The Importance of Naming Emotional Labor

Recently my boyfriend thanked me for doing emotional labor for him.

As in, he actually used that phrase: “I appreciate all the emotional labor you’ve been doing for me.” And then he apologized for not doing as much in return. (I disagree, actually: I think it’s been quite balanced.)

It was an interesting moment in that it illuminated the empty space around it–the space where all the emotional labor I’ve done for others, previous male partners especially, has gone unacknowledged.

I told him that nobody had ever thanked me for that before.

Sure, people have thanked me “for listening” or “being there for me,” and that was obviously meaningful. But few have ever done so in a way that acknowledged the work involved–the emotional labor. Nobody has ever used that term.

It’s not that I do it for the gratitude. I don’t support my friends and partners to get something in return, or so that they feel deeply indebted to me or any other power play-type shit like that. I do emotional labor for the simple reason that it feels good. Same reason most of us do anything, at the root of it.

But it stops feeling good when I feel like I’m expected to do it, especially if I sense that I’m expected to do it because of my gender. It stops feeling good when rather than directly asking me for what they need, they try to passive-aggressively coax it out of me. It stops feeling good when they demand tons of emotional labor and then half-heartedly return the favor by offering me types of emotional labor they know I don’t want. (For instance: I don’t like talking at length about my problems. Stop offering to listen and then considering your share of the work done.)

Issues like that surrounding emotional labor have plagued most of my relationships with men. In fact, they’re what ultimately ended most of my relationships with men.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the few partners I’ve had who understands the term emotional labor and is able to use it to acknowledge a pattern in our relationship is also one of the few partners I’ve had with whom I did not experience (at least not yet, and not in my perspective) a noticeable imbalance in it.

It’s hard to value things that we have no language for even thinking about, let alone speaking about to each other. As I mentioned, there are words and phrases that get at little pieces of what emotional labor is–“being a good listener,” “being considerate,” “good manners,” “sensitivity”–none of them really address the fact that it is work, and work takes effort. Considerate and sensitive is something you are. Emotional labor is something you do.

When you name emotional labor for what it is, you’re able to treat it as valuable. That doesn’t just mean literally thanking someone for it–I’d felt completely happy with the emotional labor I was doing for my boyfriend before he explicitly thanked me. The thank-you was nice, but what’s even nicer is the way he responds to my emotional labor with increased intimacy and vulnerability, the way he makes an effort to figure out what sorts of emotional labor I might appreciate from him and do those things, and the way he treats my emotional labor as mine to give rather than his to take. That requires an understanding of what it is that’s being given or taken.

I don’t doubt that there are people who do what he does without having ever heard the term “emotional labor,” but that’s doing it on the highest difficulty setting, in my opinion. Clearly he’d been thinking about this for a while before he said anything to me, and that meant that in his head he’d been organizing things under the heading “emotional labor that my girlfriend does for me” and “emotional labor that I do for my girlfriend.”

I would be curious to see what those lists look like for other people, with their partners and friends. What they think emotional labor is, what they don’t think it is. To me, it’s a combination of things most people would want to do, such as showing concern if your partner’s had a rough day or picking out a gift that’ll make your partner feel loved, and things most people probably wouldn’t want to do, such as pretending to be happy so that your partner isn’t upset by your negative emotions and reminding your partner for the millionth fucking time to do the thing they promised they’d do.

Those seem like totally different things that don’t belong in the same category, but they do, because it’s not about whether it’s positive or negative. It’s about whether it requires effort and energy. It’s just like any other work in that way–I have tasks at work that I love and tasks at work that I hate, but regardless, they’re all work and I want all of them to be seen and acknowledged.

Knowing what emotional labor means and feeling comfortable using the term in context is a great way to start seeing and acknowledging the less-tangible ways in which your partner supports you.

 

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Sexual Orientation Can Change

#sex #BDSM #queerphobia/biphobia

Hey, did you know that sexual orientation can change? Mine did!

I was bisexual for years, throughout adolescence and college and half of grad school. Like many bisexual people, my attractions to different genders weren’t identical or equal: I tended to be more attracted to women, but everyone I’d fallen in love with or had a serious relationship with had been a man, so I wondered if I could ever love a woman at all.

Well, I could and I did. Perhaps because of that experience, perhaps not (probably not, in retrospect), my patterns of attraction started shifting.

I’d always experienced a certain…apathy about men when it comes to sexual attraction, but I figured that was just attributable to demisexuality. The only way I could ever want to fuck a man would be if I sort of made myself do it the first time, and then afterwards I’d usually really want to. Sometimes I even thought about men when I masturbated. But it was always tenuous and fragile thing. When I saw male partners after a long time apart, it would always take me at least a few hours to want them again. They’d expect me to throw myself into their arms at the first greeting, but honestly, in that moment I usually didn’t want to touch them or look at them at all. Eventually I would “get into it” again.

