How to deal with emotional labor inequity in relationships with males?
March 19, 2017 6:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm a straight middle-aged female who is experiencing a lot of issues with both romantic relationships and platonic male friends who have unvoiced expectations that I should perform nearly all of the emotional labor in our relationships.

I'm really frustrated with repeatedly being in relationships where I am expected to do pretty close to all of the emotional labor. When the time comes where I would like to be actively listened to and supported, it almost never happens, even when I explicitly ask for it.

This is an issue I've had for many years, actually, but I've just lately identified that it's almost exclusively with men, and that it's A Thing that many women deal with, and that it has its own language with which to talk about it.

I've become very angry about the fact that I've done soooooo much more emotional labor for others (especially men) than I have had done for me. I've gone from expressing my needs in softer terms, to expressing the anger that I have about not feeling that my male partners or friends will reciprocate emotionally.

In most cases, that actually gets their attention, but they go from minimizing and breezing right by my issues to objecting to my anger. They focus on my anger itself, as though it arose from nothing, rather than addressing the actual issues I've so explictly brought up. I've recently identified that what I'm experiencing there is tone policing.

These are intelligent men, every one. Should they care to aim their intelligence towards understanding this issue, they could get it and change their behavior.

I just possibly lost my friendship with an ex-boyfriend over this. Last night I spoke with him on the phone, and mentioned some of my personal issues. He at one point said I should talk to a therapist about it. The issues I was bringing up were not issues that at all indicate that I need mental health help, they are common relational issues that most women would take in stride. It came off as being very dismissive, not that he was so concerned about me that he thought I needed professional help, but that he just wanted to pawn me off so he didn't have to bother.

This is a person for whom I have performed a METRIC TON of emotional labor, including active listening (about the same things endlessly), career support and cheerleading. This is also a person who claims to love me, care about me, etc. The fact that he won't demonstrate it in the ways I've asked for, that are totally within his ability to do, makes me want to strangle him. Yes, I'm angry at this point, but I feel driven to it. I just can't take the unfairness anymore.

I took a stand and emailed him today that I was still upset about his suggestion to see a shrink and that he hadn't really listened to me. Predictably at this point to me, he focused on my anger and said he "wouldn't talk to me when I was this way". Well, shit, he doesn't talk to me when I'm not "this way" either! It's just another excuse, trying to make it look like I'm a harpy for being upset.

This is just one example, but this same pattern has happened with more than a few friendships and relationships. Only one person ever reacted to my request to rethink their behavior; a platonic male friend I've known for a quarter century actually listened when I pointed out that he habitually monopolized our conversations. He has tried, with some success, to do better. I didn't feel penalized for bringing up the issue in the first place.

No other attempts of mine to even be heard about this kind of issue, let alone improve it, have worked.

My questions:

* Is there some way to present this issue that is emphatic enough that they actually pay attention, but not so emphatic that they just skip right over it to focus on my anger?

* Are there some types of men that don't do this shit? How/where do I find them? Identify them?

* How do you not go insane when dealing with this issue over nand over and over and over and over?

I generally like men, I work with a lot of men, and I'm only sexually attracted to men. So "just don't deal with men" isn't going to work for me, although I am effing really tempted sometimes!
posted by nirblegee to Human Relations (23 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Male perspective: I wasn't aware that this was even a thing until I read the Mefi thread. My advice (mansplaining incoming) would be to email the guilty party that thread, so you don't have to spend even more emotional labor just explaining what emotional labor is. If they ignore it, maybe that's the sign to minimize/eliminate contact with them.
posted by R.F.Simpson at 6:17 PM on March 19 [21 favorites]

I feel this. I recently decided to end a friendship with a close male friend because of the way he reacted when I tried to bring up the same issue (he tried to blame me for my emotions, showed absolutely no empathy etc).

It was hard and painful as a breakup would be, but ultimately I feel happier, relieved, because of it. Sometimes the effort of teaching someone else how to respond just isn't worth it. In regards to questions 2 and 3: I have other great male friends who don't have this problem. I honestly don't know what makes someone respond one way or the other, but I'm learning to recognize signs. It's mostly the willingness to listen, the ability to place someone else's emotions over their need to be right. It's a tough one, but it's possible.

