Autism + Emotional Labour
September 28, 2017 2:56 PM   Subscribe

My autistic fiancée is crappy at emotional labour. I want to link her to the big conversations here on MeFi but a lot of the conversations posit the person who is doing the emotional labour as the woman, and the person who is bad at it as a cis man. I need help talking to her about this, and actually dealing with it! More details inside.

I'm a cis woman, and my fiancée is a trans woman. I don't think that's why she's bad at EL! I'm sure it's because of her autism and because she grew up with a mother who is obsessively clean. We've been together for eight years, living together for one year. We're in our early twenties.

I don't know how to talk about this though. I have tried and tried again, but after a day or two of improvement it always slips away. Right now I work full time and she has been a student for the last year. She is now searching for work.

We've tried
-talking through the jobs that need doing that day before I go to work
-my leaving a list on the chalk board in the kitchen
-me sending her reminder texts through the day eg. have you put the laundry in? Have you taken it out? Have you hung it up?
-my just trying to ignore the dirty dishes, laundry, mess, etc
I feel like all the thought that goes into keeping a very small flat clean lies entirely on me and I feel very resentful sometimes. I know keeping things tidy isn't her priority, and she doesn't naturally express love that way, but I do. I try very hard to be grateful for the things she does do very well, but I don't feel like we're two adults living together. I feel like I have to be in charge and on top of things all the time, and over time that makes me grumpy.

Our long term goal is that we both work full time, and just pay for a cleaner to come twice a week and keep on top of things, but we can't afford that till she finds a job.

So, my questions are:
-Do you have any resources about emotional labour that take both the trans and autistic experience into account? I've found great resources about both of them separately, but not together!
-Do you have any practical advice for getting these jobs done so I don't have to sit any nag her till she does them, or do them myself?
posted by Braeburn to Human Relations (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think you may be conflating a few things here. Keeping things tidy isn't emotional labor, it's just...labor. Being the person who always has to remind the other person what to do is the emotional labor part. Your fiancee sounds like she might have some executive function challenges in specific areas, which is pretty common for people on the spectrum. I suspect this is a medical/therapeutic need, and you're right, you shouldn't be trying to substitute your own emotional labor for professional treatment. Does she have providers she trusts who can help with this?
posted by capricorn at 3:05 PM on September 28, 2017 [37 favorites]

Honestly, for all that my wife and I are good communicators and love each other and try hard with this stuff, the thing that helped the most was sitting down with a good couples counselor who was experienced with this kind of negotiation. The counselor helped me sort out some of my emotional reactions to being over-scheduled, and my wife with feeling like a dish left in the sink overnight meant that I didn't love her (which she didn't intellectually believe, of course, but she, like everyone, has baggage.) We were able to come up with some strategies that work with the way I process tasks and that also worked for my wife - and, most importantly, it wasn't my wife's responsibility to come up with them for me. She had input, of course, but being able to hand off the steering to someone we weren't also dating made some of those conversations immensely easier.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:08 PM on September 28, 2017 [11 favorites]

Hi, I am a woman and my partner is autistic and trans (nonbinary AFAB, not a trans woman tho). Capricorn is right that your partner is not (necessarily) bad at emotional labor, she's bad at executive functioning and this requires a lot of emotional labor for you to manage. Getting professional help is a good idea because this probably affects her in more ways than just this.

However, you could also try what my partner and I do: all of the physical labor falls to them, and all the executive functioning and planning labor falls to me. So, they do all the physical chores, and I direct them on how and when to do them and provide motivation and reminders. I also deal with things like phone calls and paperwork.

This approach requires you to view your emotional labor and your partner's physical labor as equal, and it requires you to be willing to engage in more emotional labor in exchange for less physical labor. It may or may not work for you. But it's worked really well for my partner and I, because it takes advantage of both of our strengths and weaknesses. I'm great at planning and management but often too tired to do physical labor; they've got the stamina for household chores but are bad at motivating themselves and organizing/starting tasks.

