How do I bring up emotional labor in my relationship?
July 29, 2015 6:53 AM   Subscribe

The emotional labor conversation on the blue has really affected me but I don't know how to deal with it.

I feel like it's finally giving me words and context for many issues that have always bothered me in my relationship but I didn't know how to bring it up without making it a conversation about "chores". But how do I bring this up instead? As a few responses indicated, I don't think my partner would take the time to read the original post/comments and/or I think he would have a lot of ways to say, "But I already do x, y, z, I'm doing way more than enough and I can't believe you would accuse me of this!" We're going through a particularly stressful life changing time right now (good things, but stressful). So I know I should wait for that to blow over but... then what? I've voluntarily and openly gone to therapy before (hoping that he would volunteer too, if not for us as a couple than at least for himself, but that didn't happen) and I'm willing to do it again solo, but am doubtful he would be willing to go. Any insight from anyone whose successfully navigated this conversation in their own relationship?
posted by wannabecounselor to Human Relations (41 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
"I have been thinking about the work we both do to maintain our relationships with each other and with our friends, and the work we do around the house. I want to discuss whether we are allocating our resources fairly."
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:08 AM on July 29, 2015 [6 favorites]

You don't actually have to have a conversation about this. You can just alter your own behaviour, but particularly your own responses. You literally have the power to simply bow out of emotional labour. It's hard to know how to give you any ideas about how to do that without any specifics on how this is playing out in your own relationship but things that come to mind are:

-- Don't organise birthday or holiday cards or gifts. If they don't get sent, well...
-- The answer to "what's for dinner?" is "I don't know honey; what's for dinner?"
-- "Hey our anniversary is on Thursday so if you want to do something for that, you should go ahead and make plans." And when you get asked what you want to do or asked what he should plan, you get to say "I don't know honey; you're an adult, work it out."
-- Stop making all the social plans for your relationship. Make your own plans. If he is bored or misses people, validate that and invite him to extend an invitation and make a plan.

posted by DarlingBri at 7:12 AM on July 29, 2015 [72 favorites]

I get the most mileage out of making it clear it negatively affects me to do housework. By that I mean, play up your aches and pains (or just stop minimizing them) and your tiredness. Eventually he's going to notice and say "how can I help?" If he cares about you at all.

Talks about how I want this or want that don't seem to work as well- #1 rule of negotiating is to make the other person think it's their idea.
posted by quincunx at 7:13 AM on July 29, 2015

You literally have the power to simply bow out of emotional labour

My relationship is kind of like this, and was very much like this early on. We're both rather geeky, and were raised by parents who didn't clue us in on the importance of maintaining social ties, why one would bother with Christmas presents, why you would actually make any kind of big deal out of birthdays, how and when to give gifts to friends, etc. In short, we tried to use logic to approach most of our lives, but with too few starting premises.

What I can tell you is that your life will not be that great if nobody is doing the emotional labour, or if you only do your own and don't share it together.

What I think is necessary is some clear way of describing the benefits of emotional labour, maybe in spreadsheet form, over time.
posted by amtho at 7:18 AM on July 29, 2015 [17 favorites]

I think maybe it might be time to step back and focus on yourself instead of putting so much energy into the "us-ness" of your relationship.

I remember Tori Amos saying in an interview how she felt that when men and women have problems in their relationship, women tend to want to do anything they can to fix it. I forget which song she was talking about.

Sometimes you have to just cultivate a more individual idea of happiness and stop trying so hard to fix and do and motivate. Maybe just accept the reality of the dynamics, because he won't change if he doesn't feel like it or isn't attuned to your needs.

Also, you seem afraid of his reaction. All this thinking about how to put it so he won't be dismissive. He's not participating. Are you afraid he'll leave you?

It's hard to be happy when you're on eggshells and have to put things in a certain way and do a song and dance to sell the idea. It's frustrating, it's anxiety-inducing, and it's a trap people who are trusting and prone to emotional manipulation fall into. It might be something he did intentionally because he can get off being lazy while having you do everything.
posted by discopolo at 7:26 AM on July 29, 2015 [15 favorites]

one thing i've learnt is that change takes time and effort. if your partner is already changing, i'd be inclined to trust your instinct to leave this, for now. it's cool when you find a new tool, but if things are already changing for the better (which is rare) that's not something i would risk harming, personally.
posted by andrewcooke at 7:27 AM on July 29, 2015

It's really hard to know without knowing you and your dynamic with your partner a bit better, but would it work to do this in a gradual, modular way?

For example: requesting that you both have a once-a-month sit-down, with time actively set aside for it, and check in with each other on the "state of the union". This sets the stage for a gradual bringing in of the various things that you'd like to change. For example, in the first session, highlight the aspects of your partnership that you are really happy with, then bring up one thing that you'd like to improve ("I'd really like you to take a more active role in maintaining our social life"). Leave it at that. Next session, talk about whether that has happened. If it has, time to bring in another thing that could be improved.

If your partner is resistant to big changes such as therapy, or reading an amazing but heavy thread like that one on the blue, maybe this phased approach would work better.
posted by greenish at 7:27 AM on July 29, 2015 [8 favorites]

You literally have the power to simply bow out of emotional labour

I am not sure this is that helpful, though. Emotional labor is actually an important part of relationships, and just declaring that you aren't going to do it anymore could well lead to problems down the road. The point to being successful in the relationship is, as FFFM points out, allocating the collective resources ideally and being mindful of the other's efforts and struggles. So I think you have to actually talk about it.
posted by norm at 7:29 AM on July 29, 2015 [7 favorites]

I-messages are a useful technique for having these kinds of discussions (I don't know if your past therapy has covered something like this).