Knowing that sometimes it *can* be resolved, and that despite a hard conversation, sometimes the friendship ends up being stronger, gives me the ability to go on. Ultimately, I choose who I do and do not spend emotional labor on in my life, and if someone's not able to hold up their end of the bargain, maybe it's simply time to say goodbye.
posted by lightgray at 6:27 PM on March 19 [5 favorites]

My feeling is that while the emotional labor concept is a useful construct for understanding the larger world, the only time it's super useful when in active conversation with someone is when you are talking with a partner or someone you have a strong reciprocal relationship with. So it's fine to tell a partner "You're not supporting me and I feel you're making me do the work here" but it's less okay to talk to a casual friend this way because that's sort of more like partner-talk.

So, to me, it sounds like you have one of those "We're not totally broken up" relationships with your ex where you feel that he should be responsive to your emotional needs (and you've done this for him in the past) and he ... maybe doesn't? And he's saying it in a sort of ungreat way but the message he's sending is clear: he's not there for you in this way. Which is sort of an emotional labor thing but also sort of just a thing friends do, make decisions about how much they want to deal with someone else's emotional concerns.

Is there some way to present this issue that is emphatic enough that they actually pay attention, but not so emphatic that they just skip right over it to focus on my anger?

Sure. You can say "I'm really upset about this and something needs to change" without acting angrily.

And it may also be, and I've mentioned this in other threads before, that you're doing emotional labor that ... they don't care about. I mean they'll take advantage of it (active listening, etc) but they don't treat it like the friend-bond-strengthening thing that you do and you may be treating it like it's an investment in the relationship and they don't see it that way.

Women do more emotional labor than men in most cases, that is true. Often in our generation men are not always aware of this and need to sort of have it explained to them but they also have to care about that inequality as something that matters. And there are men who do, and there are men who don't. I'm sorry you've had a string of men who don't but there are plenty of men who do, but there may be bad patterns being set up that you're both getting stuck in and your "Oh shit not AGAIN" frustration at the collection of situations you're in is going to make dealing with the ups and downs of any one situation somewhat challenging.
posted by jessamyn at 6:31 PM on March 19 [65 favorites]

So, I was at this point awhile ago, about 1.5 years ago I felt this very keenly, after The Thread came out and I read it and it gave voice to all these feelings I was having, routinely, about my relationships with others both romantic and non. I have actually now left all of those people, the ones who made me do all the emotional labor, because they were not good friends. Now, I am really only friends with people who know what emotional labor is and how to do it. I also only date men who know what emotional labor is.

I suss this out by explicitly mentioning it on the first or second date, or in the first substantive conversation I have with a potential friend, and I see what their reaction is. I find a time and place in the discussion where it is not strange to bring it up, I bring it up, and then see what happens. People who know what it is and discuss it without rancor, well, maybe I can get close to them. This is only for people with whom I want to get very close with, mind: with acquaintance who might become friends, I observe, pay attention to what labor they ask me to do when, and when the relationship seems like it's getting into the "we do emotional labor for each other" territory I mention it and see what they think of the concept. If there is any hint that the person thinks it is bullshit, or "not real," or that it is "too much work" or whatever, I bail. I'm done with the teaching phase of my life; I'm done doing that hard work.

And now, I have a boyfriend who clearly knows what it is because we discussed it on the first date and it was very obvious that he was well-versed in the subject, my real friends are all emotional labor experts, and yes: my social network is smaller, but it is of so much higher quality.
posted by sockermom at 6:36 PM on March 19 [60 favorites]

I have actually now left all of those people, the ones who made me do all the emotional labor, because they were not good friends.

Yes, this. I think of those people as not actually being ready for reciprocal relationships, of any kind. You don't have to be in relationships with them. Which is good, because IME people don't learn how to do this on a time scale that's practical for um anything other than someone you're already partnered to and seriously, seriously invested in. And even then...