If your desire is to do less emotional labor, full stop, this approach won't work for you. But of your desire is to make the sharing of all kinds of labor more equal, this could be a way to do it that works with your partner's executive functioning difficulties.
posted by brook horse at 3:44 PM on September 28, 2017 [12 favorites]

I am not neurotypical and I am not tidy. My ex used to do about 70% of the household labor and I did things that he hated and that I hated but hated less, like making phone calls (which, if you have a kid, is like a common thing.) Occasionally I would feel really bad about the fact that he was doing so much housework because, I would wail, "It's not fair!" And he would look me in the eye and say, "It's fair if we think it's fair."

This is not a recommendation that you do emotional labor that you don't want to do. It is a recommendation that you consider brook horse's advice and/or the advice to see a counsellor. Because nothing will work unless:

A. It fits the reality of your lives, that is to say the wiring that your partner has along with your own wiring (plus preferences, skills, schedules, other demands, etc.).

B. It feels fair to both of you. Not perhaps on a day-to-day basis but at least a week-to-week or month-to-month basis.

However you decide to proceed, give anything you agree upon a reasonable trial period (3 weeks maybe?); track what actually happens (and write it down because everyone's memory, yours included, is notoriously bad when it comes to interpreting who did how much of what); and make it easy to check in regularly on what is working (as a whole) and what is not working so you can deal with other partnership issues before they become huge.

Also, don't forget to schedule in fun for you and your partner as a couple because that's critical to keeping the love going.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:06 PM on September 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

I see where you're coming from about your partner being trans. I'm an AFAB trans person whose partner is a trans woman, and I often feel uncomfortable with the way emotional labour is spoken about, since it makes assumptions about the way male and female socialization affect [cis] people. These might be reasonable generalizations about cis folks, but someone who is going to grow up to be trans experiences gendered socialization in such a different way than someone who is going to grow up to be cis.

I think this is something that's super good to be aware of, as a cis partner of a trans person. While I'm sure that you as an individual aren't making assumptions about the gendered way your partner was raised, it's definitely good to be aware that there's a really strong current of that in EL discourse, and make sure your partner knows that that's not going on in the way you talk about this.

I don't know that I have any more concrete advice, but I think you're doing a really good thing in being attentive to the way transness plays into EL discussions. Feel free to MeMail me if you want to chat more about this.
posted by ITheCosmos at 4:26 PM on September 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

I only have advice on the second question.

The only thing that has worked for my husband and me on this issue is a chore chart. I know you mentioned that you've tried leaving a list on the chalk board and it doesn't work, but maybe my suggestion has a little different twist.

At the beginning of the year, I made a list of weekly, biweekly, monthly, and quarterly chores. Weekly is stuff like "clean toilet" and "vacuum rugs." Biweekly is "scrub shower," "change sheets," etc. (You obviously have to tailor this list to your preferences and your home.) My husband is good at Excel, so he got tasked with making this list into a printable spreadsheet that covered the whole year, with a column for each weekend. The way the schedule works out, every other week is a "short week" that only has the weekly task list, but once a month we hit a long one, and once a quarter we hit he longest one. Every weekend, we put on our headphones and do a couple hours of "chore time" (concurrently, but not really "together"), checking off the tasks on the spreadsheet as we go. We're done when the list is done.

Neither one of us would probably have the willpower to stick with the chore chart on our own. But it's a routine now, and doing it together is key. It's pretty hard to sit around on the computer or watching TV while the other person is cleaning around you.

- I don't have to spend mental energy keeping a catalog of everything that constantly needs doing. That has been externalized to the chore chart.
- It forces us to keep track of the quarterly items like changing the AC filter, flipping mattresses, or getting new toothbrushes. I don't think we were doing those things regularly enough before.
- No nagging, no "What should I do next?", no negotiating, no talking about it, other than "Chore time? *sigh* Chore time." (That's an equal opportunity sigh, BTW --- neither of us loves to clean or anything.) The list is the list --- pick something that doesn't have a checkmark and do it.

- A couple of things, like dishes, really do need keeping on top of every day or at least every second day, and those still tend to fall to me. It's not usually so much that I get super annoyed, though.
- The house is not guest-ready all the time. By Friday night the rugs have a lot of cat hair on them.
- "Quarterly" weeks are long enough that they are a real drag. Next year I might try to space out the quarterly tasks a bit more evenly, so some of them get done in February and May, some in March and June, etc.

