The constantly confused husband and I
July 7, 2019 4:52 AM   Subscribe

I am exhausted from trying to keep up with my husband's inability to comprehend emotional labor. What does a woman do with a man who is is trying to be better, but seems incapable of it?

I don't really have anyone in real life to talk to about this (will try to make an appointment with my therapist soon!) because my family usually treats me like a drama queen and my friends are all busy, far away, or unhelpful, ranging from "at least you're not single like me" to "have you tried talking to your husband?" I have talked to him so much I have no words left, and I am a very verbal person. (I literally talk and analyze language for a living.)

We keep having the same pointless fights over and over. For example about sex. Both of us work a lot, so we usually only have sex once a week, on Saturday or Sunday. If at all. What usually happens, like it did this week, is that on Saturday, my husband will say he is too tired from work still, or he will eat too much at lunch or dinner and end up unable to move. Same last night, where I was in the mood, but he said he wants to do it on Sunday. Sunday afternoon, I say I'm in the mood again, but he will go off and do something else. When I asked him what was going on around 6pm, he claimed he was gonna do it after dinner, when I have told him several times before that a) on Sunday night, I get ready for the work week, b) I hate waiting until the last minute because it's always possible we won't get to do it at all that week then, and c) I would like to actually do it when I'm in the mood instead of according to his schedule all the time.
He used to literally say, "let's go to the bedroom", go there, lie down, and expect me to follow and suddenly be in the mood. He is good about doing foreplay and making sure I get off, but I'm finding it really hard to suddenly turn on that switch. When I asked him why he does it that way after being told I don't like it, he said it would work for him if the roles were reversed, but it doesn't (see above). We will have this discussion almost every week, and yet the next week he still does either the eating too much or the waiting too long or the just lying down or a combination again.
So when I asked him what was going on today, he again claimed he was gonna do it later, and at that point I got so angry I don't feel like having sex with him anymore. Last week we didn't have any because we had a fight about my ongoing sexual harassment issue at work that he isn't as supportive about as I'd like him to. So on top of feeling stressed about work and unappreciated and unsupported by my husband, I am also sexually frustrated.

Last night I asked if he could at least be more affectionate, and he laughed at first. This morning, just as I was leaving the house to go somewhere, he suddenly rubbed his unshaved face against mine, and I had to ask him not to because I couldn't have my sunscreen and make-up rubbed off right before leaving. He alway says I say something like "be more affectionate" and then confuse him by having so many rules about it, but I feel like I shouldn't have to choose between no affection ever and having half my face scratched up, right??

I truly believe that he has not a single malicious bone in his body, but this obliviousness is just as exhausting. He promised me he would make an effort to speak my language more often to make things fairer and less exhausting for me (I am very fluent in his language, but living it 24/7 is still very tiring), and I made that a condition of my moving there. Nonetheless, even if I am sick or get home from a 15 hour day, he will chat at me in his own language. He can't even claim I made up a confusing rule about this one. He then had the nerve to tell me I could speak to him in my own language whenever I wanted to, but it's not "speaking to him" if he understands maybe 5% and I have to spend my spare time from work either teaching him (with him rejecting all my methods) or talking to someone who doesn't understand more than 5%, which does not make for a conversation, but just feels isolating.

He does his fair share of cooking and cleaning, though (probably more than I do) and unlike my family never calls me crazy or dramatic. We used to be really in love, but now I'm just so tired...

What would you do if you were me?
posted by LoonyLovegood to Human Relations (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

I think you need a therapist to deal with this. It doesn’t sound like an emotional labour problem to me.

The way you describe requiring sex from him makes me very uncomfortable. The language issue is confusing- you want him to speak in your language but are unwilling to slow want him to be suddenly fluent?
posted by warriorqueen at 5:18 AM on July 7, 2019 [35 favorites]

My gut feeling is that your husband comprehends emotional labor just fine, but simply does not want to perform it.

I could be wrong, of course, but it seems especially telling that you have expressed your sexual needs and yet he still lies down on the bed and expects sex without warming you up to be in the mood. Have you said to him, "I need this in order to feel like our relationship is sexually fulfilling and has a future" and seeing if it changes? I don't think this should be necessary, but it may help remove any doubt as to whether he doesn't understand emotional labor or simply doesn't care to put the effort in.