Honestly, life is way better without those sorts of unequal relationships in your life. You don't realize how heavy the weight is until you put it down.
posted by schadenfrau at 7:02 PM on March 19 [9 favorites]

Before I was aware of the concept of emotional labor (Thanks, Ask MetaFilter!) I would say to the offender, "shut up when I'm talking!"

Now that I'm aware, I say "shut up when I"m talking!"
posted by BostonTerrier at 7:13 PM on March 19 [20 favorites]

you're doing emotional labor that ... they don't care about.

Strongly seconded. When there's an imbalance between how valuable you find the act of listening/supportiveness/seeking to understand someone else's internal landscape and how valuable someone else finds it to do the same, you can only control the amount of labor you expend.

Let the lack of reciprocity be a red flag for you, but not an automatic signal to do additional explaining.

A clear evaluation of the scope of the discrepancy is a first step toward creating functional and appropriate boundaries. This doesn't rule out that those boundaries may change as a relationship develops, but it may help to re-frame your expectations going into it.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:28 PM on March 19 [3 favorites]

Treat his problems like he treats yours. Guys don't like it when you tell them that the way they're acting is unfair but they sure notice the unfairness when it happens to them. That usually gets my boyfriend's attention.
posted by irisclara at 7:47 PM on March 19 [20 favorites]

I kind of 2nd Jessamyn's 'not so enthusiastic about the concept being all there is" take. As a guy, I learned a lot from The Thread, don't think I didn't. I'm trying to put into practice every day being more aware of the non-obvious work and who does it. Is there something I expect my partner to do? Why? I'm very conscious (I think) of listening to and supporting my partner.

Still, I have a handful of times, run into an expectation impasse: but I didn't ask for that, you're only imagining I expect it. I functioned just fine on my own; I don't actually expect much. You're handling all the communication with my family? Turns out, for decades my communication style with my family has been finely tuned to what we all can live with. You've changed that, messed up their expectations for what I'm (we're) willing to do, and now you're mad at me about it? I thought you genuinely liked them and wanted to communicate with them, or I'd have stopped you. Don't do it on my account. Or the little things, getting my coffee ready in the morning, putting my keys where I can see them... I admit that's nice. I do it for you when I think of it, and I'm trying to think of it more. Just because you like it, and making you happy makes me happy. But it's not my "love language" like it is yours, and if the imbalance is just going to make you mad, then don't do it. I don't want to feel like there's scorekeeping going on, I don't want to feel guilty every time you do me a favor un-asked, I don't want to be constantly disappointing my partner. Maybe we just aren't a great fit, right now. Which could be true.

I guess it's the comparative aspect that gets me. If my partner wants to be listened to more, then of course I want to do that. Maybe it's my own quirk, but casting it as "but I do way more than you" is not helpful.

I'm making it sound worse than it is; it's really just a hint of a feeling once in a while. I'm trying to be a better person, but I don't like feeling like shit about it in the meantime. I can imagine not taking your open anger as well as I should, even though it's understandable. I don't know if it would work for you, but "I need a thing today, can you do it for me?" works really well on me. I made her happy! I'd like to do that again! On the other hand, "I wish you were more... x (generally)" kind of helps in the long run, but stings, even if deserved.

Which, here I am telling you how to preserve my precious feelings (more emotional labor), but you asked what might work.
posted by ctmf at 8:10 PM on March 19 [37 favorites]

I think it's very challenging to rewrite expectations in an already-established friendship unless it is very close indeed. Closer than a woman is generally likely to have with a heterosexual man not related to her.

