How can I combat my own internalized sexism?
February 22, 2016 12:39 AM   Subscribe

I'm male and I keep hurting my female partner, mainly (I think) because of cultural conditioning that tells me that my needs are more important than hers. Despite my best efforts and significant progress I seem unable to stop and fully control this, and I need help.

An example: I casually made some large demands on her time when she was preparing for an important job interview. Somehow it just didn't occur to me that her time was as valuable as mine.

Another: I ignored her all day because I was busy with something, even though it was time we would normally spend together. The things I would usually do, like checking in with her, making some sort of plan for the day or even letting her know I needed some time to myself so she should just do her own thing, I just sort of forgot to do. And she was left hanging, waiting around for me, and it didn't occur to me that my actions affected how she planned her day; it was like she had ceased to exist for me.

And one more: I used her to help me work through my emotions countless times; I made it her job to get me to a place of emotional equilibrium so that we could do real togetherness; but I rarely gave the same energy back to her.

This has been a long, sad pattern. I've made promises countless times and done a tremendous amount of work to try to fix this, and I have made a huge amount of progress, but I always seem to slide back. I am tired of this. I don't want to be this kind of partner. I want to stop this behavior for good. But I seem to be unable to. I really don't feel like I can promise not to do this again, because I do it even when I am trying not to, and I don't know how to stop it.

I've had a few really good weeks lately where I thought I had worked out a way forward but I lapsed again yesterday and hurt her again. What seems to happen is that on good days when I am emotionally connected everything works fine, I know how to give, I see and value her needs. But on the occasional day when I get kind of overwhelmed with life somehow, or I am dealing with something heavy, or I am really stressed out... then I seem to switch to autopilot, and I lose that consciousness which is critical to making good, adult choices. And usually I hurt her. I don't keep the promises that I made to her. I can't keep doing this.

My current and best approach is to try very hard to stay emotionally connected and centred, and this works most of the time. But I think autopilot is going to happen sometimes. I am going to have bad days. So the problem is what happens when I'm on autopilot. I lapse into a kind of child-like state in which my needs are the only thing that I see. And frustratingly I lack awareness that this has happened so it doesn't occur to me to try to break out of it; it's like I'm asleep at the wheel. My working theory is that I feel comfortable doing this because as a man I have been conditioned to think this is okay and normal. I have a lot of internalized sexism which I have only recently come to see which validates my selfishness during these times. There is a voice that says something like 'go ahead, it's okay, it's okay to take, you've given enough', or something like that. I want to kick this out, for good. But how?

I feel like I need some kind of program for this, someone or something to guide me, some technique to follow. This stuff is buried deep underground all over the place and I want to systematically find it and remove it. How can I do this?
posted by PercussivePaul to Human Relations (45 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I feel like it's impossible for you not to have seen this thread, but...have you read the emotional labour thread? If not, I recommend you do. All of it.

It's good that you recognize your lapses and can identify when they're likely to happen. So maybe you can have a checklist you go over in the morning, before your day starts, and then again at lunchtime, where you take your own emotional temperature. Ask yourself:

-Do I feel overwhelmed?
-Am I [going to be] dealing with something heavy?
-Am I really stressed out?

If you know you are feeling stressed, you know there's a good chance you'll backslide on doing your share of emotional labour and you can keep on the alert to prevent that.

Make a list of things you tend to do if you are stressed that put responsibility for emotional labour on your partner. Keep it in your wallet or on your phone. Take out your list and look at it periodically. See if you are doing (or are about to do) any of the things that are on that list. If you are, stop. If you've already done it, apologize to your partner and make it right as best you can.

Really though, I do think reading (or re-reading) that thread will help you.

Good luck! I think it is great that you are asking this question and that you seem very motivated to change!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:51 AM on February 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think you don't necessarily have to be 100% emotionally connected and available at all times to your partner (being male or female is irrelevant.) So I would let that goal go.

However, I would definitely make an effort to communicate at least briefly before you go incommunicado in the future. Just a simple, "I need space for a day" would probably solve this problem you're having by at least 90%. It's a simple fix and requires minimal effort, and then you don't have to feel as guilty when you take your "me time" - a certain amount of which is healthy.
posted by quincunx at 12:59 AM on February 22, 2016 [10 favorites]

This condensed and organized version of the thread might be useful to you, actually.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:01 AM on February 22, 2016 [24 favorites]

Best answer: What would you do at your job if you were told that you were falling down on some aspects of your responsibilities? If part of the time you did fine, but sometimes, because you were sort of on auto-pilot, you would neglect some duties, and that would make things harder for your co-workers who had to pick up the slack? What if procedures changed for some aspect of your job, but because you were used to doing things the old way, you would sometimes fail to meet the new requirements, and that meant you might eventually be let go unless you managed to overcome this tendency?

Maybe you would create a daily checklist, or some sort of reminder to mentally review how you were performing, especially regarding the elements that were indicated as failure points. Maybe you would begin each workday by organizing your goals, and before leaving work make sure you didn't overlook something important. And of course, you'd realize that having your manager or co-workers constantly reminding you to do your own work in a satisfactory way would be an unworkable solution. Likewise, when trying to learn or improve at a sport, game or hobby, you probably have ways to remind yourself of areas where you've made mistakes, and ways of focusing on continually, incrementally, improving certain skills.

In other words, You probably already do have effective methods of enforcing self-improvement or developing learning skills that you could creatively apply to this issue. My guess is that viewing it as a huge insoluble problem is overwhelming you, and that if you break it down into discrete bits as you would with a different sort of challenge, and then use the same sorts of personal resources and techniques to overcome those blocks, you would begin to feel more confident about your ability to succeed, and see more concrete improvement.
posted by taz at 1:28 AM on February 22, 2016 [32 favorites]

I agree with quincunx that it's probably not possible for you to be 100% engaged 100% of the time. Also, this stood out to me:

"An example: I casually made some large demands on her time when she was preparing for an important job interview."

Since this is a relationship, it is also her responsibility to set some boundaries on this. If she needed time to work on the interview she needed to ask you to give her that time.