Sorry if this isn't helpful! I don't have experience with the autistic or trans parts of your question, but the situation and feelings you described sounded very familiar, so I thought I would try anyway.
posted by slenderloris at 4:28 PM on September 28, 2017 [22 favorites]

Sometimes instead of the list approach a bucket approach can seem a lot more doable. Instead of having specific tasks and times by which to accomplish them throughout the day, have a pile of tasks to choose among during certain chunks of time.

What I mean by this is, sit down with her and write down discrete repeating tasks, assigning them to you, her, or both of you if you are both happy to do them. Give yourselves two containers and put those tasks in there as assigned. Then every day each of you has a chunk of time in which to accomplish the tasks. Hers could be during the day and yours in the evening, or hers could be shorter times spread throughout the day and yours consolidated, this would be adjusted to how either of you is doing mentally and physically that day, etc. You pick a chore from the container and do it - or if you can't handle that chore right now pick another one - and keep choosing tasks and doing them until your time is up. When you finish a thing, put that task in a third container that tells you what got done that day. It can feel nice to look at a tangible pile of little accomplishments.

Yes, everything won't always get done, but little by little you both will chip away at the chores without constant communication throughout the day about it. And with a list of what you did do during the week, you can easily see what needs doing on the weekend or whenever you have time to work together. By allowing her to choose what she feels capable of accomplishing each day she has more agency and you feel less bossy, while reinforcing the habit of doing at least a little tidying every day.
posted by Mizu at 4:41 PM on September 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

I feel like the autism piece of this might be that there's something about the Hated Chores that she really can't regulate through and isn't bringing up/entirely aware of/feels invalid to her so she's trying to ignore, etc, rather than that she doesn't notice your emotional needs. I said this recently in another thread but it's something I see all the time (and do myself)- a lot of time, people with disabilities will agree to something that it seems like they "should" be able to do, because it's easier than articulating what makes doing dishes so difficult or risking sounding irrational ("what do you mean, 'the water is the wrong kind of wet'? that's not a thing" etc).

To me the EL I would work on if I were her would be around articulating what about particular activities is not working for her and coming up with hacks/work arounds and compromises rather than continuing a bad pattern of promising to do something she can't do and then not doing it. Ie, "being able to suggest to my partner that we just use paper plates" rather than "how to get myself to do the dishes." I live a more or less dish-free life and it's hasn't killed me yet.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 4:44 PM on September 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

Yeah in my family the men do the emotional labor, for some reason. They are just all really good at maintaining good relationships and having social events and its very important to them. Like the major priority of their lives is to have a good social life and close friends and they will shop and cook and make invites and clean the house and arrange flowers and rent cottages and whatever. They love that shit. They also remind everyone of all birthdays and make sure the kids Skype regularly. All if us women are hopeless.

I think the general idea is to read the threads with an eye to peoples frustrations and suggestions without putting too much emphasis on the specifics of each situation.
posted by fshgrl at 4:50 PM on September 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh god, chiming in on 'the water is the wrong kind of wet' (literally my only complaint about our new apartment is the water is Wrong). Doing dishes is hell for many autistic people. Laundry can be the same, especially if your partner (you, in this case) has clothes that are a Bad Feel to you (your partner, in this case). I would definitely try and talk to her about that and see if that plays any role. She may not necessarily be aware that it is part of the problem until you sit down and explore it together. If sensory stuff is a large part of it, there are ways around that. For example, my partner haaaaates doing dishes because they can't stand the feel of wet food and wrinkly fingers. They would absolutely never use that as an excuse not to do the dishes, but it is one more thing that makes it harder for them to motivate themselves to do them. We solved this by getting them gloves--but gloves that were a good texture on the inside. We also have to monitor them for holes; a tiny hole can ruin the whole thing, and again, my partner won't use it as an excuse not to do the dishes, and may not even mention it, but it'll make their sensory defensiveness go way up and make it that much harder. All of this is stuff I never would have known if they had not once casually mentioned it in a conversation to someone else. It's very possible this is at play here.