What he has to do is understand that your feelings are valid, and he has to care about your relationship to the level where respecting those feelings is important for him.

I want to emphasize that it's not your job to do anything for him on this - you've tried that already and it doesn't sound like it's working well. Tell him how you feel, and tell him that your feelings are important.

If he doesn't have some kind of foundation for respecting how you feel and seeing that conflicts are about us rather than him, trying to take a rational approach and arguments-by-evidence is only going to get him on the defensive ("Why are you nagging/blindsiding me with this?").
posted by mikurski at 7:32 AM on July 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

Your question is a bit vague. I think it's more successful to understand what you want. Maybe the conversation is I read this article and thread about emotional labor and imbalance in relationships that I'd really like to discuss with you or maybe it's I do x, y, and z, and I want to be appreciated for it or something else. If you are thoughtful and respectful, there's no need to wait to discuss how you feel.

There's emotional labor - being responsible for feelings; tasks - buying gifts, taking care of his family stuff; housework; yardwork; family finances; work for pay. It's nice to show appreciation for whatever work he is actually doing, as well as asking for redistribution of work, and appreciation for the work you do.
posted by theora55 at 7:33 AM on July 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I started a conversation about this very topic with my husband recently. I brought it up by presenting a few really outrageous anecdotes (both from my real life, and from the thread) - the kind where just about anyone would agree it's really over the top. Not the kind of daily microaggressions but the really egregious things.

I let the conversation go from there, and it was actually a really productive and thoughtful one. And the next day he came to me with a few ideas to help get things off my plate. (And I'll say here that my husband is generally pretty good about emotional labor but he's still a guy raised by people with traditional gender roles). I was pleasantly surprised by this.

I think what helped is that I didn't jump off and say, "You don't do X/you do X and it upsets me" and rather just kind of let him to get to that point himself. He wasn't defensive - he was very receptive.
posted by sutel at 7:36 AM on July 29, 2015 [20 favorites]

My two best tacks are "I need your help with X" and "Are there ways we can make X easier for everyone?"

I feel like the latter in particular is good for times of change. You can kind of blame the change for the need to alter how a thing is done and who's responsible.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:47 AM on July 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

Sutel - any memory of what examples you pulled were?
posted by wannabecounselor at 7:53 AM on July 29, 2015

I think it's really important for you to look at what you do and figure out whether you're doing it because you want to/have to (ie cleaning the cat box) or if you're doing it because you think it's expected. Then you can sit down with your partner and say "these are things I've been doing that I don't really care about. If you care about them then maybe you can take over?"

Some examples for me: I've pretty much stopped sending cards/gifts, I let my partner manage his own family, my cleaning standards have gone down quite a bit.
posted by betsybetsy at 8:03 AM on July 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

I don't think my partner would take the time to read the original post/comments

So I know I should wait for that to blow over but... then what?

This is emotional labor. Sublimating something you need out of concern for how he'll react. You're trying to negotiate on his behalf before he even knows about the topic.

I'd suggest that he read the article, I'm dude and I posted it on facebook, masculinity in tact. Say it's really important to you. If he won't, ask him why he won't take 10 minutes to do something "really important" to you. That's the start of the conversation right there.
posted by French Fry at 8:06 AM on July 29, 2015 [25 favorites]

One of the anecdotes: I forgot whose comment it was, but someone had been given, as a Christmas gift, an address book full of addresses, birthdays, etc. for all of her husband's family and extended family. And she was expected to keep up on top of that, not him, and got flak for it.

Another anecdote was by a stay at home dad who was getting the side eye from some moms at ballet class because he was taking his daughter, not his wife - he had done the labor to sign his daughter up and bring her, not his wife, and that was making others uncomfortable.
posted by sutel at 8:25 AM on July 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

To take a small example, my wife told me a couple years ago that I was needed to take back responsibility for getting gifts for my parents. It was something like, "their your parents, I have a lot on my plate, you'll be handling it now." I felt a little stupid about letting her become responsible for so much of the gift giving in the first place, but it was not a big dramatic moment. Or if the women in my family reach out to her to plan some family event (which they always do, my dad is the only one in my family who tries to arrange things with me), she'll sometimes (though not always) ask or tell me to handle it ("your mom and sister sent me a facebook message about plans for next weekend, can you to take care of that?")
posted by Area Man at 8:41 AM on July 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

I really, really agree with DarlingBri. My first marriage was a hellscape for a variety of reasons, but me stepping in to do his emotional labor and then hating him for it was a huge factor. In my second marriage, I frequently have to sit on my hands to keep from doing that, but the end result of my refraining (plus his lack of expectation) is that we are two independent adults whose lives intersect, not one person taking care of an overgrown baby.
posted by missrachael at 8:50 AM on July 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

I recommend Flex's thing, pretty early on, about her grandmother-in-law. I could hardly bear that one.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:55 AM on July 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

I realized reading that thread, that I don't let my contributions go unnoticed. I hate cleaning, so I brag about completing things. We both know that the kitty litter needs attending to, or tp needs to be bought. Don't silently do it. It's not magic. "I changed the sheets! Isn't it going to be great to crawl into bed tonight?"
posted by Gor-ella at 8:58 AM on July 29, 2015 [26 favorites]

I'll also chime in with those opposed to just...not doing emotional labor any more. I've done that, and do actually recommend doing that, but only if you are in the process of ending the relationship. Relationships do require some amount of emotional labor from both partners: a relationship where no one does emotional labor seems indistinguishable from being roommates. Bad roommates, even. Do bring it up. It doesn't have to be confrontational, or even a big deal: if your partner is one worth having around, they'll be willing to have regular conversations about what you're both bringing to the relationship, and whether your individual emotional needs are being met in a way that's equitable.
posted by libraritarian at 9:10 AM on July 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

If he's the type who'd be reluctant to read the entire thread or even much of it, then try approaching as "oh hey, read this thing about this subject, made me think about our relationship. *explain subject*, then ask "what do you think about all this?"