To be honest, this is something I stuggle with a lot as a wife, because, just as you've been conditioned by society to value your time over hers, I (as a woman) have been conditioned by society to put my loved ones' needs before mine. The ONLY way to work this out between the two of you is equal communication about wants and needs on both sides.

Thankfully, since reading the infamous thread on emotional labor, I've been able to articulate how and why aquiescing in those ways has left me at times exhausted in my relationship. I find it a lot easier now to, for example, say to my husband "Is this a question you can answer yourself?" when I'm in the middle of work or something and he interrupts me. Maybe let your GF read the thread as well, and then the two of you can talk about it.

LET ME BE CLEAR: I am *not* saying it is your girlfriend's job to help you fix yourself. I am saying she might also have some underlying interlized sexism that is contributing to the problem.

I think it's great that you recognize this is happening and want to work on it.
posted by Brittanie at 1:43 AM on February 22, 2016 [14 favorites]

I don't think this is sexism problem. This sounds like a personal problem; namely, that you are acting selfish.

I say this doesn't sound like sexism because my gay brother does the same thing to his partner, a guy. And my gay friend has had this done to her by a woman she was seeing. And I've had women do this to me before too. And I've done it myself. Sometimes, people are just fucking selfish with their time and needs. We all can be. It sounds like you are being selfish way too often though, which might have some basis in an *ism, but it is fundamentally just being selfish.

Sexism is a huge and pervasive thing. It's one of the many lenses through which we all perceive and interact. So, that being said, the lens here doesn't sound like the issue. It sounds like you just need to keep working on what you've been working, and not be so selfish. Don't call it something it's not; this is a You thing, not a Society thing.
posted by special agent conrad uno at 1:45 AM on February 22, 2016 [35 favorites]

I agree that perhaps you are framing the problem on too large a scale. If the job is to "combat your internalised sexism" and make yourself into a better person (and a perfect partner) that sounds like both an overwhelmingly huge task and a process weighted with guilt and self-blame at every step. I don't think this is helpful. It makes occasional failure such a huge deal, for one thing, that you are almost guaranteed to become avoidant about confronting small failures until they become unavoidably problematic, at which point you run the risk of becoming depressed about them. Either approach will not make your partner happier.

So I think it may be better, instead, to think of this as a practical problem, arising out of a set of learned behaviours. Why not make a list of the concrete behaviours you want to adopt instead of what you currently do (e.g. let her know when you are going to be unavailable all day; plan to check in with her emotionally at least a few times a week; before getting into a big conversation about your emotions, ask her if it's a good time; etc)? You can then ask your partner which ones she would like you to prioritise, and get to work on turning those ones into a habit. Diagnosing the cause of problematic behaviours can sometimes be helpful, if they are narrow enough, but it's often better to just get to work on the behaviours - especially if the causes are as massive and cloudy as "a lifetime as a man in a sexist society". The focus on behaviour is likely to be more effective, and it's also likely to be of more immediate benefit to your partner than you walking around in a cloud of guilt and worry.
posted by Aravis76 at 2:05 AM on February 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

I lapse into a kind of child-like state in which my needs are the only thing that I see. And frustratingly I lack awareness that this has happened so it doesn't occur to me to try to break out of it; it's like I'm asleep at the wheel. My working theory is that I feel comfortable doing this because as a man I have been conditioned to think this is okay and normal.

Ok, here's another theory, not as a contrast, but as a complement to yours, so to speak - the thing that strikes me reading your post is: this could and does happen to gay couples, between two men, between two women, and even, in different ways, between friends and in family relations...

Just because you want to be aware of the way sexism plays into gender roles and expectations in a man-woman couple relationship, not everything that goes on and goes wrong in that relationship has to be filtered only and exclusively through that lens, you know?

Sure, you may be dealing with gender roles and expectations we all absorb through culture, but you're also dealing with your own personality and character and life experience, and with the wider psychology of humans interacting with other humans, especially when humans we're close to and care about. Sometimes we can all be selfish and self-centered with the people in our lives, some more than others.

Maybe it can be useful to you if you look at it that way too, on top of the way you're looking at it already. Maybe it's not only that you get too comfortable as a man because you've been conditioned to think it's normal to take a woman for granted and epect her to be supportive while you do your own thing - it's also an obvious danger for anyone in a relationship, if you're not on the same page there in terms of emotional needs, and in how to communicate them clearly.

When you "ignored her all day" when you were supposed to see her, what did she do? Did she check in herself to see what your plan was? Or did she wait for you to get in touch, and then complain only later that you didn't do it? What happened?

There is a voice that says something like 'go ahead, it's okay, it's okay to take, you've given enough', or something like that.

See, this too strikes me as something that may also a bit more specific than "only" a question of general internalized sexism. What is it about this relationship that makes you feel this way? Has it happened to you in previous relationships? Have you ever felt this way with other women partners before?

If that voice is there, you sort of need to be brutally honest with yourself first, and figure out exactly where it comes from in your own experience, and in your own personality, before you judge it and attribute it only to internalized sexism.

Otherwise you're just using that as an excuse not to look into more specific faults and problems - yours, hers, both, problems in the way your mutual relationship and communication works, all of that together, I've no idea, it's impossible to say from what you wrote (and it's impossible without hearing her side of the story anyway), but it should be possible for you, to disentangle all the different factors in your behaviour and your feelings, and look at them separately first, rather than put everything under a convenient external influence. If you're getting trapped in a circle of sense of guilt that's leading nowhere, doesn't have any effect on your behaviour, doesn't make you change, maybe put aside the guilt for later for a second, and take a closer look at what's hiding underneath?
posted by bitteschoen at 2:39 AM on February 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

(By the way - I hadn't read other comments above before posting, I see special agent conrad uno and Aravis76 have said more or less what I meant even better and more concisely too, and with good advice, so consider mine an extra vote for that!)
posted by bitteschoen at 2:46 AM on February 22, 2016

It's fine to have a stressful day and lean heavily on your partner during that time. That's one of the shared joys of a partnership, having someone to turn to during a dark point. What sucks is when you don't turn around and replenish the partnership stores of goodwill when you're okay again. Going back to "regular" means you're overall draining the partnership stores over time as the imbalances build up.

