best of my selflessness. I’d rather be involved with the latter people.
All relationships are, in one way or another, built on emotional labor. When my roommate listens to me vent about my workday and I feel supported, that’s emotional labor. When my mom is worried about a sick relative and I worry with her and make her feel less alone, that’s emotional labor. When I pick out a present for a partner that’s exactly what they wanted and it makes them feel closer to me, that’s emotional labor.
But none of these things mean anything if they’re forced, if you feel like the other person will resent you for not doing them. If saying no isn’t a real option, then the yes is meaningless. (That applies to way more than just sex.)
My sister and I have in common a fierce and uncompromising selfishness towards people who cross our boundaries and demonstrate entitlement. I’m trying to stop beating myself up for that, and I hope she takes my example.
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