Basically, just start a conversation about the topic and see where it goes. You might have to be more direct eventually, by expressing that you're overwhelmed about the division of labor. Be prepared to listen to him about how he sees things, as he might be taking on a lot you don't see.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:24 AM on July 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is something I've been conscious of for a while, although I don't call it emotional labor. I usually just call it social and maintenance work or something.

One thing right from the top: Look at how many women who weren't even consciously aware of the dynamic. So try, if you can, not to go in angry. If the women who are actually doing the work aren't conscious of it, it's totally understandable that men who don't know that work exists wouldn't be aware of it either. Give him a chance to listen to you and a reasonable amount of time to absorb it. If he won't even listen to you or if he can't break out of rebuttal mode, that's unacceptable, but if it takes him a little while to fully grasp it, I'd be patient with him. It's a big huge pervasive dynamic that most people just internalize.

Come up with a short list of the things you do and why you do them. I maintain these relationships, and that's why [x] was there for us when we needed [y]. I plan out our meals and make appointments and take the cat to the vet and whatever, and that is why we have healthy food and teeth in our heads and a live cat.

So let him know what you are OK with doing and why, and also let him know if there are things you're not going to do anymore.

When my husband moved in with me over ten years ago, I laid some of these things out. I don't do Christmas card lists for myself, so I wouldn't be doing that with his family, either. He said that was OK, because he never did that anyway, and I said, "Just watch." And indeed, his family had this expectation that now that we were together, I'd be sending out Christmas cards and remembering birthdays and such, despite him never having done so when he was single.

One thing I did get suckered into for a while was taking phone calls. He would never answer the home phone when I was there, and he has a cell phone, but he literally only turns it on when he wants to make a call. So I ended up taking all these calls for him, from his work, his family, his doctor's office, everything. So I told him I was tired of that and wasn't going to do it anymore. So I don't pick up the phone when I see it's from someone looking for him, and when I accidentally do, I either tell them to call back when he's here or I take a super-shitty message consisting of the person's name and number and something like, "and they said something boring about your dumb life." If they leave a message on voicemail, sometimes I'll let him know it's there and sometimes not. He needs to learn to check the messages, too. And he's also made a real effort to do that. (His work actually has MY cell phone number, and they used to call him on that number a lot, but through a combination of me not picking up and him telling them that's not his number, those calls have been nearly eliminated.)

For the things that I am OK with doing, I just explain to him that they're work and he needs to appreciate what goes into that. Cooking, for example. I "like" to cook. I am pretty good at it, too. But that was and is a lot of work. I don't like standing over a hot stove, or chopping things up or cleaning up, and I really don't like having my cooking disrespected by people wasting it or fucking around with it (messing up the proportions by picking out the parts of the soup you like best, preemptive salting, things like that). I like cooking in the sense that I enjoy creating an end product. And I told him he can hit me up pretty much any time and I'll be happy to show him the injuries I've sustained from cooking. I usually have at least one burn or cut or scrape I can show off, and if I don't, I have some permanent scars on standby. Once I pointed that stuff out, he really stopped taking it for granted. And he does all the cleaning up.

I also make all of our leisure time plans, and although I direct them so we end up doing the things I want to (we see a lot of 'arthouse' movies, hang out with middle aged ladies, and go see bands I like), he will happily admit that if I didn't do that, we wouldn't have any friends and he'd spend all his free time playing video games out of sheer laziness. So he's appreciative of that, even though we pretty much only do the things I like. He's almost always pretty happy afterward, and I sometimes point out to him that I put a lot of preliminary work into keeping up with events and scheduling and things to make it happen.

So just tell him as you go along what you're doing and how much work it is. A lot of this depends on laziness, obliviousness, and just generalized thoughtlessness that he's never been taught to question. (Here's one I only had to do once: My husband had this annoying habit of just leaving to go run an errand or something without telling me. So I did it one day. Just popped out to the hardware store without first going downstairs to tell him I was going. He was FRANTIC when I got back, and I said, "You do that all the time," and told him to pick which way we did things. Now we both inform each other when we're going out.)