I'm sorry that you're going through this.
posted by cp311 at 5:19 AM on July 7, 2019 [12 favorites]

The way this is described makes sex seem like a chore to be done in the house or something individual rather than a way of you two connecting. It’s like you are more concerned about checking it off your list of once-a-week tasks and not as concerned about the fact that your husband may not want to have sex, which could be a sign of other problems or a symptom of the lack of connection between you two right now.

I think maybe you are both really tired, but you express it differently.
posted by sallybrown at 5:42 AM on July 7, 2019 [27 favorites]

I think you need a therapist to deal with this. It doesn’t sound like an emotional labour problem to me.

I have to agree with warriorqueen here. It sounds like you two are going through a very typical marital issue, and not any sort of emotional labor problem. Couples' counseling/therapy would be in-order for this. Remember, though, that sex is a two-way street, and you might very well discover that he has some issues with your own approach to sex, as well.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:44 AM on July 7, 2019 [20 favorites]

About the language issue: I speak to my husband in Japanese for the most part and never having a break from that no matter how sick or exhausted I am would be kind of terrible. Maybe you could set up some ground rules that during these times on these days it’s your language time (not you actively teach him your language time, the point is to give you a break) or you set a timer when you get home/if you’re at the end of your rope. During this time you can have easy conversations or watch a movie with subs on for him or do something mostly nonverbal/with set language like play a game (Machinarium is nonverbal and good) or whatever, or even he just leaves you alone, as long as you get your break.
My work isn’t that tiring so that’s not usually the issue, but I want to get us out of the habit of only speaking in Japanese and I do want to speak in English sometimes, so we’re successfully implementing English Only Zones from 7-9 on Tuesdays and Fridays. It was my husband’s idea. Sometimes we forget, but every time we remember and remind each other English time becomes more of a habit.
posted by sacchan at 6:39 AM on July 7, 2019 [21 favorites]

It sounds like he’s got some kind of power trip going on, where he doesn’t want to change his behavior and wants to see how far he can push you. You say he’s not malicious, but he may still feel entitled to have you do the emotional labor for both of you.

It sounds like you’re bending over backward to make things work and he’s not reciprocating. I think couples therapy is a great idea, but part of the point of it is to find out if he’s actually invested in improving the relationship or if he just doesn’t want to break up. To that end, talk to your therapist (your personal therapist) about setting goalposts, like - if he doesn’t speak your language with you on the appointed days by the end of the first month, you’re done, if he doesn’t take on X amount of emotional labor by three weeks, you’re done, that kind of thing. Don’t get caught in an endless cycle of "oh but I’m trying I’m trying I just don’t get it" crap that so many men seem invested in pulling.
posted by bile and syntax at 7:52 AM on July 7, 2019 [10 favorites]

I truly believe that he has not a single malicious bone in his body, but this obliviousness is just as exhausting.

At a certain point, though, doesn't the obliviousness have to be wilful? One can only have things explained to one so many times before not being able to claim ignorance anymore.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:17 AM on July 7, 2019 [21 favorites]

This is a pretty aggressive suggestion, but I would say just speak to him in your language. He’s said you can do that. Nobody knows any language when people first start speaking it to them, so make it into a fun project where you have super basic simple conversations. How do we talk to babies?

I see you!
Look at that!
I love you
Say bye bye

Sure, it sounds infantilizing but he’ll catch on quick if he wants to.

Simultaneously, look into the five love languages. Maybe he’s more of a gifts or quality time person than physical touch. Learn his love languages and be able to communicate about yours.

Then read a few of the books by John and Julie Gottman. Add the behaviors they suggest and stop doing the things they proscribe (I’m thinking specifically of criticism and stonewalling, but there are two others that really hurt relationships.)

Making these changes might be enough to help your partner feel safe enough to be the vulnerable person who opens up about sex.