And yes, she could set better boundaries, but before you start that conversation take a deep breath and look hard at what you have done when she has set boundaries in the past. Sometimes reactions to setting a boundary can be severe enough that one partner has learned not to set them most days.

What can you do to qualitatively and quantifiably value her contributions to you on a rough day? And how can you match or exceed them in your own different ways so she feels balanced overall? There's a line somewhere about how in a great relationship, both sides should be giving 70% - give generously instead of aiming for 50/50.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:15 AM on February 22, 2016 [13 favorites]

I just have to drop the notion that it's worth reflecting on the possibility you may have an ingrained sense of inadequacy or sense of duty that is being manipulated.

Emotionally abusive relationships can be great 90% of the time, everything fine, until it isn't, so you promise to modify you behaviour and everything goes along fine again, until it doesn't. The transgressions may become more and more arbitrary and the crises more and more extreme. You continue to modify and question your every act and motive until you're utterly ashamed of yourself and your failure to function under what may have become a very baroque system of judgement and rules.

If you feel yourself being cut off from outside frameworks of friends or family, or feel that no one else is capable of understanding what's going on, then as usually gets suggested here, look into therapy to help you judge where this relationship dynamic may be taking you.

I don't mean for my answer to sound dismissive of what is a real and corrosive issue in society and relationships.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:09 AM on February 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

i don't think it matters what theoretical framework you use to understand this. go with whatever helps you.

i also think it's normal and healthy to realise that you suck in various ways, and then learn to make those ways better. in my experience, understanding it leads to catching yourself, which leads to change, which eventually becomes habit.

but that's a long, slow process. for me, it helped that my partner sucked at various things too (not the same ones!). so there was a certain amount of give and take. you don't mention this in your post. maybe your partner is perfect, or maybe it's something to think about.

anyway, fwiw, i think you're likely doing ok. just keep at it. change comes with time. i don't think there's any royal road.
posted by andrewcooke at 4:33 AM on February 22, 2016

Best answer: Unlike some commenters above, I'm going to trust that you are telling your story as you have experienced it, that you're not being manipulated by an emotionally abusive partner since there's absolutely no evidence of that in your post, and that your feelings and behaviors are indeed due to internalized sexism that you recognize in yourself.

In that case, I'm going to do the classic AskMe thing and recommend therapy. Most obviously, if one problem is making your partner responsible for your emotional health, taking responsibility for it yourself is a great start. I would recommend you look for a LCSW rather than a psychologist--this is not a mental illness so much as underdeveloped life skills and distorted thinking, and LCSWs can be great for that kind of thing. (They're also great for mental illness.)
posted by hydropsyche at 4:53 AM on February 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

There is an ask directly related to this question and the emotional labor thread that had a lot of really helpful answers. Maybe someone else has it favorited?
posted by rockindata at 5:00 AM on February 22, 2016

There's some information missing here - like, do you realize when you're doing this, or does your partner have to tell you? Does she tell you at the time, in the moment, or does she tell you later when it's too late? Have you talked to her about this and expressed your desire to improve and change?

Because, although I agree that this is at least partly the result of The Patriarchy, that doesn't necessarily matter all that much to your partner. You don't have the opportunity to fix this for All Womankind - but you could possibly to fix your relationship with this one woman who you love.

So, #1, LISTEN TO HER. There is a tendency for women to be culturally programmed to backpedal about their own needs. Speaking as a woman who tends to do this, even when I'm doing this I do still say things (gentle protests, soft requests) that express my needs, I just don't say it as loud as I would like to. Try to listen for these soft requests.

#2, when you notice you're doing/have done something like this, acknowledge it, apologize, and ask for help next time. Ask your partner to let you know when you're being selfish, and (this is important!) acknowledge that asking her to let you know is a request for yet more emotional labor, but that you hope that it will pay off for both of you in the end. Also the apologizing will get old for both of you, and hopefully will encourage you to do fewer things you need to apologize for.

#3, try and cultivate another little voice in your head to go along with your "it's ok to take" voice, one that says "what have I done for her (or others) lately?"
posted by mskyle at 5:24 AM on February 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

How do you know this is a problem? Is she actually telling you, "boyfriend, you are not there for me when I need you" or are you just chastising yourself for needing me-time when life starts to get stressful? It is not abusive to "take" from close relationships when you are struggling yourself – this is the reason why people engage in intimate relationships in the first place, with the assumption that the other person can ask the same of you. Maybe I'm a dissenting voice here but I don't think it's realistic to be the strong politically enlightened supportive partner all the time. You are human and flawed and you will inevitably slip into selfish behaviors sometimes and it is only natural to want to focus on yourself if you feel you're struggling.

So an obvious solution to this is to ask your girlfriend to communicate when you're being careless. Right now this is sort of an abstract problem, where you are kind of guessing what she wants from you and aren't talking with her much. Just like you can "take" from the relationship when you need to, it's on her to "take" back when she's hurting and you are not available. If your expectation is that you should be able to never do anything hurtful and always be available and that your relationship should not require fine tuning along the way, I do not think you have realistic expectations.

Basically, plan to fail. Have a good communication line running between you two so that when things go wrong you can talk it out and make an appropriate change. I really don't think it matters if you're having trouble with your relationship because of some a priori cultural conditioning or because you are just a forgetful or careless human sometimes. The solution in all cases is just to work it out with your partner.

Also, apologizing is important.
posted by deathpanels at 6:05 AM on February 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Found the relevant ask: Emotional Labor Checklist/Self-Assessment
posted by rockindata at 6:14 AM on February 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

Your examples are pretty clear on what you did, but not on how she responded to the things that you did.

When you are doing these things, for which you are judging yourself, does she call you out about them? (either during the situation itself or after the fact)

If she does object to what you're doing, how do you respond to that?

What I'm reading from your examples is that you do these things, and then after the fact, you judge them to have been bad (for your girlfriend and/or for your relationship), but I don't get a sense of her response.

An example: I casually made some large demands on her time when she was preparing for an important job interview. Somehow it just didn't occur to me that her time was as valuable as mine.