You're just articulating this for yourself right now, so bring him in right away. Start noticing these things together, rather than you doing all the noticing and then carefully crafting your presentation for him, because that would be just perpetuating the dynamic.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:01 AM on July 29, 2015 [18 favorites]

If you think the concept of 'emotional labor' might be too jarring or that the clear gender lines it often breaks down along will put him on the defensive, frame this as a matter of simple respect. Stepping back from certain tasks, like DarlingBri recommends, and using 'I' statements as mikurski wrote, and when talking about why your approach has changed say: "I didn't feel my contributions were being respected. I don't feel the things I bring to this relationship, the efforts I make, are treated with respect." (If he then immediately jumps to feeling insulted and wanting you to soothe him, it's an easier segue to how that behavior is disrespectful too -- it's yet another thing you're being put in charge of, while your own needs are going unmet.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:10 AM on July 29, 2015 [9 favorites]

Since reading that thread, I've been trying to do the following things:
1. Articulate my achievement when I have done something that benefits both of us, to make it clear that I deserve credit for it.
2. Ask directly for him to take on a greater share of a few tasks that he just assumed that I wanted to do because I have in the past defaulted into doing them.
posted by matildaben at 10:29 AM on July 29, 2015 [9 favorites]

"If the women who are actually doing the work aren't conscious of it, it's totally understandable that men who don't know that work exists wouldn't be aware of it either.[...] It's a big huge pervasive dynamic that most people just internalize."

Flex's husband: there is no way he understood what happened with his relationship with his grandmother. And he has huge motivation not to understand it, since to understand it is to take on a mountain of grief.

Me: I went to my grandfather's 90th birthday party (far away, huge hassle, much time off work). A few years later I skipped my grandmother's 90th birthday party (far away, huge hassle, slightly more problematic in re getting time off work). I didn't think about it at the time, what that must have meant to her, and to my grandfather who loved her. I think about it now. I think about it and think about it and think about it. To face up to your own failure to care for the people in your life who deserve your care is to suffer. Be patient with anyone you're asking to face this stuff. And here's something that might not have been said: people who do this work are better off than people who skip it. If he can start doing it, it will help him as much as it helps you. Everyone must grieve their own lost grandparents. You can't go to your grave with your grandmother unmourned. If someone you love is shirking their duty to care, don't let them, for their sake.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:33 AM on July 29, 2015 [14 favorites]

I have successfully negotiated this. How you do that depends a whole lot on the head space of the man you are dealing with.

With my troglodyte ex husband, who thought he was pro women's lib but expected me to be a prisoner of a 1950s style marriage:

1) Decided on my own that I was not going to slavishly do X anymore.

2) If appropriate/necessary, gave him plenty of heads up that I would not do X anymore and tried to help walk him through the transition. When he failed anyway, not my problem. Never mentioned it again.

Example: I informed him that I was no longer going to notify his family members of our new address when we moved. For first move, I bought him the cards, sat him down with them, gave him the address book, made him write them. I think I mailed them. For the second move, I reminded him verbally once that this was his responsibility and never mentioned it again. A year later, his retired military father used insider info to track him down, call him at work and crab at him. (My family would have called the police and filed a missing person's report if I had not checked in while on the road and when I arrived. The ex is the way he is because he was raised by these people. I cannot imagine taking a year to wonder where the hell my grown kid moved to.)

3) If possible, simply began doing my piece of it differently without ever discussing it.

Example: He habitually fell asleep on the couch for years. I spent years waking him at midnight and half dragging his ass to bed. At some point, I decided that where he slept was not my problem. The only thing that was my problem was making sure he woke up in the morning so he could go to work because we were all dependent on his paycheck. So, I began putting his alarm clock on the coffee table before I went to bed. Not my problem if he had a crick in his neck from sleeping on the couch all night.

4) Took advantage of any opportunity to set a new precedent that expanded my de facto "rights" in the relationship. Said not one word when he was grumpy as hell for the next six weeks. He was too clueless to connect his grumpiness to losing control over his domestic slave. I was not going to clue him. I spent all my time validating the few ways in which his behavior actually matched up to his deluded self image of New Age Man. Over time, his behavior got better at aligning with his stated ideals.

/manipulative bitch

With my sons, after the divorce, I sat them down one day and said "I am now working full time and still doing a lot of the women's work. You have two choices: Y'all can get part time minimum wage jobs or you can take over the women's work so more of my time and energy can go into my job and working overtime and trying to get promoted. I would prefer option B. I think it is the better solution." They also prefered option B. They know what a hardass I am and that they were not going to get away with agreeing to do the women's work but not actually doing it. So I did not have to fight with them.

However, I did allow for the reality that there would be a learning curve. To help them get over that hump, I bribed them with Wii Bucks so they could buy video games. During the four months that overtime was consistently available in my department, I promised them a cut of the money for every paycheck with overtime pay if they did all the women's work and waited on me hand and foot so I could work as much overtime as possible, in spite of how sick I was at the time. They did so. So, I ponied up, even when circumstances beyond their control meant there wasn't much overtime pay in one paycheck in particular.

After that initial transition phase, there was no more bribery and I did not have to nag. The women's work was their responsibility. Like my ex husband and dad, I began asking "What's in the fridge?" I no longer knew because I rarely opened it.

I still had to make some reasonable accommodation for the reality that my skill set blew theirs out of the water. I didn't do the cooking but I became like the cooking consultant because there was still a lot I knew that my oldest son did not. I also continued to do vegetable prep, which took me maybe five minutes after work. He is terrible at this and he had a track record of cutting the crap out of himself in the process. Happily, I don't mind chopping and peeling veggies, even though I kind of hated cooking. So this was not a point of contention.

Having done this successfully, I will caution you that your desire to start a conversation about this with him amounts to volunteering to do more emotional labor on his behalf and is unlikely to be very effective. Instead, you need to learn more about exercising power. If you want to stay with him, you should shoot for exercising power diplomatically. But be aware that some people will really act shitty if you try to stop being their de facto slave. If push comes to shove, you might have to choose between diplomacy and accomplishing something at all.

