Whether it’s romantic, sexual, platonic, or professional, emotions will always play a large part in how successful or unsuccessful any relationship ends up. Relationships, by definition, require two or more parties to put forth some amount of emotional effort in order to keep the relationship afloat. Oftentimes one person takes on the brunt of the emotions—especially the negative or stressful emotions—that are produced in their relationships. This collective emotional give-and-take is called emotional labor; it’s the work and effort we put into making sure relationships don’t fall apart. This labor can be extremely taxing on a person, especially if they’re a) the only one putting significant work into the relationship or b) constantly being inundated with other parties’ stress and negativity without the other people taking on any of that responsibility.
What we often see in relationships, for example straight romantic and sexual relationships, is that cis men have a much harder time accepting the responsibilities of emotional labor in their relationships. I personally have struggled with taking on such responsibilities, as much of a sensitive person I perceive myself to be. Whether it’s complaining too much about issues at work (and by too much, I really mean too much), or shutting down when faced with emotional adversity, my fiancée ends up taking on that burden of my emotions in ways that she doesn’t put on me. And even though I’ve gotten better over the years, especially compared to our high school days, there’s still a lot of work for me to do in that arena.
This difficulty that cis men often have with emotional labor in their relationships mean that women and other partners are forced to take on its more burdensome aspects. That means they not only have to process their own feelings and thoughts as they apply to the relationship but that they also have to accept any issues within the relationship as their responsibility to fix. There are many reasons why cis men might not feel capable or responsible for accepting this responsibility, although much of it most likely revolves around the desire or necessity cis men feel for not facing their emotions and not being vulnerable, since those actions are seen as un-masculine.
Whether cis men would like to admit it or not, it is inherently important for any person in any relationship to understand the give-and-take of emotional labor and why it needs to be equal between partners. Below we will be going into more detail about what emotional labor is, how it affects relationships, how men can learn to be more emotionally responsible, and why it’s so important for them and their partners.
Emotional Labor 101: What Is It?
Although the primary definition for emotional labor on Wikipedia concerns the workplace, it still applies to any other emotional situation one can find themselves in. The Wikipedia entries defines emotional labor as:
[…] the process of managing feelings and expressions in order to fulfill emotional requirements as part of the job role. More specifically, workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors.
Basically, emotional labor is the ability to regulate how one expresses their emotions in order to keep their job. In the context of this article, that “job” is a relationship. Relationships work best when all folks involved do their part in both a) expressing themselves in ways that support honesty, trust, and growth, and b) suppressing negativity or finding productive ways to turn negative feelings into positive outcomes. If someone in a relationship is unable to take on those responsibilities, relationships are bound to end painfully.
Jess Zimmerman wrote for The Toast last year about how women often find themselves doing the majority of emotional labor in their relationships—romantic or platonic—with cis straight men. In a discussion of the idea of a woman getting paid for all of the emotional labor she does, she lists a few of the common emotional demands put upon women by cis straight men:
Imagine a menu of emotional labor:
- Acknowledge your thirsty posturing, $50.
- Pretend to find you fascinating, $100.
- Soothe your ego so you don’t get angry, $150.
- Smile hollowly while you make a worse version of their joke, $200.
- Explain 101-level feminism to you like you’re five years old, $300.
- Listen to your rant about “bitches,” $infinity.
Although there is some satire underlying this idea (I mean, you pay way more for 101-level feminism in college so $300 seems comically underpriced), there is an inherent truth to this list: women are expected to put in the emotional work to make sure that men are satisfied and unperturbed, despite men being able to let their emotions go with reckless abandon. Not only that, but women are expected to take on this emotional labor no matter how exhausting or debilitating it ends up being. If a woman doesn’t take on that emotional burden, men often become angry and violent, and that woman, who may be a friend, relative, or romantic interest, quickly becomes one of those “bitches” he’ll inevitably rant about (to the tune of $infinity, no less).
How Can Men Be More Fair With Emotional Labor
Understand that the labor is necessary.
