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 cis romantic and sexual relationships, is that 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 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.
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There are many reasons why men might not feel capable or responsible for accepting this responsibility, although much of it most likely revolves around the desire or necessity men feel for not facing their emotions and not being vulnerable, since those actions are seen as un-masculine.
Whether 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. Here’s four ways men can be more fair with emotional labor.
Understand that the labor is necessary.
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.
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. Much 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 is usually meant to express 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 is 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 cis straight 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 act cold and invulnerable while your relationships continue to suffer for it.
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The Positive Impacts of Men Taking on Emotional Labor
Simply put, when when men learn to take on some of the burden that emotional labor can create, good relationships can thrive and bad relationships can end. 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. 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.
Relationships with a good balance of emotional labor are inherently more honest relationships. Fair emotional labor means that partners can be more honest with each other, not just about positive topics like compliments and recognition, but with less positive conversations 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.
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 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. Men must understand the importance of emotional labor and the need for vulnerability in order to truly achieve some sense of mutual respect and love between genders.
[Feature Image: An individual with brown skin, dreadlocks pulled back into a ponytail, and a dark shirt stands outdoors and looks at the camera with a subtle smile on their face. Source: Flickr.com/David Salafia]
I am very glad to see more articles about this topic surfacing. This is such a crucial component of a healthy fulfilling relationship.
The problem/negative examples here depict a man who is outwardly aggressive and overbearing. My experience has been with men who are avoidant of emotional expression of any kind really. The non-confrontational nice guy, who remains largely emotionally indifferent in most engagements. I think this avoidant approach is another way in which emotional labor can be abdicated by one person in a relationship, and is as damaging to a relationship as the manifestation outlined above.
Regarding #4, I think a lot of men are implicitly taught that we’re actually reducing the amount of emotional labor that women have to do by us not being vulnerable (even though we obviously don’t hear or think of it in those exact words).
There are probably more things that men do that we genuinely think are helpful but usually aren’t helpful. That might be a good topic for a future post.