Some stuff you might want to read to help empower you:

Chore Wars
Getting to Yes
(Plus any other negotiating books that interest you)

I also sometimes pontificate about such topics on my personal blog.
posted by Michele in California at 10:52 AM on July 29, 2015 [18 favorites]

I was in a relationship where we split the work pretty well, but not the planning/tracking. Once I realized, just saying "being responsible for dinner planning and chore assigning is not my favorite - lets split up planning too". In my case, that (and a bit of practice - asking " what are we doing for dinners this week" a few times) was all it took to split up some of the captaining of the bulk of our house work.

The other handy bit was automation: a house checking acct with auto-deposits and shared remember the milk shopping list, so we could both drop things on as needed, or stop by the store when convenient.

That doesn't cover social planning or family, but did cover a lot of the day to day mental load.
posted by lorimt at 11:12 AM on July 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is reminding me of discussions and papers I've seen about cognitive load. It was discussed in relation to poverty, food buying choices, and also tolerance, I think. Maybe if there were a good way to measure the cost and benefits of the cognitive load of emotional/social labor that would help.
posted by amtho at 11:34 AM on July 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

I just want to echo those who say you could perhaps just not do a pretty significant share of the emotional labor that you don't want to do. And you can ask for what you need, if their lack of labor includes stuff like not remembering to get you a birthday present. Of course, some labor is easier to not do than others; it really depends on what we're talking about here. If it's basic chores, you obviously can't live in filth, but my reading of the "emotional labor" discussion is that it is the next level beyond daily upkeep. I'm sure when kids get involved, it's a lot harder.

I do also agree that it can reduce your joint quality of life and social performance -- you might never be the family who hosts the 4th of July party or brings cupcakes to the kindergarten class on holidays or whatever. But for me, that is far better than the resentment I sensed I could grow to have.

A lot of times, I realized that the expectations I was trying to live up to were self-imposed and that there was very little consequence for not doing it. His family doesn't blame me when he's late with their birthday gift, and maybe in 10 years, he (and I!) will both get better at buying those gifts early, but in the meantime, life goes on, and I haven't stepped into that role I don't want. By largely declining to take on the emotional labor pieces, you'll get practice in ignoring those expectations (and see that the world actually doesn't end) and gain clarity on which actually matter to you so much that you do want to do them. And then, the best trick, which I was lucky enough to accidentally discover, is that if you underperform slightly in other, more unavoidable household chores that your partner is inclined to do (like only do 40% of the cooking), or if you consider all the pieces that your partner does do (like I realized he was the one paying attention to financial stuff like insurance coverage) then when a piece of undone emotional labor actually matters to you, you may find you have space to do it without resentment.

Another strategy would be to sit down and talk about your shared goals for your social and family life. Starting the discussion from a place of "what are we trying to accomplish" has worked for me in getting some shared effort in these areas. But I still don't think it will be easy to pass along a lifetime of exposure to the kind of social expectations placed on women. I've never managed to convince a male partner that when going to a potluck, we ought to bring a beautiful lemon tart covered with an ornate design created by sprinkling powdered sugar through a doily, even though that's the kind of shit I've internalized. It is far easier to say to myself "okay, I'm not going to undertake a big cooking effort here," then ask, "hey, what do you think we should bring to the potluck?" and then do whatever low effort suggestion gets made (pick up a cake at the deli counter). I find unlearning my social conditioning in this way very rewarding. And it helps me to realize that it's not that my way (ornate lemon tart) is right and his priorities or levels of effort are wrong, but that we both got trained by the same society. Me unlearning a role as the one cooking the turkey is as important as him unlearning a role as the one watching football with the other men. Getting on the same page about what we want is the best way to avoid that dynamic where I unilaterally decide we must have or do something (prepare a fancy turkey dinner with six kinds of dessert) and then get resentful that he's not doing 50% of the work to make this vision come to pass.

I hope this comment doesn't come across as minimizing the concerns of those who want to find ways to share the effort. For me, it has worked to start by simply opting out of most of this kind of work, but every relationship is different.
posted by salvia at 11:40 AM on July 29, 2015 [9 favorites]

Emotional labor is actually an important part of relationships, and just declaring that you aren't going to do it anymore could well lead to problems down the road. The point to being successful in the relationship is, as FFFM points out, allocating the collective resources ideally and being mindful of the other's efforts and struggles.

I absolutely agree. But the OP's report details someone who won't read a thread that's important to her, will react with defensiveness and anger when the issues around emotional labour are put on the table, and is unlikely to go to therapy.

IMHO, a perfectly valid approach is to stop doing all the shit. The OP should lifeboat the things that are priorities for her -- feeding the relationship, maintaining her own family and friendship connections, etc -- but let everything else go. She can redirect her partner when he brings up the things he cares about ("Hey why didn't we send my mom a birthday card?" "I don't know; did you buy one?") or the stuff that isn't a priority for him either just won't happen.

Yes there may be fewer friends. Yes there may be fewer invitations. Yes, she will be thought of less well by his friends and his family. Personally, I made that tradeoff a very long time ago. I adore my spouse and it genuinely pains me that he doesn't have more male friends here, but I absolutely refuse to be the cruise director for my relationship and I am not setting up play dates for a grown-ass man. If he doesn't do it, well, this is what that looks like. Sorry. Change it.