Mostly, you just have to pick better-quality men going forward. A good rule of thumb is to not offer a level of labor to a man that hasn't already been offered to you.
posted by praemunire at 8:13 PM on March 19 [14 favorites]

The second time a guy starts to tell you a long sad story about his feelings, cut in at the beginning and say, look, Man, I value our friendship but I need some evidence that I'm not the only one who does. Are you willing to do this for me when I have a bad breakup and want to monologue for an hour while you look sympathetic? because if so, then go ahead and wallow in your emotions, I trust you and will call in the favor you agree you owe me at my leisure. if not, I don't have time for this.

or...something like that. no promises it will work. but don't let it get out of balance, don't let him be the sad wreck twice in a row unless you've gotten some support out of him in between, or else the inequity will build and the resentment will fester and by the time you say something he will be completely accustomed to this just being the way the friendship is and he will decide you are crangry. like hangry, but with crazy.

asking you to do the scorekeeping and not let him go too deep into emotional debt with you is its own form of tiresome work but at least you might get something out of it for yourself.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:15 PM on March 19 [13 favorites]

This is a person for whom I have performed a METRIC TON of emotional labor ... Yes, I'm angry at this point, but I feel driven to it. I just can't take the unfairness anymore.

A big part of the challenge here is that you are suddenly changing the rules of the game. Not only that, you are sick and tired of the old game, which didn't work for you. But it did work for your partner/friend. It is not surprising that this is awkward and confusing change at best. At worst, it is a change that is impossible or unacceptable to him. If you value the friendship, it worth continuing to work on it, keep talking, following some of the advice above.

But the easier way to have better relationships is to start out as you mean to continue. As you get to know people, look at the give and take and of the relationship. If it doesn't feel balanced, say something. If it still doesn't feel right, move on. It takes time and experimentation but you can build a community around you of people that you like.
posted by metahawk at 8:27 PM on March 19 [6 favorites]

This is a person for whom I have performed a METRIC TON of emotional labor, including active listening (about the same things endlessly), career support and cheerleading.

Don't do this unless it's being reciprocated and/or acknowledged. The scales don't have to be perfectly balanced, but emotionally aware people generally won't just keep leaning on you. If you've done a lot of heavy lifting because they're going through a rough spot, they'll acknowledge and thank you for your work.

It sounds like you've been comfortable bringing up a problem with a friend before in the past re: dominating a conversation. Do you know what is was that let you feel safe enough to do rather than bottling it all up? Was it because it was a strictly platonic relationship? Or did something in your gut tells you he'd listen to feedback? If it's the latter, maybe listen to your gut a bit more, and hold back with people who trigger that "can't talk about it feeling," at least until they've shown they'll reciprocate.

If you do find yourself feeling resentful, bring it up before* you get to the boiling point. It'll probably be best if you have a specific complaint: I felt unsupported when I came to you about X.

If they brush it off, that's a sign that they're unable or unwilling to reciprocate. You can then decide to reel in your support to be more balanced or perhaps write off the relationship all together. Same goes if they say they don't really need your emotional support.

If they genuinely don't want your emotional labor, then they won't care if you strike a more balanced approach (although IME they wouldn't have been dumping their emotional problems on you in the first place). If they're just using that as a cop out, you'll find out soon enough.

*Most people I know may not react well to a blow up, but once there's been time to cool off they will consider what you said and not just how you said it and engage in a conversation.
posted by ghost phoneme at 9:06 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]

Here's a thread on that question. I'm a fan of "just don't do emotional labor you don't want to do" and finding people who listen to you the way you want to be listened to. Telling a friend that they aren't giving or doing enough for the friendship in my experience kills more friendships than it saves. Friendship, almost by definition, is about people relating the way they naturally want to, not doing certain things because they should. If your dude wants to spend his free time sitting around playing video games and grunting monosyllables rather than talking about emotions, well, those are the kind of friendships he'll end up with. Stop listening to him if you don't want to do that. Rather than pressure him to listen in a way that he doesn't want to, most likely doesn't know how to, maybe just back off and seek what you need elsewhere. People have different approaches to this, but I'd probably try to back off without completely telling him off, to keep the door open a bit rather than slamming it shut, in case one day he figures it out.
posted by salvia at 9:16 PM on March 19 [3 favorites]