But starting about a year ago, even that started slipping away from me. The idea of having sex with men started to fill me with dread, then revulsion. At first I thought I could have mostly-asexual relationships with them, but then I realized that I couldn’t even really experience crushy-type feelings with them anymore. (My last crush on a guy was probably over a year ago, unless you count Jon Snow.)

How much of this is political and how much of it is “biological”? Truly, I have no idea. Maybe I would feel differently about this if every single relationship I’ve ever had with a man, no matter how casual or how serious, didn’t fall apart in the same tangled mess of unexamined assumptions about gender roles. Somehow, no matter progressive they are, it’s only a matter of time before it’s my job to take care of their feelings, and they’re feeling sad because I’m not interested enough in sex or moving in together or whatever, and they’re trying to take charge of my mental health for me without my consent, and “I just don’t understand why you’d even want to be with me,” and on and on and on. Worse, they keep insisting that they’re not trying to get me to change my desires or behavior, but then they consistently act in ways that seem designed to get me to change my desires or behavior. Seriously, anyone would lose interest after all this.

And maybe it doesn’t matter. Even if these negative experiences somehow caused me to lose all ability to even imagine fucking a man without feeling nauseous, I mean, the nausea is still real.

People really don’t like to hear about all this. Straight people get terrified of being “turned” gay; gays and lesbians are terrified of being “turned” straight; bisexual people hate me for “confirming” the stereotype that bisexuality is “just a phase,” since I guess I ultimately did “pick a side,” didn’t I?

I feel that. But it’s not my job to make sure that the things that happen to me are politically expedient for The Movement. It would be awful if someone decides to use my experience as “proof” that bisexual people are all going to “pick a side” at some point or that maybe we really can turn queer people straight, but even though it would be awful, it wouldn’t be my fault. I can’t singlehandedly stop queerphobia, not even if I make sure that my feelings and experiences always align with what’s most politically advantageous.

It would be convenient if I could somehow convince myself (and others) that I was Really A Lesbian All Along. And I do wonder if I would’ve been, were it not for the social conditioning that caused me to believe that I desperately Need A Man. But again, it doesn’t really matter. For ten years I genuinely felt that I wanted to be with men, romantically and sometimes sexually. Now I don’t.

There are exceptions, though. I sometimes enjoy sex with men in the context of a threesome with another woman. I sometimes enjoy cuddling with men. Sometimes, men who exhibit a certain combination of Dom-ness, sweetness, and great progressive consent-focused politics can really turn me on. But the idea of looking for Doms specifically is horrifying, because very few of them have those other two qualities. I’m not looking for some controlling, hyper-masculine asshole who’s actually deeply insecure on the inside. I’m looking for someone who knows how to make me feel good and has the confidence to make it happen. I’m looking for someone who knows how to fuck without me having to patiently explain every little detail. I’m looking for someone who actually knows what he wants and gets it rather than prefacing every single sexual encounter with “But what do YOU like?” (Please do not assume my preferences are universal. I’m a kinky sub, and even then not all kinky subs like what I like.)

But those men are very rare, and even then I’m not sure I’d necessarily want to have a relationship with one.

I don’t really have much of a label nowadays; I tend to use “gay,” “queer,” or “homoflexible” depending on the context. I know I’m not comfortable claiming the word “lesbian,” since most of the interactions I’ve had with lesbians about this suggest that they want nothing to do with me unless I either 1) agree to never ever fuck or date a man again, or 2) can qualify for their bullshit and often transphobic-in-context “Gold Star” rule. Well, I can’t, so you can keep your label, I shan’t sully it with my ambiguous sexuality.

(#NotAllLesbians, surely, but you can’t deny that as a community, they haven’t been very supportive or welcoming to women who can’t always define their sexuality.)

Where does all this leave me? Confused and lonely, mostly. I feel powerless to find solidarity among others who have had similar experiences, even though “used to date/fuck men and no longer interested in dating/fucking men” seems to describe many queer women. But there’s no label for it, so I don’t know how to find them.

Although some of them still identify as bi, in practice, I don’t find that I have much to say in bi spaces. Almost every bi woman I know is either in a serious relationship with a man, or is looking for a serious relationship with a man. Therefore, most bi women I encounter are often talking about dating and fucking men. Of course, that’s 100% their right: they’re still just as queer, no matter what some bullshit xoJane article says, and they don’t owe anyone any proof of that. But it does mean I don’t feel that I have much in common with them, and right now I really need spaces where men are decentered. I just really need to not hear about fucking men for a while. (Both in the adjective sense, and in the verb sense.)