Occasionally I say "Hey, Ted was cool, you could drop him an email and invite him out for a beer." That is very very different than me inviting Ted's uninteresting wife Emily out for coffee so we can broker a fauxship so I can invite them both over for dinner so my husband can then invite Ted to do something. Yuck. Not doing it.

So again, yes, you really can just stop doing the emotional labour you don't want to do. There will be consequences for that but that doesn't mean it's not a choice on the table.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:51 AM on July 29, 2015 [17 favorites]

I think I'm going to just keep putting it down where he can reach it. "Still reading this. It's still great." It will be neat if he picks it up. If he doesn't I sure won't be shocked, but yet another great thing about The Thread and its spinoffs is how much less terrified about that exigency I am now than I was when I started this.

I hope the thing I said about not letting people off the hook didn't read like "Laydeez, one of your most important life responsibilities is to make sure your loved ones learn to do emotional labor. If you fail at this then their souls will be consigned to hell and it will be yooooooourrrr faaaaaaaullllt." What I meant to say was "I'm not selfish to require somebody to learn to do this stuff, even if what I'm asking of them is to care about me." They need to be able to care about other people to be full people themselves.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:07 PM on July 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

You can disengage from a lot of the tasks, absolutely. I encourage you to do that. And somewhere in your gut you probably already know this, but be prepared for him to suddenly find the relationship too much work when you expect him to carry his weight. And what that might mean.

When I have this conversation with friends who are going through something similar, I tell them their partner has a choice. He can start carrying his weight. If he can't recognize it, if he feels that you are asking too much, or that what you are asking him for makes him feel bad, then you know what comes next.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 12:17 PM on July 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

So again, yes, you really can just stop doing the emotional labour you don't want to do.

I largely agree with DarlingBri here. I will add that if/when you do this, resist the temptation to nag, kvetch, take digs at him, etc. If you are really struggling with your emotional crap over how very, very important this stuff is and SOMEBODY has to do it and YOU aren't going to do it, so HE needs to do it, um, no. Start a journal. Call a friend and bitch to them. But DO NOT now put all kinds of energy into convincing him to do it because you feel it is ever so important and that is the ONLY right and just and proper outcome. Women are conditioned to feel this way and it sometimes simply is not true. You will not find out what things actually matter until you simply STOP doing the things you hate and see what shakes out.

When my sons took over all the women's work, that worked in part because they had been standing up to my neurotic shit for years and telling me "Mom. I've got this. Butt out. It does not have to be done the way YOU would do it." My oldest son told me that when he was 13 and began doing the laundry when I was really, really sick and I was trying to micromanage how he did the laundry and dictate every little step so it would get done right and properly and he got in a snit with me one day and ever so politely let me know that it was a case of Back Off, Bitch. (No, he didn't call me a bitch. But I got the message and I quit harassing him.)

So when he took over all the cooking a few years later, he was willing to meet my standard that it had to be fresh food cooked from scratch, no microwave meals, but he simplified meals -- none of that meat and potatoes and homemade gravy and two veggies -- and he didn't make an effort to make things pretty. And when I would comment on how ugly his lumpy homemade flat bread was, he would say "It still tastes as good as yours." and Not Care that it was ugly. And not care that his mom was talking about it being ugly. And the first couple of times I went in the kitchen and tried to "help" him cook, he chased me out. The kitchen was now his domain and quit messing up my cooking, mom. I was quick to get the memo and I was happy to be all "The kitchen is not my domain anymore, fine, be that way, YOU COOK!" But it worked in part because my sons do give me push back and let me know that my prissy standards do not all have to be complied with. Some of that amounts to Make Work and it's simply bullshit.

So if this is something you kind of have to arrange unilaterally and there isn't good communication and good cooperation, like I have with my sons, you will have to do a lot more of what I did with my husband and say not one word about a lot of things. This is where a lot of women seem to go wrong: They stop doing X and then put like 10x as much effort as X took into trying to nag their derelict man into doing X because they cannot let go of the idea that X is really important and really, truly needs to be done and SOMEONE must do this and waaaah. If not doing X is not going to cause illness or eviction or other serious negative consequences, seriously, if he doesn't care enough to pick up the slack, then let it drop. And work on all your big feels and desire to nag as your own emotional work that needs to be done, and don't make it his problem. If he can't do basic emotional labor, he sure as hell is not qualified to play therapist and help you work through all your feelings about how life is supposed to work or whatever while you come to terms with actual reality.

Also, while saying not one word about a lot of things, resist the temptation to eyeroll and heave big sighs and otherwise loudly signal without words your big feels about it. It only makes the process a lot harder. It is not constructive. Saying not one word means also silencing all those other ways of commenting on it. Just let it drop.
posted by Michele in California at 12:43 PM on July 29, 2015 [9 favorites]

I will also also say that I think it is hard for women to accept that some emotional labor honest to god just does not need to happen, no one needs to take it over, because of what a punch in the gut that is -- because we have invested so much of our time and energy and lives into taking care of this for other people and to accept that it honestly doesn't even need to be done is such a huge slap in the face. It is psychologically easier to keep putting 10x our energy into nagging our man to take it over because it is so very IMPORTANT than to come to grips with how unimportant some of it really and truly is -- to him, to the world, or whatever. It is just a really hard thing to swallow.