Intimate partners make large demands on each other all the time - it's part and parcel of such a relationship. If one partner can't deliver at a given time (or if it would cause potential hardship), healthy boundaries compel that partner to raise an objection. If you know that she's got weak boundaries and will prioritize your needs over her own, then it's healthy for you to (1) create a habit to check in with her before making such demands (2) coach her to develop healthy boundaries ("Yes, it's OK for you to say no if you're too busy!").

Another: I ignored her all day because I was busy with something, even though it was time we would normally spend together. The things I would usually do, like checking in with her, making some sort of plan for the day or even letting her know I needed some time to myself so she should just do her own thing, I just sort of forgot to do. And she was left hanging, waiting around for me, and it didn't occur to me that my actions affected how she planned her day; it was like she had ceased to exist for me.

I'm guessing from this example that you don't live together, because if you did, then she'd be right there and "unignorable". Again there are some missing details that matter: did she reach out (text, call) and you ignored her because you were busy and "in the zone"? Did she just expect you to reach out to her because that was the usual pattern? Did she get upset after the fact? All of these details factor into whether you were being insensitive or considerate in the context of your own relationship.

And one more: I used her to help me work through my emotions countless times; I made it her job to get me to a place of emotional equilibrium so that we could do real togetherness; but I rarely gave the same energy back to her.

In this case, does she ask you to help her with emotional work and you reject her? Do you offer such help to her and she says she doesn't need it? Asymmetry in the "emotional supportiveness" of a relationship isn't automatically evidence of a problem - it could be that when she helped you, she was in a highly resourceful place and you were not.

What stands in the way of you "giving the same energy back to her" as you put it?
posted by theorique at 6:16 AM on February 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One of the frustrating things about unlearning norms and changing ingrained behaviour is that it takes a lot of practice and self-awareness. It sounds like you're at the point where you're noticing behaviour you don't like in yourself but only after you do it, which makes you feel bad, but doesn't really help you stop doing it. This is a frustrating step in what can be a really long process.

Here's what I would do: write out the behaviours you want to stop doing and next to them, come up with alternative behaviours that you feel are closer to what you want to be doing (ie. "I don't let my gf know when I am busy on a usual date night" -> "at lunch, I will evaluate how busy my day is and check in with gf if it is a date night"). Be as concrete as possible in your alternative behaviours so that you will remember them. Then practice doing them.

Guilt is a terrible motivator so try to let go of it as much as you can (which I think is partly why people are saying to reframe this from internalized sexism to general selfishness - it's easier to grapple with selfishness because there's less overwhelming guilt). Tweak your alternative behaviours until you find something that works for both you and your partner (so you'll need to have an actual conversation about "hey I do X and I think it is really unfair to you, my plan is to do Y instead, what do you think? is there something you'd prefer?"). You can also ask your partner to be more direct with you when you're exhibiting one of your "problem behaviours" as a way of helping you notice when you are doing them but you need to figure out some kind of internal barometer for it too (ex: I find that when I am being selfish, it comes with a certain set of emotions, so I sometimes am able to go "wow I feel this mix of [adrenaline and stubbornness] right now which means I should make sure I'm not stepping on anyone to get what I want").

You are developing a new skill. It takes time. Sometimes you can't just have someone coach you through it, you need to do the whole work of it yourself, and it's hard. It's still worth doing. Keep at it.
posted by buteo at 6:40 AM on February 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

My guess is that viewing it as a huge insoluble problem is overwhelming you, and that if you break it down into discrete bits as you would with a different sort of challenge, and then use the same sorts of personal resources and techniques to overcome those blocks, you would begin to feel more confident about your ability to succeed, and see more concrete improvement.

This rings very true to me. As much as I think the sexism framework MAY help you with this, it may also be that it turns it into such a big thing that it seems or feels overwhelming. The trap with emotional labor sorts of imbalances is that you can spend so much time inside your own head trying to manage these things that it continues to be all about you you you.

So I think the biggest focus is on responsiveness. When you get feedback (which I assume is what is happening here and your partner is not just dumping this stuff on you without being active and involved herself) how to you incorporate it and how much are you able to listen and respond without turning it into something about you?

I date a guy who is a wonderful caring individual but he also grew up in a house where his mom sort of doted on him and it's not a natural thing for him to... serve others unless he is specifically told to. I grew up feeling like I had to serve others (my dad, my narcissistic mom) and as a result we fall into bad patterns. A few things helped us.

1. me being responsive at the time that he is asking something a little over the line and we correct at the time before I am mad/frustrated/annoyed
2. him "checking in" more when there is not a thing going on to see if things seem stable.ok.fair to me
3. me being very clear about my needs and desires and not expecting him to read my damned mind. As much as there's some romantic ideal that a partner should "just know" we've gotten better results by ignoring that particular fiction as not relevant to us.
4. Humor, our catch phrase is "I don't work for you" which might not work for other people but for us it's an amusing reset button that says "Hey you know that thing we talked about... this is that thing coming up again" and it helps us correct before things get too far.

And, of course, therapy has been helpful, for me in managing my own anxiety and for him in examining his feelings of shame surrounding other life issues that don't have much to do with me but which manifest in our relationship. And the back and forth interplay there was a hard habit to snap out of because it was easy for me when *I* wasn't being mindful to struggle with my own feelings on control by playing off of his own feelings of inadequacy (not on purpose, but you see patterns when you look back from a healthier place)

So really, being aware is a big part of it. Figuring out ways you can both contribute to better interactions between the two of you, whether borne from sexism or something else, is challenging but accomplishable if you're both on board. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 6:51 AM on February 22, 2016 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for the responses so far, this is incredibly helpful.

Because there are have been a few questions I will give a bit more info. The long-standing pattern in our relationship is that I take far far more than I give. It has been way unbalanced for a very long time -- basically approaching 0% / 100% for close to two years, except barely in the last month or so when I have finally started pulling my weight. And there were always reasons why it was this way -- I was exhausted from work, exhausted from grad school, too overwhelmed with this or that -- but these excuses just meant nothing changed. And we're at the end of that road now.