I just want to underscore one thing I said, that he really may not be able to make this change. I remember in high school, the person I was dating wanted to have a conversation about how we weren't connecting, and I found it totally incomprehensible. It was like trying to have a conversation in a foreign language when you understand a few words but not enough for the words to connect into sentences that have meaning. Now with years of therapy in the decades since, I think I would be able to have that conversation. That (years of therapy) may be what it takes for him. Not saying you should try to do that for him. Not saying you should put up with things as they are. Just saying that no matter how well you explain it, no matter how many labels you find for how he's reacting, the situation may well not change.
posted by salvia at 9:22 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]

At the beginning of a relationship, just take it at face value, don't try to build it into something. Step back from what you want and see what is, one step at a time. Be a little tit for tat, and it will be so clear who is in. And yes there are guys who operate like this. Just don't let early relationship needs blind you to reality, and cut early if it's not there up front. Good luck.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:24 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]

Nthing the comments about establishing the boundaries early on and not giving of yourself more than you can spare, until you're sure the relationship is worth it.

Here is a strategy that involves more emotional labor and work, which you may or may not be willing to put in, but I've always had better luck with asking for specifically what I needed in the moment, rather than addressing general trends in the relationship, especially with friendships.

For example, "I need to vent about a work situation for about twenty minutes, and I really just need you to be supportive, don't interrupt, and don't suggest ways to solve the problem. Just having you listen will make me feel better."

Or, "I've just shared something super-scary with you, so I'm going to be really vulnerable for the next few days. If you would check in with me on a regular basis to make sure I'm doing okay, that would be *great*." (The person I shared this with totally heard me, and it was fabulous. It was like having my very own emotional concierge for a few days. I didn't have to ask for it - every so often, I'd look up, and, there he was.)

OTOH, doing this all of the time can be super-annoying, and, a lot of times, I've felt like, Why can't I just express myself the way I need to, and let my friend do the figuring out? Why can't I express a need once, instead of having to perfectly package it each time? In some circumstances, it's not worth it to me, but, in others - yes, it is. So, I thought I'd put it out there, and let you make the determination.

(The good news is, once I have expressed a need, I can go back to as well. I can say, "Remember the venting thing? Yes, that." and it makes it a lot less cumbersome the next time.)

Good luck! Hope you find a solution that works for you.
posted by dancing_angel at 9:32 PM on March 19 [13 favorites]

I think everyone else is tackling the larger question really well so I want to zero in on your #1. I have raised this issue in a similar context with someone that is supposed to care, but was socialized in this way. Ignoring the reasonable-sounding requests and tone policing when I raise the volume.

Not that it is fair or reasonable but I have learned what works with such people is to calmly restate my position and then withdraw until they acknowledge it. They don't respond without feeling my absence to make them pay attention. I could speculate about attachment patterns between boys and their mothers versus girls and their mothers but that would add to the sexism.

So if you need a down n dirty technique to feel heard, this one works. I hate it because I feel manipulative but when all the healthy approaches don't work sometimes you have to try something else.
posted by crunchy potato at 6:32 AM on March 20 [4 favorites]

This might be an unpopular opinion, but I think it's not realistic to expect that you always get back out of every relationship exactly what you put in, especially not in the same measure. As long as you feel like you're getting enough out of a relationship for what you put into it, then it's a good relationship. You clearly don't, so maybe it's time to quit that relationship.

The problem with saying "I put EL into the relationship. And I'm mad that he hasn't. And I want to make him change." is that this feels like it's verging into "nice guy syndrome." You're now giving someone something with the tacit expectation of getting something back--something the other party has never agreed to give back, explicitly or implicitly. You can't force people to give you what you need/want. You can only stop spending your own efforts on them when the equation no longer balances for you.

I have friends where I'm the party who does more EL, and friends where I do less EL. They're different friendships and that's fine.

As for where do I find men who don't request more EL than I'm willing to give: it's more of a filtering issue. I don't provide more than I'm willing to give. If it's enough, we stay friends. If it's not, we fade out of each others' lives.
posted by ethidda at 6:54 AM on March 20 [15 favorites]

There are a few thoughts this ask brings up. I think jessamyn is right on the money that we sometimes do emotional labor that the other person doesn't care about. And to that I will add that we sometimes do emotional labor in a way that is not right for the other person. Two books that touch on these things in different ways are The 5 Love Languages , which talks about the different ways people express and receive love, the difficulties that can be created when those "languages" don't match up and how they can be resolved, and You Just Don't Understand, which explores gender-mediated differences in modes of communication. Both of them were eye-openers to me.

