If you are a woman or nonbinary person who dates men, you’ve probably dated a man who, when talking about his past relationships, admitted to you that he “used to be such an asshole.”
Sometimes this is accompanied by a story, told shamefacedly, about how he was manipulative or even coercive in his past relationships, or how he made his female partners do all of the emotional labor in the relationship (although he rarely uses this term). Sometimes untreated mental illness is part of the story, although of course, mental illness doesn’t make people assholes. How they choose to deal with it sometimes does.
Regardless of the particular details, many men in their 20s and 30s have these stories. In fact, I think this describes all of the men I dated except for the ones who were still assholes at the time I dated them.
I was talking about this with a friend recently and we started asking ourselves how exactly all of these men ceased to be assholes. How did they figure out that their behavior in their past relationships was wrong? Who told them?
The answer is as obvious as it is depressing: usually, the women in their lives told them, either during the course of the relationship or while breaking up with them. Often, the lesson didn’t sink in until the relationship was long over. I know a few men who learned to be better by reading blogs like Dr. NerdLove and Captain Awkward, but for the most part, it takes a person you love pushing you to do better.
It brought to mind all of the emotional labor I’ve done with men in my own life—telling them to stop comparing sexual assault to totally asinine things that have nothing to do with structural oppression; pointing out to them that every time I disagree with them, no matter how mildly, their tone almost instantly becomes irritated or even resentful; reminding them that “no” is a complete sentence and I don’t owe them further explanations; explaining to them that they can’t refuse to be in a committed relationship with me and then get upset at me for dating other people; telling them to stop pressuring me to have an orgasm like it’s a referendum on their sexual abilities; and so on.
How many of these men now tell their girlfriends with an embarrassed chuckle that they used to be “such an asshole”? How many of them give credit where credit is due?
In our conversation, my friend and I laughed mirthlessly as we realized that so many of our relationships with men involve us essentially preparing these men for future relationships with other women. And our own loving partners were prepared for their relationships with us by other women, too. It’s a cycle of emotional labor that’s rarely acknowledged.
If you are a man who dates women who’s ever found yourself reflecting on past relationships and realizing that you used to be an asshole, I want to invite you to ask yourself these questions:
1) How were you an asshole?
2) How did you learn that you were being an asshole?
3) How were you able to change that behavior?
4) Who helped you?
5) Have you thanked that person?
Obviously, if you don’t think that person wants to hear from you, then don’t do #5. But most of the time, your exes would probably be relieved to know their labor had an impact. I know I would be, when I think about all the thankless hours I spent calmly explaining things to my male partners only to have them respond with “ok, fine,” and then years later tell their new girlfriends what assholes they used to be.
I forget who said it now, but I saw a tweet once along the lines of “behind every ‘woke’ man is an exhausted feminist.” I believe it.
Whether or not you ever go back and thank the people who made you who you are today, I would love to see more men reframe the way they approach this conversation. Instead of “I was such an asshole back then, lol,” I would love to hear, “I used to be a really difficult person to be in relationship with, but my ex taught me a lot about how to be better and I’m in her debt for that.”
None of us become better people by accident. We have to be taught—by parents, by friends, my partners, by writers whose work we read. Yes, you make an effort too, and that matters. But someone helped you make that effort, and they deserve recognition.
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