The reason I've adopted sexism as a framing is because this structure -- man takes, woman gives -- is normalized in our society and feeding into both mine and her notions of acceptable patterns of behaviour, making me feel entitled to take, making her feel obliged to give, and thus validating the unbalanced structure. Directly challenging the underlying sexism has been a critical step in recognizing and breaking the pattern to date. With that said, I appreciate the advice not to fixate on it necessarily, and focus on behavioural change in how I respond to impulses that may arise through internal sexism, rather than the internal sexism itself - seems like a much more viable way forward. It seems like one can tackle this from both ends, and use different tools for each.

More details:
do you realize when you're doing this, or does your partner have to tell you?

Generally I don't realize. She's had to tell me, pretty much every time.

In this case, does she ask you to help her with emotional work and you reject her? Do you offer such help to her and she says she doesn't need it?

No and no. I never even offered, for a long long time. She learned not to ask after a while. Now she feels more empowered and has started asserting her needs again. But she is asking me, reasonably I think, to lift my share of the burden on my own, rather than putting it back on her to ask. I never have to ask her to support me. She just does it. Why should she have to ask me to support her? I think she shouldn't. And we could say that how else am I going to learn unless she teaches me, but... we've been trying this and it hasn't been enough.

Does she tell you at the time, in the moment, or does she tell you later when it's too late?

She's tried both approaches, with varying degrees of success. However, she's at a point now where she's tired of being responsible for telling me when I'm not meeting her needs. We've communicated enough that I know what's expected of me. It's never something surprising and I don't feel it's anything unreasonable. It's basic stuff, like 'check in with me so we can make plans', 'listen and validate when I'm telling you something important', 'give me some openings to talk about my own stuff and support me', ''talk to me instead of sitting silently all evening', 'make eye contact and let me know you're there'... in other words 'don't be a lump', 'don't make me feel like i'm alone in the relationship'. You can disagree over whether these are reasonable but I think they are and I'm committed to meeting these needs.

Have you talked to her about this and expressed your desire to improve and change?

Yes, many times. However, talk is cheap, and desire has not been enough so far. The results aren't there in spite of my best intentions. Hence, this question.

when you notice you're doing/have done something like this, acknowledge it, apologize, and ask for help next time

This was our strategy for a while. It helped to a degree, but it never seemed to 'stick'. The problem with this is that by asking her to tell me when I am not meeting her needs, I'm making her responsible for monitoring and policing my behavior and in the end I end up offsourcing the emotional labor back to her again. It sounds innocuous enough on the surface but there is a really problematic core to this. It's like if, during sex, I told her 'tell me when I do something you don't like', instead of taking proactive responsibility for her well-being, something else we've already worked through. That model just doesn't work for us. She is too conditioned to roll over and I am too conditioned to take. This has to be coming from me; I need to take 100% responsibility for my behavior; I can't throw it back on her. I mean obviously I am going to apologize and acknolwedge it, but instead of asking for her help, I need to figure out what I can do so that I don't do it next time. The change has to come from me.

The practical approaches, checklists, structures, etc, look like the way forward for me. This is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for, thank you.
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:23 AM on February 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

You've gotten good answers, but I want to point out another reason why the internalized sexism framing is not ideal: What you're describing isn't internalized sexism.
posted by clavicle at 8:03 AM on February 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

You might also benefit from looking into mindfulness training in order to learn how to be more aware of what's going on in the moment and not on auto pilot.
posted by bleep at 8:17 AM on February 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

TBH you sound a lot more interested in explaining/excusing why your relationship got to this point than changing. You can come up with all sorts of broad theories or frameworks to explain why it's like this, why society is like this, why your upbringing contributes to this, etc. but none of that is actually going to help you be a more considerate person towards your partner. I'm imagining her reading this and rolling her eyes at the handwringing and passive language. Naming the problem isn't the same as fixing the problem, and focusing on that part might be doing more harm than good in your case.

You have a smartphone, yes? Then there is no "autopilot." You can set alerts for any task you need to do semi-regularly. This includes checking in with her emotionally. It includes making plans for date night. It includes housework. It includes blocking off two days on your calendar as "partner has an interview, DO NOT BOTHER HER." Inaction is a choice, and regular reminders of that might be helpful, or they might highlight that you simply are not willing to put in the necessary effort to keep this relationship healthy.
posted by almostmanda at 8:26 AM on February 22, 2016 [29 favorites]

I like taz's suggestion to treat this like a job performance issue, largely because I'm a little concerned with your focus on "autopilot" and on cultural conditioning making you be the way you are ... looking at it in a certain light, this framing strikes me as a way to shake your fist at society and bemoan a (genuinely shitty) state of affairs, while simultaneously absolving you of responsibility for the choices you're making. Instead of telling yourself that you go into autopilot when you are stressed, can you start thinking about the choices you are actively making?

I think it's the case that for anybody it's easier to be emotionally connected and generous when they're in a good emotional place, and it's harder when they're stressed out - but that doesn't mean you turn into some other creature with no control over your actions. You're not slipping into a childlike trance when you're stressed out - you're choosing to stop focusing on anybody but yourself.

Having read your comments in the "It's Not Worth It" thread on the blue, I get the feeling that you're doing a lot of self-recrimination about your emotional labor performance (or lack thereof). It's great that you're recognizing certain problems related to this, but I hope you will focus less on the flagellation and cultural conditioning, and more on what choices you continue to make. If this were happening at work, with professional colleagues, in a context where your job could be at stake, I suspect you'd have effective strategies for managing your behavior that didn't involve what essentially boils down to "I can't help it when I'm stressed" - use these strategies here. If that isn't the case and you truly are unable to choose more considerate actions, then therapy could be in order. One way or the other, though, I would really recommend that you excise concepts like "autopilot" from the situation here - telling yourself there are times when you can't help what you do is neither true nor useful.
posted by DingoMutt at 8:44 AM on February 22, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I question whether this is really "internalized sexism." I do this sometimes, and I'm a woman. I think it's human and normal, although maybe men might be socialized to allow themselves to do it more.

