Emotional Labor for Men, Part II: Fix Yourself

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece on the concept of emotional labor. It focused on men needing to take a more proactive approach to all aspects of their relationships and daily life. It’s easy to get caught up on the labor part: doing the dishes, cleaning the house, going to the grocery store, carpooling kids, paying bills.

But it’s about more than chores and tasks. It’s about taking ownership. It’s about not making the other person always have to ask. About forethought, planning, recognizing that something needs to be done, and doing it.

Too often men will say, “Well, I can’t read her mind. If she wants me to do something, of course I’ll do it. All she has to do is ask.”

But that’s not being a partner. That’s being hired help. That’s a glorified assistant — not a true teammate.

Carrying the load of emotional labor equally means allocating mental and psychological energy to things both as they arise and before. It means doing things without being asked. It means taking the initiative on making plans, and yeah, doing chores. It means making it so your partner doesn’t feel that the burden of household and relationship management falls on her shoulders alone.

That said, it goes further still. There actually is an emotional part to the world of emotional labor. Think back to the Freakonomics episode on the situations women are being hired to become CEO, aka The Glass Cliff.

In short, it is to fix things. To make things better. To take things men had broken, and make them whole again.

This is toxic and wrong. And unfair.

To be blunt, whether in the office, or at home as significant others, women are not here to make men feel better. To fix us.

If, in fact, we are broken, it is our own responsibility to identify and address our problems. Just as each person must ensure their own happiness (because we can never truly rely or depend upon another person for our own happiness) so too must we take ownership of recognizing and addressing our flaws.

It’s OK to have those flaws. We are human, after all. All men have them. So do our partners.

And of course, in every relationship there is nurturing and caring. There is, hopefully, guidance, supportive criticism, helpfulness. Without these, why bother? Tenderness and love, too, all the nice things about a relationship, about receiving a helping hand, about knowing there is someone to turn to, someone who’s got your back.

Just as it’s OK to have flaws, it’s OK to sometimes rely on our partners, as long as we provide the space, strength and capacity for them to lean and rely on us sometimes. Life is damn hard. It ebbs and flows, we’re all human, and all we need, as they say, someone we can lean on.

So where is that line? That line is at fixing, and at solving, and doing the work that needs to be done.

I’ve found, and been deeply grateful for, the women in my life to be very supportive of me. And they’ve helped me through the process of identifying my strengths and weaknesses, my desires and frustrations.

But once you’ve reached that point, and this may seem kind of harsh, you’re on your own. Or rather, it’s up to you.

Frustrated with your career? Your significant other can support you and encourage you through a transition, but you have to take the initiative to do it.

Dealing with issues of depression, or anger management, or something along those lines? When I went through bouts of depression, my partners were there for me — and desperately wanted to see me get out of it, not for their sake, but for mine.

But that pendulum swung when I didn’t do enough to change the dynamic in my career that was frustrating me most. Or didn’t put enough effort into my passion for writing. Which then made me, as well as depressed, something close to a miserable bastard.

This cycle, not surprisingly (and like everything else), seeps into the bedroom, too. A lot of men experience anxiety, stress and nervousness about their sexual performance, about pleasing their partner, about “being a man” in bed.

And since we’re human, we’ll sometimes miss the mark, and then feel bad/guilty/shameful about it, almost weak, as if our performance in bed is a measure of our manhood.

But while we should, and must, emphasize ensuring our partner’s satisfaction in bed, what we can’t do is overburden ourselves with anxiety in doing so. Like in our careers or other areas of our personal lives, our partners can be supportive and helpful. But they can’t get us over the finish line, they can’t do the work for us, they can’t fix us, and nor should they.

We, as men, as individuals, as adults, must fully bring on to ourselves the responsibility to be better partners, lovers, workers, homemakers — and make the changes in ourselves that will make us better.

If you don’t think you can learn and evolve, that’s a problem. Yeah, sure, we all have our habits and patterns and routines. No one need strive for perfection. But you can try to be a little bit better.

You can, and must, put in the effort to really try.

You will feel better for it, and your partner will appreciate it.

This process, this effort, this, and I hate to use the word, but it’s the best one for it, this work, is what it means to be a man. It means, depending on your perspective, never getting comfortable with yourself, or always challenging yourself to learn and improve.

Can this be exhausting? Yes. Isn’t there a point when you reach adulthood, and you’re there, you are who you are? Sure — if you think you’re perfect at everything you do or can’t learn something new or learn to do something better.

Let’s stay in the bedroom for a minute. There is a lot of ego involved in our sexual performance, not to mention pressure and anxiety that we bring upon ourselves from preconceived and societal expectations of what and how we should perform in bed. Even using the word ‘perform’ is loaded — it conveys that we are doing something outside ourselves, for reasons beyond what sex is actually meant for.

And when things go awry, or when we fall short of those expectations, it creates a dynamic that can put your entire sexual relationship, and maybe even your relationship as a whole, in a weird imbalance.

In a future post I’ll focus more exclusively on sex, and the philosophy of being an attentive partner.

But for now I want to address that moment after you’ve not met your own expectation. She didn’t enjoy it, you didn’t last long enough, it didn’t feel meaningful and bonding. And it makes you feel…less than a man.

This is tough terrain, but I’ll tell you the number one thing you should not do. Don’t expect your partner to make you feel better about it. You should take ownership about making yourself feel better about it. Sure, your partner can be supportive, and honest, and helpful. But she is not there to fix you.

In bed. At home. At the office. Anywhere.

This is where the rubber meets the road in men’s response to #MeToo. Women have done more than their fair share of expressing and communicating the problem. It is not their responsibility to solve the problem of harassment, abuse, inequality, bad sex. Problems that we, as men, are mostly responsible for.

We can use their guidance, their opinions…but, once we’ve done the requisite listening, the responsibility falls on us to change patterns of behavior.

If you think that’s an unfair burden, frankly, too bad. See the previous post on emotional labor.

This won’t happen overnight. And there are limits to what one person can do.

But you have to try.

It starts with recognizing the world women are living in. And then comes the work, the emotional labor, of being better. It starts and includes every interaction you have with women, whether you know a person or they are a stranger.

See a problem? Feeling bad? Seeking help in fixing that problem is OK. That’s why we have therapists, consultants, and contractors.

But the responsibility is on you. Don’t look to others, particularly women, to make you a better man. Being a man means owning that job for yourself.

Have any feedback? I can be reached at scottmgilman @ gmail.com.

A version of this post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.

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