The other thing is that we do need to understand that not all relationships will be founded on equality and equity. Indeed, I would suggest that it's unrealistic to expect that many, or even any of our relationships will be. It may be that there just aren't very many people out there who want to engage in the level of emotional labor you are. It is therefore incumbent upon us to decide whether and to what extent we're okay with that in each relationship. To make a superficial example, cooking and entertaining are among my "love languages" and modes of emotional labor. And there are friends I have hosted for dinners at my house countless times at not insignificant expense who have never reciprocated in any meaningful way. There was a time when this got under my skin a bit, and some might have been of a mind to stop extending invitations. But in the final analysis I like these friends and I like hosting dinners and if there are some inequalities in this area I'm okay with it. I'm sure there are friendships I have with inequalities that go the other way, and some of them might even be the same friendships. The point is that if cooking and entertaining for my friends is one of the ways I express my care for them, it's not realistic or even fair to expect that they will cook and entertain for me to express reciprocal care. And, for that matter, they might not reciprocate the same kind or level of care. Sometimes there are people we may care about very much who don't have the same level of care for us.
posted by slkinsey at 7:24 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]

Is there some way to present this issue that is emphatic enough that they actually pay attention, but not so emphatic that they just skip right over it to focus on my anger?

Other people are addressing the larger question far better than I could, so I'll make a narrow comment on this one question:

Among my male friends, there's a fairly predictable progression from polite, unemotional requests ("Could you pass the salt?") to a restatement in stronger language ("I really need some salt here.") to a sort of meta-description of the anger still delivered with calm affect ("I've asked for the salt twice and now it's kind of pissing me off. I'm going to think twice about having dinner with you next time if you expect me to eat a baked potato completely unseasoned. This is ridiculous.") to directly expressing the anger via a snappish tone or profanity or a raised voice ("I mean, seriously, what the fuck does it take to get some salt around here?!").

Sometimes, and more often with women, people skip the middle parts. They go right from polite requests to directly expressing the anger. It's like they hold it all in until they absolutely can't. Maybe this is better on average, if they mostly get their problems fixed while they can still pretend everything is fine, but when they do blow up it looks like it came out of nowhere. And, yeah, it's totally plausible that I would focus on the anger first, because people randomly (or so I think) getting mad at me really is a problem!

So when you say,

I've gone from expressing my needs in softer terms, to expressing the anger that I have

I wonder if you would get better results from not soft-pedalling your needs as long. I honestly consider it a feature when I can more accurately gauge people's irritation.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:36 PM on March 20 [6 favorites]

Thanks for the feedback, ideas, and advice. I will try a few of the suggested strategies.

I think it's important to note that in both of the examples I cited, as well as many other instances, it is ultra-mega-clear that the guy in question very much DOES want, need, ask for, and often *expect as his rightful due* my emotional labor, including the active listening I've highlighted here.

Also, I offer my active listening and other emotional labor because I care about the person in question. I don't do it so I can receive something in return. I would want to be listened to in any case; the fact that I've done so for these parties just compounds the bad feelings because it adds unfairness to the mix.
posted by nirblegee at 11:13 PM on March 20

It sounds like you're getting to know these guys too quickly and not seeing the red flags. I am very guarded at the beginning of any platonic or romantic relationship, and people that talk about themselves without asking me questions about myself get written off. As a result, in my close friendships there's a very good balance of talking and listening, of giving support and receiving it.

You're fed up with the ex, and he doesn't like the new rules, so why not cut it off? He's your ex. I don't think you're going to be able to undo his decades of conditioning unless he wants to change, and why should he? You have been giving him what he wants.

I would stop trying to change the people in your life. Instead, add some new people. Pay very close attention to how they interact with you in the beginning. People over 30 don't change much unless they want to.
posted by AFABulous at 6:09 PM on March 21 [2 favorites]

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