At any rate, make sure you have the ability to leave and return to your home country or start a life alone where you are if you need to. It doesn’t actually sound like he is trying to do any emotional labor.
posted by bilabial at 8:17 AM on July 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Why should he change if it's working for him? He's getting what he wants in the bedroom & with the languages and around the house why would he want to change? Sounds like a lot of passive aggressive shit from his side & a lack of true communication. A couples counselor might help you both find the tools to communicate more effectively, if he actually wants to work on the problem & isn't pulling the old "I can't do x as well as you you do it BS guys do".

Also do not underestimate the language/cultural difficulties. I'm an Australian married to an American you'd think we'd both speak the same language. Nope he was all about the the "guess" culture & I was all about the "tell" culture and our communication styles would clash because I thought I was very clearly telling him what I wanted & he assumed that what I really wanted was some deep hidden secret he had to guess & so couldn't possibly be what I was telling him. So I'd get frustrated he wasn't doing what I thought I'd clearly stated & he thought I was crass & way too blunt. Also because Australians tend to have an upward inflection at the end of sentences he thought I was asking him questions all the time instead of telling him things.
posted by wwax at 8:29 AM on July 7, 2019 [7 favorites]

he was all about the the "guess" culture & I was all about the "tell" culture and our communication styles would clash because I thought I was very clearly telling him what I wanted & he assumed that what I really wanted was some deep hidden secret he had to guess & so couldn't possibly be what I was telling him. So I'd get frustrated he wasn't doing what I thought I'd clearly stated & he thought I was crass & way too blunt. Also because Australians tend to have an upward inflection at the end of sentences he thought I was asking him questions all the time instead of telling him things.

This is fascinating. As someone in another English-speaking-but-cross-cultural marriage, I totally, totally get this.

Also, I disagree with people above who are have an issue with the 'scheduling sex' problem. When you're both busy, scheduling is necessary. My recommendation would be Ester Perel's book 'Mating In Captivity'. Both of you read it, then discuss it together, as a way to change the dynamics of the conversations/arguments you're having about sex.
posted by EllaEm at 10:48 AM on July 7, 2019 [6 favorites]

Maybe it would help to take a few days off at the first opportunity and reconnect sexually without the time pressure. You don't say anything about the sex not being good. so I'm assuming it's at least okay. But it sounds like it might be time to sort of take your temperature as a couple, removing as much of the outside stuff as possible. Having done that, you may be better able to assess what kind of changes might be good for your sex life.
posted by BibiRose at 11:39 AM on July 7, 2019

I truly believe that he has not a single malicious bone in his body

I think that you will not be able to conduct a satisfactory investigation of your relationship difficulties unless and until you allow yourself to examine the evidence before you reach your desired conclusions.

your parameter-setting here is a form of emotional labor, if you like. it is counterproductive emotional labor deployed against yourself, making your problem of analysis harder. it's like the old thing about only looking for your dropped keys in the circle of light cast by the street lamp, because that's where it's easiest to see. you are using a lot of mental discipline to define the problem as one that does not have a deeply hurtful cause. if you are lucky, you'll find an answer in the restricted and well-lit space where it's acceptable to find it.
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:15 PM on July 7, 2019 [6 favorites]

You want sex and affection more than he does, so unfortunately that means you need to drive it. Instead of hoping throughout the weekend and being continually disappointed, prioritize it and say what you want and when you want it. The key is that you have to be willing to go without, which you're doing anyway now but at least it would be on your terms.
You: "I want to have sex with you Saturday. Do you want to too?"
Him: Yes.
You: "Great, would you rather do it before we get up, or after yard work?"
Him: [dissembles, hems and haws]
You: "Bummer, that's what I'm up for, Sunday's out for me. If those times don't work for you, what does?"
Him: [noncommittal blahdeblah]
You: "Ok, looks like this weekend's out. Let me know if you change your mind."
And then stick to it. If he comes to you midday Sunday and says he's ready, tell him you're not. Like everything about sex, this is about communication and respect.

The stubble-scruff scraping is subjective so I'd give him the benefit of the doubt about that unless he already knows it's unpleasant for you.
posted by headnsouth at 12:29 PM on July 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Based just on your question (and obviously not taking into account all the other information you have but we don't) I don't think there's enough here to paint your husband in some of the ways suggested here. You've given three examples about his behavior: sex, his response to your request for affectionate behavior, and his failure to speak your language.