One other thing I forgot to mention is: it's really important to have a conversation about what's an acceptable level of clean for both of you. Oftentimes, partners can have radically different ideas about what a "clean" house looks like, and what level of untidiness they're okay with. It's really, really important to have a conversation about this, and decide on a level you're both happy with. This may very well mean lowering your expectations about how clean the house is. If this is the case, I suggest focusing on things that are actively dirty--e.g. cleaning dishes, washing/drying laundry, throwing away food/wrappers--as essential things that need to happen, but letting go of things like paper clutter, unfolded laundry, unmade bed, etc. If you both give a little in each direction (your partner tries to be a little more clean, you are satisfied with being a little less clean) then I think you're going to get much better results.

Anyway, now that I'm at a computer, I do have some practical advice for getting these jobs done (though I think you still need to have the conversations I mentioned above). Both my partner and I struggle with executive functioning, but I am functionally much better at it than them because I put in lots of time and effort into structuring and planning things to make myself as effective as possible. I'm going to share some things that have worked for me (that you could plan/manage for your partner) and some things that have worked for my partner.

1) Timeblocking. The only way I get any chores done is if I specifically block out time on my Google Calendar, the night before, saying when I am going to Do The Thing. If it's a particularly hard task, I buffer it with Things I Enjoy on either side, e.g.: an hour of video gaming, an hour of phone calls, half an hour of reading. I get reminders on my phone so that if I haven't started the task when I should have, I get another little push.
2) Setting chore equipment up in a way that makes sense. I didn't realize how critical it is to have cleaning supplies, laundry detergent, etc. in a place that you chose until my partner and I lived with their dad for the summer. It was so much harder to get chores done there because things weren't set up in a way conducive to our routines. It's not like stuff was in super obscure locations, either! It just wasn't arranged to the way we tended to move through the house or how we used items. A big part of this, for both of us, was in reducing distraction--we both get very easily distracted, so if we had to walk all over the house to get supplies, we were exponentially more likely to get distracted by some other task in the middle. If, on the other hand, we kept our laundry detergent/dryer sheets near the laundry basket, and could therefore just grab that and the basket and immediately head to the basement, it was infinitely easier for some arcane reason I couldn't fathom.
3) Arranging items by when they need to get done. When I have a list of things of varying importance and due dates, I get paralyzed. I NEED to have things in an ordered list, so I know that first I need to complete this, and then this, and then this, and then this. For chores, I would suggest arranging them in the order they NEED to get done. Dishes (which start smelling bad) might be first, while laundry might be later if you have clothes left. If you're running out of clothes, maybe that gets moved up to first.
4) Tons of positive reinforcement. Every time my partner does the dishes or cleans up in some way I always respond with more than just "thanks." I make sure to express something along the lines of "I really appreciate it" and "you're such a good partner," and I usually bring it up multiple times (e.g. initially when I come home, and then later "thanks again for doing the dishes, the kitchen looks so much nicer now"). This isn't even because I feel like they NEED that reinforcement, but because I know how hard it is for them, and I am genuinely grateful. I honestly think this helps a lot more than people generally give it credit for. For some people, finishing chores is satisfying. For others, it's really not. You just did a bunch of work and you don't even get something pleasant out of it, you've just got wet dishes drying on a rack. So that positive reinforcement can be really important and I think helps motivate my partner a lot. They do the same thing for me, and I find it pretty motivating as well. We have irregular schedules and like to surprise each other with finished chores sometimes. If we weren't so expressive with our gratitude, I doubt this would be the case.

Finally, I wanted to acknowledge that this is probably pretty hard for both of you, and I'm glad you're being sensitive to your partner's needs and identity in this discussion. Good luck finding something that works for both of you.
posted by brook horse at 7:13 PM on September 28, 2017 [9 favorites]

Task management with executive dysfunction is challenging. Full stop. My heart goes out to you because being the reminder and task master sucks. I hope some of the advice you get here can help you. If you can accept the reality that partner can't (not won't), and if partner can accept your influence as a positive thing not a source of parenting/resentment, and you two can come up with things partner can do to balance out your management function, it can get better. But you'll need to be some level of manager here, sorry. Maybe partner can give you a foot rub. Or handle the things you hate that are relatively easy once started. Or maybe you can appreciate that partner is perhaps more thorough than you on certain activities but needs help starting them.

It may also help to have different areas of the home set to different standards, if it is not directly impacting you. Or maybe partner can have their closet/bedside area as messy as they like, that way the friction and cajoling and rewarding is limited to fewer areas.
posted by crunchy potato at 8:19 AM on September 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

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