I think your way forward lies in humility, and gratitude, and watching out for ego inflation. Therapy can help, but you could also try reading some self-help and relationship books, like How to Be an Adult in Relationships, How to Be an Adult in Love, and How to Stay Sane.
posted by acridrabbit at 9:31 AM on February 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: A good book for creating, changing, and removing habits is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Habit change can help you focus on the micro-scale actions that give rise to macro-scale behaviors that you don't like.

An explanation of "internalized sexism" may be fine for an answer to the "why?" question, but I don't get the sense that the "why" matters as much as the "what". Suppose you're looking back from six months in the future, with a number of new, resourceful habits developed, a strengthened relationship with a happy girlfriend, and a feeling of relaxed control and agency in this area of your life. Does it really matter why you used to behave in a manner that you didn't like?
posted by theorique at 9:42 AM on February 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

Take the initiative to look up some couples therapists, call them and describe the problem you lay out here. Therapy for this will be worth the money unless you literally can't pay your bills if you go. Yes, therapy is expensive. Yes, paying for a professional "emotional laborer" is worth it.

Once you have done this, tell your girlfriend you would like a professional to help you work on this issue with her. Tell her if she doesn't want to go, that's OK, but you have done the first steps for her and are willing to make the appointment etc.

Showing that you are proactive about this problem will mean a ton to her, I think.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:59 AM on February 22, 2016

Lots of good big-picture advice here. I'd like to offer a small addition.

From what you've said, you act like the kind of partner you want to be when you're emotionally connected, present in the moment, and aware of both your partner's needs and your own ongoing internal processes; and when you're not as connected/present/aware, you backslide into the behaviours you're trying to change.

As you've noticed, staying mentally and emotionally present like that is difficult, but the good news is that it's a skill you can develop with practice. A lot of meditation techniques are great exercise for the mental "muscles" that let you drag your mind back on track when it starts drifting into autopilot.

Here's a super simple one: Sit somewhere quiet and comfortable. Close your eyes. Breathe normally through your nose. Try to focus all of your attention on the feeling of your breath moving in and out of your body. Your mind will drift to other things, because your breath is boring. That's normal and okay, and also the point: when you notice it drifting, don't get mad at yourself or feel discouraged, just bring your attention back to your breath. Do this for 10 minutes a day, and your ability to stay focused and present will slowly but surely improve.
posted by Zozo at 10:15 AM on February 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here's what I'd try. You probably wake up to an alarm, maybe on your cell phone, right? Try making it a habit every single morning when that alarm goes off to spend five minutes thinking about your girlfriend's plans for the day and needs. Maybe come up with a small checklist and run through it.

1. What does she have planned at work and after work today?
2. What kind of mood was she in yesterday?
3. What can I do to help?

Even something as simple as those two questions could really make a big difference, since it sounds like you're doing ok with making the connections of "girlfriend is in a shitty mood, I should be more caring," you're just having trouble reminding yourself to think about what kind of mood she's in and what's going on in her life. Making it a daily habit to step into her shoes for a few minutes (while you shower to brush your teeth) might make a big difference.
posted by MsMolly at 10:24 AM on February 22, 2016 [15 favorites]

Best answer: I am a sort of behaviorist when it comes to these things. I think the way to combat your internalized sexism, or whatever is causing you to occasionally be an inconsiderate partner, is to change your habits. Actually, I don't really know if this will affect the you deep inside and under all that skin and muscle and whatnot, but that won't really matter, because you will be behaving like someone who is considerate and attentive, regardless of who you really are.

Habit-building is difficult, especially when you are trying to replace bad habits. Here is what I do, sometimes with a lot of success, sometimes with a lot of struggle, but it tends to help a lot.

Firstly, identify real things that you can do instead of what you're doing now. Dinner together? Leaving little, encouraging notes? Setting aside a half hour every day to check in?

It's important that these be physical actions, things you can actually do. You can't make yourself not dominate a conversation. What you can do is say, when I am in a conversation, I will commit to asking 10 questions, and giving, I don't know, three minutes in which I will not interrupt the answer, unless to ask a follow-up question.

Make your list, Make it big. Challenge yourself. Make sure that everything on it is an actual action that you can do, and then put a number next to it. That's the number of times you are going to do this thing. And if you're trying to create a new habit, it has to be a pretty big number. It takes at least a month to develop a new habit if you do it every single day. Longer if it is replacing a bad habit, because you always want to just bounce back to the other habit.

Check your list often. Keep track of how many times you have done the thing you set out to do. Don't feel bad if you have to revise your list. Don't feel bad if you fail to accomplish every single thing on your list. But don't let yourself off the hook easily either.

After a few months of this, a lot of these things should have become habits, and you can go back to the list and ask what you might add, what has proved not to be especially helpful. There's obviously something about you that your partner likes about you -- and the fact that you are sensitive to when you're not holding up your end is a good quality as well. Many men never even notice, or don't care.

So everything you accomplish on this list is just going to make you that much a better partner. I know it seems like a weird and robotic way to do things, After a while, I just decided I was a weird robot and this was how it had to happen for me. I've changed a lot of my bad habits into good ones this way, and I still revisit my lists. There is still a lot I can be better at, and there are good habits I developed that I let slip and need to get back to, but, in the whole, this approach has made a huge difference in my life.
posted by maxsparber at 11:17 AM on February 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't know. I'd actually counsel you to break up with your girlfriend and do some serious work on yourself, by going to therapy and figuring out some of this stuff. You don't sound like you're ready to give to another person in the way that a healthy relationship requires. This isn't really about sexism; it's about selfishness, as described more eloquently by other posters above.

If you're not willing to break up, you should probably go to therapy yourself. And the book How to be an Adult in Relationships is stellar, even with that snarky title, so get a copy and read it, make notes, think about it, try to figure out ways to practice what is in the book with your girlfriend. Oh, and don't push this off on your girlfriend by telling her about how you've asked Metafilter, gotten a book, started therapy, etc. "Asking for cookies" because you're trying isn't going to do you any favors. It's all about what you actually do, not about why you do what you do or how hard you're trying to change it.