The sex stuff is definitely an issue, but I'm not going to touch it because sex is super complicated in super personal ways and you both might have completely legitimate points.

The affectionate behavior example makes it seem to me like you're both contributing to a problem. It's not clear how specific you were when telling him you needed more affection, and the thing is that if you're not specific you have to be prepared for the other person to interpret things in ways other than what you had in mind. So in an ideal relationship, maybe he'd affection-ate you at the wrong time in a way that didn't feel great, you'd fondly give him points for trying but explain exactly what you like and how you like it, he'd do that, and life would be good. It's completely understandable that you weren't in the right headspace to be all generous and patient in your response to him, and it's completely possible that he was half-assing things because he wasn't taking your need seriously. But that is not obvious from your question, and regardless, again, you just cannot expect someone to read your mind correctly or justifiably blame them when they don't. You need to learn to tell him what you mean, and he's got to learn to ask, even when he thinks he knows.

The language thing is kind of strange to me. Not your need to not have to speak his language all the time - that's completely, 100% understandable and I have so very much empathy for you. It's really exhausting to deal with a non-native language around the clock. But you also say he's at around a 5% comprehension level, to the extent where you feel uncomfortable talking to him, but at the same time you expect him to talk? I'm sure you also know how hard it can be, both cognitively and emotionally, to be quasi-communicating clumsily and unfluently with someone you want to be your fluent self with. So what I'm not understanding is, when you two made your agreement, did you two actually work out what that would involve? Was the idea that you'd teach him, or that he'd learn on his own, or...? There are a lot of specific things you can ask for (he could sign up for a language class, watch TV in your language with you, play music in your language around the house, be present when you hang out with friends speaking your language and encourage that to happen, etc.) If there isn't an active and specific plan for him to improve his language skills, then you're not going to be having conversations in that language, although there are still ways he can give you space to be surrounded by your language instead of his. Either way, you have to work out something specific, he needs to understand what this means to you, and you need to understand what it means for him.

Basically (from the limited information provided!) it sounds like you two talk a lot but don't communicate effectively, and that your requests might be sufficiently nebulous that they leave room for you both to have completely different interpretations of what meeting them would mean. So when you go to therapy, or look for reading material, I'd put an emphasis on improving your communication patterns.

Finally, since it seems you come from different cultures, try to find a therapist or counselor that can understand where you're both coming from and the unspoken expectations you both inevitably bring.

It's possible he's malicious or just doesn't care, but there are a lot of other explanations you could explore before coming to that conclusion.
posted by trig at 12:43 PM on July 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

I forgot to mention that when we met, he was actually reasonably fluent in my language, but let it slide over the years to the point of not understanding "what's for dinner". I'm not suddenly expecting him to be proficient, but I was expecting him to make more of an effort than "I listen to podcasts on the train, surely in a few years I'll be fluent!" It hasn't worked for years, and he refuses to listen to my suggestions, despite my having an advanced degree in language education. I know that teaching your spouse can be a minefield, so I tried to stay out of it for years, but at this point even his own family thinks he's putting me through too much work.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 2:13 PM on July 7, 2019

Sex and affection is tricky. I am in the same boat. I want more but can't demand it. My libido is revving at mid-forties, my husband's is declining a bit.

People have to feel inspired to give affection -- men and women. As women, or men, we shouldn't have to bend over backwards to "inspire" our partners to give us sex and affection, but that's what it boils down to most of the time. I find allowing the relationship to be, and allowing my husband to be (giving space) inspires true affection.

I find the best sex and affection happens on days where we go on lunch or movie dates, or have some time to be by ourselves without distractions. We are less tired, in better moods, and more playful and fun. Maybe instead of scheduling sex, schedule a date or outing where you can have fun together.

Marriage is not a game to be played, and it's completely healthy and necessary to communicate, however, you might stop asking and see what happens. When you ask, it might be another chore to preform, instead of true desire.

And I could be wrong -- when I think of emotional labor I think of my husband buying his mother a birthday present instead of me. I think of it as him planning a family outing or remembering the school conference, etc. Sex and desire is a different thing entirely.
posted by loveandhappiness at 2:33 PM on July 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

I highly recommend ExpatNest. She's really great, works via Skype, and specialises in these sort of things. Which is to say, normalish problems further complicated by language barriers, extra sacrifices you've made to be there, cultural misunderstandings etc.