As I’ve been saying throughout this article, emotional labor is required for any relationship to work. A relationship without some aspect of emotional labor can’t be a healthy relationship—it would be more along the lines of abusive. If you’re a man in a relationship and you often have emotional outbursts of anger, for example, it’s up to your partner to try to regulate the situation, which can be extremely exhausting, especially if it’s a common occurrence. It is pertinent for men to understand that their partners can’t be held responsible for men’s emotions all of the time, and it’s up to men to learn how to regulate and work on their own emotional issues first and foremost.
Learn to listen, instead of having an answer for everything.
This is important for the emotional labor that you put into your relationships as well as the emotional labor your partner puts into it. As Jess Zimmerman wrote about in her article for The Toast, a lot of the emotional labor that women put into their relationships with men has to do with making sure they don’t blow up or get upset. A lot of that comes from men, especially cis straight men, thinking only they understand their situation, and instead of actually seeking help or guidance, they would rather hear what they want to hear. Men need to learn that anything their partner says that doesn’t sound inherently positive isn’t an attack on the man’s ego, but it is usually meant to be a depiction of their point of view on whatever situation you both are in or whatever problem you have come to them with. You have to learn how to listen, regulating your emotional response, allowing an actual conversation to take place as opposed to a forced therapy session.
Take responsibility for your emotions—and your actions.
Similar to the first point, it is necessary for men to learn how to take on their own emotions head on and understand why having overbearing and violent emotional outbursts are not just a part of being a “man.” Men have to learn how to take responsibility for how their emotions come out in their relationships and look at how to manage them. This typically means taking the time to come to terms with the fact that, as a man, you are typically not challenged on your negative emotional output in positive, productive ways, as there are fewer stigmas against men being angry or overemotional than there are for women, trans* folks, and gender nonconforming folks. Because of that lack of challenging and lack of stigma, it is up to men to question themselves and be more reflexive with how their emotions affect others, becoming more sensitive to others’ emotions in the process, and allowing emotional labor to become an easier process.
Learn to be comfortable with being vulnerable
One of the hardest parts of taking on emotional labor for men is the unwillingness to be vulnerable with their emotions. Part of the reflexivity that is necessary for emotional labor to take place is the ability to be vulnerable. But as I’ve discussed in previous articles, actually achieving vulnerability is hard for a lot of men because it goes against the norm of what it means to “be a man.” What it comes down to is basically this: you either have to come to terms with your emotions and the stress you put on others by not participating in the emotional labor, or continue to be cold and invulnerable while your relationships continue to suffer for it.
What Can Taking On Emotional Labor Actually Do For Relationships?
Good relationships can thrive and bad relationships can end
When men learn to take on some of the burden that emotional labor can create, it can lead couples and other relationships to thrive. Understanding the give-and-take of emotions in a relationship means you’re more open to your partner’s emotions and concerns and you can better process your own emotions so they don’t come out in waves of anger or frustration. This also means that bad relationships can end without one party taking full responsibility for the emotional end of the deal. When both or all partners are putting in the emotional labor, it’s easier to figure out the true issues that underlie the relationship. That means the differences people have among each other become points of growth, even if it’s through separating from those other people, as opposed to points of contention that ruin partners’ mental health.
Honesty can be a priority not just an assumption
Relationships with a good balance of emotional labor are inherently more honest relationships. In the same way as I mentioned above that the give-and-take of emotions can come to more of an equilibrium, fair emotional labor means that partners can be more honest with each other. Not just about positive things like compliments and recognition, but with less positive things like constructive criticism or aspects of the relationship you wish were different. This also means that partners can be more open with what they actually want in their relationship. Rather than feeling like they need to keep secrets or feeling like they need to get into arguments whenever a partner feels they’re being lied to.
You can help change what it means to be a man
Finally, one of the most important aspects of men contributing more to the emotional labor in their relationships is changing what it means to “be a man” altogether. This is something that is nearly completely up to men to take on themselves. The emotional labor of redefining masculinity is not something that should be put on the shoulders of women, just like everything else that men have forced women and other partners and friends to deal with. It falls on the shoulders of men themselves to understand the importance of emotional labor and the need for vulnerability in order to truly achieve some sense of mutual respect and love amongst genders.
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[Feature Image: A dark skin individual with dreadlocks pulled back into a ponytail wears a black short while standing outdoors. The person has a light mustache and beard and is staring ahead at the camera with. Flickr.com/David Salafia]