Yes, there is important emotional labor that needs to happen to nurture relationships, human beings and so on. But so much of what women do really doesn't even need to happen and I think we resist that idea because it tells us that much of our life was simply wasted. And that is the kind of thing that makes people go postal and shoot people up in malls. We can swallow the slavery and drudgery involved if we think it is critical work and the world will promptly go to hell and implode if it doesn't get done. Some women's work really is critical stuff and not doing it really does lead to much worse things happening. But some of it seriously does not matter and that's just hard as hell to swallow. It makes you want to just cry or scream when it really sinks in -- and it sometimes doesn't really sink in until you stop doing it and nothing much comes of it.
posted by Michele in California at 1:05 PM on July 29, 2015 [13 favorites]

As someone who has repeatedly tried the "just stop doing it" method with friends, partners, and family of any gender... that doesn't work. It just strikes me way too much as passive agressive brinksmanship. You're essentially doing one of those letter-of-contract protests like a factory worker would except the other person isn't going to notice in the sense that they'll start working faster to keep the assembly line going. They're just going to let the unfulfilled orders pile up, so to speak.

It takes multiple discussions, over the space of quite a while(like, months) to shift gears on this stuff. You'll know its starting to work when the other person independently takes your temperature on stuff without you bringing it up first or having mentioned it recently.

The exception i'd make is stuff like planning activities or meeting up with friends. If the other person doesn't want to do that, well, they can just have no friends and sit on their ass all the time.

But yea, this is something that adult conversation needs to happen about. If they're resistant or fighty about the conversation more than just a bit at first*, then you have the information you need. It's pretty similar to the guys who just flat out refused to read the thread or dismissed it super early on.

There's no magic guiding-horse-to-water cat fountain water bowl solution to like, tricking someone who refuses to engage in discussion about doing the work in to doing it just because they want to see it done. It's a toddler protest when they're not doing it, of "i see that this that's usually done isn't but i'm not doing it i wonder why it's not done WOW WHAT A MYSTERY" that only breeds resentment on both sides.

And seriously, do you want to be with someone you'd have to stop-work to essentially trick in to doing the work? I'd argue that letting shit pile up and monitoring them to see if they start is emotional labor in and of itself, because you have to stress about letting shit not get done and monitor the other person.

*(because, and i wrote and deleted a major comment on this i decided didn't fit in the main thread, a lot of guys have this deeply seated response of this being criticism even though that's bullshit. I myself had that reaction at first, even though i've been doing a hell of a lot of this work in most of my relationships)
posted by emptythought at 2:03 PM on July 29, 2015 [9 favorites]

Oh, a couple of things I forgot that might help:

1. You're not just dealing with his expectations, but others' as well. Just get into the habit of reminding people that you are not his mother or his secretary, and he needs to get on board with that as well. He should be telling people that he is an adult human, and you're not responsible for maintaining his appointments and social connections, so they need to come directly to him.

2. A LOT of time, we end up doing things for people because it's easier than telling them to do it. You may need to suck this up a little at first. Leave that dirty dish on the coffee table, and go tell him to put it away, despite that probably being 10x more work than picking it up. These are very ingrained habits, so it might take a while, but do not start doing things like that for him again unless and until he's picking up after you at about the same rate. (That's the ideal. Not perfection. It's two people who value and respect each other helping each other out, rather than one following around behind the other tidying and fixing things.)

It is not impossible to explain these things. My husband was in his 40s when we met, and he's not perfect now, but neither am I. If you start out with a decent, smartish, feminist man who respects and cares about you, he can learn.
posted by ernielundquist at 2:07 PM on July 29, 2015 [6 favorites]

After I assigned the guest bathroom to my son and husband to clean, I also had to teach myself not to comment that they didn't clean it quite to my standards (they are bad at corners and never remember the edge of the tub). You may have to do some of that. Over time, you can make small suggestions, once the new norm is established. Best if phrased as being helpful, not as being picky.

And remind yourself, as I do, that a dusty baseboard is better than you ever have to clean a pee-covered boy's toilet again.
posted by emjaybee at 9:25 AM on July 30, 2015

So I've had this conversation with my husband and I think it's gone well, so I'll share what I think helped:
  1. I made a list of "The things that I feel like I am either responsible for doing, asking you to do (often repeatedly, often unsuccessfully) or 90% of the time they don't get done" - make the list as long and as detailed as you can while sticking to the things that are important for the life you want. Mine included things like: you eating something other than fast food and chips and salsa, the kids eating something other than bread, peanuts and milk, that our bills get paid, wiping down the counters, washing the dog, scooping the litter box, that you go to the dentist, etc. Especially include all things that are strictly his.
  2. I ended this list with my "executive summary" that I am responsible for "Noticing and caring about all the million tiny things that keep us functioning day to day, looking like reasonably civilized adults, not living in a house piled with clutter and trash and dirty dishes and dirty clothes, infested by cockroaches and fleas, not pursued by debt collectors, that keep the kids healthy, happy and thriving, with at least a few people in their lives (other than us) who love them and know them" ----- this is the WHY it's important
  3. Stopping the emotional labor I do related to trying to regulate or manage his emotions in any way.
  4. Letting him know that I love him so so very much, but that I am not happy with how things are and that if they don't change I will leave. This is not a threat, and I made sure he know that I'm willing to work my ass off and fight like hell to make it work, but unless he's working his ass off and fighting like hell too, it's just not going to. This has to be where you really are to work though. If you don't feel it, I mean really feel it, he'll know and it'll be an empty threat and feel manipulative and just do more damage.
  5. Identifying and acknowledging where I have work to do (see #3, why on earth am I doing that in the first place?)
I don't know, now that I've written these out they really just feel like a few of the possible pieces, but I'll post them nevertheless.