I had a boyfriend who tried to try until his face was blue, and he really thought that trying to try should have been enough for me. No - he still treated me poorly, and I still left him. It's all about the actions. "Actions speak louder than words" is not just a cliche. I really like the idea of having a list of things you consider every morning when you wake up. To me, that is reflexive: I automatically wonder what my boyfriend is up to, how his day is going to be, what he might need from me, etc. It's OK if it's not automatic for you. I know for a fact that my boyfriend has, in the past, used automated reminders on his phone to ask me how I am (this was especially true when we started dating long-distance). That is absolutely great! Try setting up automatic reminders if you need to. There's no shame in outsourcing some of this labor to technology if it helps you. Just don't outsource it to other people (like your girlfriend).

Best of luck to you.
posted by sockermom at 11:30 AM on February 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

One thing that might help: Sit her down and have a little talk with her and explicitly tell her that when you do these sorts of things, you expect her to NOT sit around waiting on your sorry ass. You didn't call? After 20 minutes, she needs to go make new plans and not act like you are her lord and master.

I did this with my oldest son when he turned 18 and it really made a huge positive difference. Since this is a culturally entrenched thing, women are often scared to stand up for themselves and won't give much push back unless they are so fed up they are willing to lose their man over it. And that makes it hard to break the pattern, because it isn't just what you do that creates it. It is what both of you do.

So explicitly tell her that when you deep something like this, you aren't owed some kind loyalty or some shit and she should nope the fuck out of behaviors like waiting by the damn phone.

And the first time she does stand up for herself in this way, praise her for it and thank her for helping you overcome this problem. Reassure her that you genuinely approve and her standing up for herself will not cost her your love.

You will both be happier, healthier people if you actively encourage her to stop behaving like your possession or servant.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 12:13 PM on February 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ah... Based on what you added, sounds like what you've got is a mismatch that needs a lot of luck, and most of all a lot of love, none of which you can control through good intentions and good advice alone.

That is very basic stuff you're talking about, if she needs to tell you to even make eye contact and talk to her at all all. Checklists or reminders won't help you with that level of emotional distance.

Cutting it down to basics, could it be you just don't feel it enough?

Imagine for a moment that she talked to a close friend of hers about the situation, describing all you described here, and that she asked you to not make her "feel alone in the relationship" and the problem has been going on for a while and it's all still unchanged, "a long, sad pattern", to the point she stopped asking. What do you think the friend would say to her?
posted by bitteschoen at 12:25 PM on February 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I think in cases like this, identifying your problem as an instance of some huge infrangible political problem is actually a tactic for not accepting responsibility and changing your behavior. It's like you're trying to reframe this in terms of some abstract man and some abstract woman. Whether or not this is an instance of gender power imbalance or whatever you want to call it, your relationship is in dire straights because of your behavior. You are not all men, you are just one dude, so what kind of dude do you want to be? If thinking in terms of gender relations help you motivate yourself to be a better partner then sure, run with that, but do not pretend that you have inherited some Original Sin of male jackassery. You have to own that shit.
posted by deathpanels at 1:03 PM on February 22, 2016 [8 favorites]

Best answer: The functional problem here is created by your inability to observe your own behavior in real time, so I would like to suggest a simple process that has nothing to do with motivation (your internalized sexism, or your desire to be a better partner) and everything to do with changing your awareness and control of your own behavior.

A therapist taught me these steps a couple of decades ago:

1) Identifying the behavior you want to change.
2) Noticing that you have repeated this behavior after the fact.
3) Noticing as you are doing it, but you are unable to stop doing it until it's too late.
4) Noticing as you are doing it and stopping the behavior midstream.
5) Realizing you are about to engage in the behavior and stopping before you do.
6) Finally changing the behavior.

Moving through this process involves paying attention to your behavior in general, not just when the unwanted behavior occurs. Inserting small, scheduled meditative moments of self examination into your day is very effective. I suggest working up a few succinct questions that you routinely ask yourself several times a day, every day, like an internal call and response mantra — a brief meditative practice. If you need to, set up reminders on your phone — it doesn't have to take more than about 5 minutes. You already know those questions; you've asked them here already.

You've got steps 1 & 2 down already, so you're on the path. This process works if you work it.
posted by ljshapiro at 1:12 PM on February 22, 2016 [9 favorites]

Another possibility which may or may not be relevant: are you just not that into her? When I'm really into someone, their wants/ needs become integrated with my own in such a way that it's pretty much impossible for me to forget about them. Consideration to them comes naturally. I know this isn't how it works for everyone (or at least I try to tell myself that to avoid being deeply hurt by less-than-attentive partners!) but it's worth considering.
posted by metasarah at 4:51 PM on February 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

This isn't about sexism; this is about consideration for your partner. You're trying to find the cause; you need to be focused on the treatment. Either she's important to you or not. Identify that, and deal with it accordingly.
posted by RainyJay at 6:06 PM on February 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

I like MsMolly's suggestion of doing a mental check in with your partner daily. Also, using technology to remind you to do things.

Other suggestions:

- Everytime you need to make a decision, take you partner's view into account. Good partners do this automatically, but selfish people don't. So don't buy just the breakfast cereal you want, buy the stuff she wants too. And message her to see if there's anything else she needs. You make hundreds of decisions everyday, and it is hard and exhausting to constantly consider the wants of others too, but try to build the habit.
- Find out how she feels loved, and do it. Set a reminder on your phone if necessary. Do a quick read of the five love languages and ask her which one she is. For example, my mother melts into a puddle of pleased goo when someone gives her flowers. My dad still finds this odd. Sigh. Just buy the woman some flowers already.
- Put her important events on your calendar. Add reminders.
- Learn to value her happiness. If you give her flowers (or whatever), revel in her pleased reaction.
- Thank her for the work she does. She probably doesn't want you to be completely independent, she wants to be part of a team. So when she does stuff for you, thank her, and then do stuff for her.
posted by kjs4 at 6:06 PM on February 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

This has been covered but in case another formulation helps:
1) Pay attention to your partner, just listen to her.
2) Before you express a need or demand, ask yourself, "what does Jen need right now?" and "is this a good time to ask for this?" If you can anticipate this because you did 1), awesome. If you don't know, ask.
3) How can you make life a little easier and better for her? What makes her feel good? (See 1) )

Like, what are her face and body language telling you, at any given moment? What do you know about her priorities, needs, comforts? Why is she stressed on Tuesdays? Why is she not around Saturday mornings? What was that thing she was talking about doing next month? How does she like her eggs and coffee? When is she most relaxed and happy?