There's also a large element of ymmv. Maybe it's cultural, maybe it's him, maybe it's his family's habits, maybe it's latent internalised misogyny etc. A therapist can help trade out what's what.

I'm an American (ask) in Australia (more guess), but I also dumped several American guys back in the day, who just *couldn't* take me at my least one was straight up sexist. So yeah - it could be any number of things.
posted by jrobin276 at 4:07 PM on July 7, 2019

This doesn't sound like an emotional labor thing to me either. It sounds like a bad, uninspired, obligatory sex thing. Would some distance between the two of you makes things better or worse?
posted by HotToddy at 4:17 PM on July 7, 2019

The sex thing is going to be highly individual. For example, I was married to someone who treated sex very much the same way your husband does, and this suggestion:

I find allowing the relationship to be, and allowing my husband to be (giving space) inspires true affection.

would essentially result in us having NO sex. Ever. He was quite happy for me never to bring it up at all, would regularly put it off over and over even after we'd agreed on a time, would let the clock run out on the weekend, and so on. It was so, so deeply saddening and frustrating, and like you, after a point, I no longer even WANTED to have sex with him anymore. That he kept doing things like getting purposely getting wrapped up in a project or video game he claimed to be unable to pause, or eating food he shouldn't have and then feeling sick, or exhausting himself by staying up late watching stupid TV or what have all communicated to me loud and clear that it was not and was never going to be a priority for him in a relationship in the same way it was for me.

Also this:

He does his fair share of cooking and cleaning, though (probably more than I do) and unlike my family never calls me crazy or dramatic.

is a pretty low bar, frankly. Do you still LIKE him? Are you getting the majority of your other needs met in the relationship?
posted by anderjen at 6:00 PM on July 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am also very verbal, and I also talk and analyse language for a living.

Does your spouse enjoy a high level of verbal communication, too? You say that every week you have these talks about your sex life. Do you often talk about or analyse your relationship together? Because honestly, this all sounds completely exhausting.

I've said it heaps of times now, but I think people understand 'communication' incorrectly. They take communication to mean 'more words'. I think overdoing communication can actually have a negative impact on the relationship. I have no idea, but could you be overdoing the verbal analysis of the relationship? My spouse needs time away from me to cool down, and he needs not to talk about things in our relationship in depth and for a long time. Knowing this has helped our communication drastically.

Also, I think the language thing is a bit strange and unfair, and I really don't think it is about emotional labour. My husband speaks Portuguese as a first language but is fluent in English. I don't speak Portuguese and I can't carry on a conversation in it. We are living in an English speaking country. Does that mean that I'm not doing enough emotional labour? In the context of my marriage it isn't a problem.

To me, it sounds like you don't actually like your husband that much and you are getting angry about minor things because of this.
posted by thereader at 6:56 PM on July 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

I try really hard to understand emotional labor in the relationship with DrMsEld, I've got a fair bit of evidence in my posting history that speaks to that even if it does lean towards me just being more supportive and less macho and working through my failings on the asperger-ish (her words, she's a clinical psychologist so she knows way more about it than I do) stuff I am wont to do.

That said, I still could do better and, to be brutally honest, we've come a long way with her communicating things, emotional labor or otherwise, to me that need communicating rather than letting them build up and/or go unadressed lest they cause a problem down the line when things explode.

I'm sorry if it sounds like I'm beating around the bush or making this post about me/us but I guess what I'm getting at is that, like a few other posters above, I don't see this as an emotional labor thing really and I'd be confused and borderline upset if it was put to me in that fashion. I feel like this is an inability to communicate or y'all have grown apart and need to work that out first and foremost.

Or is this a 'Love LanguageTM' sort of thing? You seem to be using that word, language, a lot so maybe I'm misunderstanding you on a more basic level. Because, well, that's not something I'm experienced in but if it works for you and yours then I hope you can get a translator or something in there and get it sorted.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:36 PM on July 7, 2019

Might it help to have a set "rain date" for sex, in case something does come up on Saturday to keep one or both of you out of the mood?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:47 PM on July 7, 2019

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