We also came up with some concrete first steps together (one is him reading The Thread), with target dates to check back in with each other on. This is a work in progress for us, but it's feeling good so far, promising, empowering, we'll see how it goes!

Good luck!
posted by pennypiper at 10:31 AM on July 30, 2015 [9 favorites]

I wrote several anecdotes in there about my bringing up the EL thread and the related meltdown that occurred after I got Officially Fed Up, but I do think that my partner and I have sorted things out and seem to have a decent routine going now. Time will tell, but for the sake of this comment I've lived through the giant blow-out and defensive-man-feelings.

I think if this is going to be effective, you might need to emotionally/mentally/physically prepare for the conversation. If your partner is anything like mine (with a tendency to take Big Things in a small personal way) you might want to take a long soothing bath for your sake before tackling this topic. My mistake (can it be called that?) was having the talk on the brink of utter exhaustion and exasperation, and looking back I should have taken a day off work or something and spoiled myself rotten first. Do what you can to take care of yourself - that thread has been a roller coaster for a ton of women.

Then, I would suggest explaining to your partner how so much of emotional labor is Mental Homework rather than physical acts, to mitigate "But I already do x, y, and z!" Keeping a household running and functional is to keep a whole lot of plates constantly spinning in your head (and I found the other thread on being the Default Parent very helpful for explaining how this works in households that have kids). Keeping track of things is the exhausting portion, because even if you're delegating tasks you're the one who has to remember them. It can induce anxiety and mental-fatigue, which over time will physically wear you down. So then maybe your partner can take some of those spinning plates completely off your hands, in order for you to have less to keep track of.

And after he thinks it over and talks with you some more, that's when you present The List! The grand master list of All The Things you guys will have to do as adults to make sure everyone is comfortable. Making the list is hopefully the last time you have to be Project Manager in your relationship. "Make weekly meal plans" should be on there, and "Wash bath towels" and "Car maintenance" if you have a car and "Cat maintenance" if you have a cat (broken down to food, litterbox, vet appointments, every little moving piece of the Cat Experience. "Trim cat nails" if your cat isn't a murderer.)

Then you split the tasks, being very explicit that the person in charge of the task is in charge of the whole task (like in that main thread, taking out the trash means putting in a new trash bag and not letting the container sit there unlined). Everyone is in charge of their tasks' Sphere of Influence. One person does dinner and the other person cleans? That other person has to wipe the stove, not just fill the dishwasher. Is "Change the bed sheets" a task? The person in charge needs to throw the old sheets in the laundry, and move them from the washer to the dryer, and then put them away once they're dry. All of it. The whole thing. And if one person doesn't do something, the other person does NOT pick up the slack.

This message is for you! Once you have this system, do not pick up his slack. Don't do his tasks unless he's deathly ill! This is where you stop giving in and opt-out because damn it, you guys have a System that you talked about and he's an adult and you're not his mom and you both discussed how his tasks are solely his responsibility. And this should benefit him too, because you get to explicitly tell him "If I don't do this thing, I will in no way expect you to do it instead. I will have no right to resent you in any way whatsoever because we both agree I'm the one in charge of this portion of the list."

Maybe fill in the list together, after you have some examples to get him thinking! It could be very illuminating for him to list out all the things involved with a task like "Make dinner." (Plan weekly meals, check budget, be conscious of existing pantry/fridge ingredients, schedule grocery trips, etc.)

(And make sure that you guys have a fairly equal split between tasks that need to be done daily, weekly, and monthly.)

...Holy crap this is long. Okay, quick final thoughts:

* Try to bring up this topic when you're relaxed, as much as possible.
* Start off with something very general (and maybe positive) like "Hey I read something that a little while ago that I found very insightful, and I think it's really going to help us. Plus I might have a starting point!" (See that? You have a SOLUTION. He doesn't even have to go "Uuuugh... what does this all MEAN for me?!")
* Present or work together on The List.
* Divide the List as comfortably as possible.
* Live a more unfettered life! Hopefully. Fingers crossed.

One more:

* Once you guys have a System in place and a conversation or two about the history/importance/etc. of emotional labor, show him the thread. Tell him that people wrote about very strong feelings, but that's because finally finding the words to describe this phenomenon is like finding a pressure release valve. Tell him that you're not showing him the thread because you're trying to guilt him into anything, but because you found all the voices and personal stories really meaningful in both big and small ways, and you'd like to share in meaningful things together.

posted by erratic meatsack at 2:38 PM on July 30, 2015 [9 favorites]

Regarding chores, I got sick of having to keep track of when things are done, and chasing up on them. It's amazing how good your partner's memory becomes when you tell them they haven't washed the dishes for a while, and they can pinpoint the exact date, time and how many there were-- three weeks ago.

Keeping track of a roster would only be another chore for me, so I went the other way and started a log, and stuck it on the fridge. It records who did the dishes, prepared dinner, tidied the kitchen and lounge, and vacuumed. All the jobs that make the house pleasant and comfortable. It's not a perfect system as he still has to be reminded/asked to do things, but it is helping to make our division of chores more equitable. When I say the dishes need to be done, and he isn't the last one on the log, he'll do it. And then proudly marks his name down (as if taking credit for it is more of an incentive than a nice clean kitchen!!!).
posted by roshy at 6:05 PM on July 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

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