Answers can be obtained via observation, investment, attunement. Really, it's just a) paying attention and b) prioritizing her needs.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:55 PM on February 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Hey OP, for one, I think you're being pretty amazingly self-aware and surprisingly un-defensive about where you've dropped the ball here — so well done! That's at least half the battle and I think you deserve some praise for that!

Second, I think this kind of thing is common enough but rarely called out in our society, and I do think a huge part of these imbalances ARE result of gender dynamics. I think your frame of sexism is not only valid but seems to be useful for you, especially if it helps you to understand what is happening.

But I wanted to answer your question with some practical tips that have helped me in relationships. There's a good book called, "Wired for Love" that a therapist recommended to me and it was hugely eye opening in understanding different models for how people "attach" (and feel cared for, validated and like a loved part of a couple.) You will likely read some examples in that book of people who are more solitary and people who want more connection, and you may be able to find some good examples of little things that will help your girlfriend feel more connected and loved. The whole book is worth a read, but in particular I think you'll find value in some of the ritualized suggestions about "launchings and landings."

Launches are when you launch one partner out of the couple into the world. (Separating to go to work in the morning, dropping someone at the airport for a trip, parting in some fashion.)

Landings are how you reconnect as a couple when you reunite (a greeting at the door, a regular conversation)

Launchings and landings are regular parts of the day where you build a new habit of connection. Some examples:
 — You always eat breakfast together before leaving for work.
— You walk your partner to the bus stop every day before saying goodbye.
— You make a point to always hug hello when one partner comes home.
— When you see each other you always ask, "how was your day?" and spend a few minutes genuinely listening.
— You have a regular goodnight routine, where you hang out in bed together and talk or watch a favorite show.

These little connection rituals are the stuff that a relationship is made of. And the good news is, you can engineer them and enforce them in your own routines. Good luck!
posted by amoeba at 9:12 PM on February 22, 2016 [9 favorites]

some technique to follow

Stop thinking about yourself and stop talking about yourself. Seriously. This question is all about you. You're writing about yourself, you're reading about yourself, you're concerned about what society has done to you(!!), and you're devoting a lot of time to asking hard questions of yourself...because you don't know why you're not more attentive to her. Even when you're talking about time you spend with her you are completely absorbed in how you're showing up.

The best way to meet her needs is to find out from her what they are. The best way to listen to her is to stop talking. If you're talking, the best way to stop is to end a sentence with a question mark. "What can I do for you?" is a great one. Then do it. You're spending a lot of time trying to figure out what your problem is and after reading this I think the problem is that you're spending a lot of time trying to figure out what your problem is.
posted by good lorneing at 9:44 PM on February 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I appreciate all the answers, and particularly the ones who have (accurately) called me out on avoidance. Because of all this advice I had a realization about how the present situation is being driven by some of my already known pathologies. In particular, perfectionism and anxiety. I somehow have been feeling "unworthy", like I have to perfect myself if I have any chance of making this work; I must guarantee I do everything right. Obviously though if I fixate on me and what I'm doing instead of on my partner this whole approach is doomed.

I do want to say that when my mental health is in a good state I have no trouble giving, listening, setting myself aside, being a loving partner, and all the other things it has been suggested I should be doing. And it all does flow quite naturally. The problem I think is mainly that my mental health is fragile and I struggle to function on bad days. The good habits go out the window; I forget to do them; they stop coming naturally. Which means they aren't "habits" yet.

But this is why it's so helpful to get all these practical life tips. The things about checklists, forming good habits, reminders, etc -- these are adult life skills I simply never learned. How to build good habits and gain control over your behavior. It all sounds so obvious, as if I wasn't already doing these things I must not want to. And I suppose at some level I have been resisting doing the hard work, but today I do want to, and really I just didn't know how, or I had blind spots and didn't see that I had these choices, as historically I have usually seen my only choices as being 'be perfect or go away'. Anyway thank you, you've all given me a lot of tools and a lot of resources and this is what I need to take a step forward.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:16 AM on February 23, 2016 [7 favorites]

One checklist I haven't seen mentioned that might be helpful if you start to feel overwhelmed/go on autopilot: HALT.

Feeling that autopilot come on or notice you're in it? Stop (halt) whatever you are doing and ask yourself if any of these apply. If they do, fix it yourself. Hungry? Get a snack. Angry? Solve the frustration; walk away; go for a run, etc. Lonely? Reach out to a friend/family. Tired? Take a nap, drink some coffee, plan on an earlier bed time, whatever you need to do.

I also second taking a look at love languages. I found it both doofy and relevatory in my relationship. I didn't read the book--just learning these categories and being able to talk to one another about them made a tremendous difference. If you think it's useful, ask your girlfriend to take the quiz too and talk about the results.

Good luck!
posted by purple_bird at 11:10 AM on February 23, 2016

I do want to say that when my mental health is in a good state I have no trouble giving, listening, setting myself aside, being a loving partner, and all the other things it has been suggested I should be doing. And it all does flow quite naturally. The problem I think is mainly that my mental health is fragile and I struggle to function on bad days. The good habits go out the window; I forget to do them; they stop coming naturally. Which means they aren't "habits" yet.

This is very good - it means that you can recognize a "good outcome". That is, you know when you're behaving as a supportive "good partner" as you want and intend to do.

But this is why it's so helpful to get all these practical life tips. The things about checklists, forming good habits, reminders, etc -- these are adult life skills I simply never learned. How to build good habits and gain control over your behavior.

Because you already know what your intended outcome looks like, you're absolutely right - the main effort that you will be making is not about identifying the problem (you've already done a good job of that) but in the "nuts and bolts" of habit forming and habit practice.

Best of luck!
posted by theorique at 11:13 AM on February 24, 2016

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