I love blogs like Autostraddle for this reason, but in terms of finding community and people to talk to, that’s a lot harder. I don’t think most of my friends (let alone my partners) really understand what’s going on with me, and I don’t know how to explain it any better than I’ve already done.

To be fair, I don’t really understand what’s going on with me, either.

I will delete any comments that tell me that I’m wrong about my identity, or otherwise try to invalidate my personal experience.

Yes, that includes telling me I’m “actually bisexual.”

No True Lover

I was trying to explain polyamory to my mother a few nights ago (not for the first time) and we kept getting stuck on the same things.

She kept saying, “But wouldn’t he feel disgusted knowing that his girlfriend had just slept with someone else and now she’s sleeping with him?”

I said, well, anyone who feels that disgusted about it probably won’t be trying polyamory anytime soon. The people I know who practice it do not find that disgusting.

“But they should.”

Why?

“Because it’s just disgusting.”

To you. But not to them.

“Then there’s something wrong with them.”

Why is there something wrong with them?

“Because if there wasn’t, they would think it’s disgusting.”

And on and on it went.

This is something I notice otherwise rational people a lot, this circuitous post-facto justification of opinions that are actually based on one’s personal feelings about something. A lot of people think polyamory is Wrong because they personally find the thought of it unpleasant. I used to, too.

When I presented her with a few stories of people who had been happily living in polyamorous relationships/marriages for years, seemingly without feeling disgusted every time one of their partners came back from spending time with a metamour, she changed her argument.

“They don’t truly love anyone, then.”

Why not?

“Because if they loved someone, they wouldn’t even think of sleeping with someone else.”

What about people who cheat?

“Well, their partners aren’t okay with that.”

So if they are okay with it, then they’re not in love?

“Right.”

I asked her what it would mean if someone who feels themselves to be in love with their partner nevertheless wants to sleep with other people, too, and is completely okay with their partner doing the same. Not just a grudging acceptance, but an eager agreement, even a joyful encouragement.

“Then they must not really love them. Then you have never truly loved anyone.”

But what if I feel that I love them?

“Then you’re feeling something else and you’re calling it love.”

People who oppose polyamory with these sorts of justifications–not that it’s morally wrong in any sense (my mother is not religious), but that it’s a sign of something wrong with you–define their own feelings and their own sense of what is mentally normal in opposition to the behavior of others. A “normal” person feels disgusted at the thought of their partner having sex with someone else. Therefore, a person who does not feel disgusted at this thought is abnormal. A person who is in love does not want to have sex with anyone else. Therefore, a person who wants to have sex with someone besides their partner is not in love with that partner.

What I perceive love to be doesn’t matter.

In fact, I am quite certain that I have loved several people, and even though some of those relationships were monogamous (some never even reached the relationship stage at all), I don’t think I was ever able or willing to commit to a lifetime without so much as a kiss with someone else.

Some (including, most likely, my mother) would say that that’s mainly a consequence of my age, even though plenty of people have gotten married at my age or younger, and that at my age it is impossible to “truly” love someone.

(Again, defining things as is most convenient for you.)

I love, and I have loved. Maybe by my mother’s definition, it isn’t really love. Maybe I am incapable of feeling love like that. Maybe there is something horribly wrong with me. Maybe I am a broken person. Maybe my brain is wrong. Maybe I am missing out on a wondrous, unimaginable (to me) experience that humans have longed for throughout the millennia, written songs and novels and plays about, painted paintings of, suffered over, killed for, died for.

I have entertained all of these possibilities.

And to them, I say:

So what?

I like the way I feel when I love someone. What I call love, I experience in several varieties that all feel irreplaceably different. I don’t love all of my partners in the same ways. I don’t love all of my friends in the same ways. I don’t love all of the people I’m not sure whether to call “partner” or “friend” in the same ways.

I don’t really care if what I call love is what other people call love. If my partners love me back, I don’t care if their subjective experience of that love is the same as mine. Things like that used to concern me an awful lot–who loves the other “more,” who cares “more,” who loves the other “how,” all that other rubbish my depression filled my brain with–but nowadays I rarely think about it.

I hope that when my partners think about me they think about comfort, joy, lust, respect, admiration, gratitude, appreciation, beauty, fun. That’s what love basically is to me, with varying amounts of each of these depending on the person. With my boyfriend, the ones that jump out the most are comfort, lust, respect, and fun. With my best friend, it’s comfort, admiration, and gratitude. But they’re all there.

If this isn’t The Real Love Referenced In Famous Films And Novels, well, whatever. I’ll take what I’ve got, without the monogamy, the jealousy, the fights about what does and doesn’t count as cheating, the worries about trying to be everything the other has ever wanted sexually, the suspicion of ex-partners and relevantly gendered friends.

So I’ve never Really Loved anyone and never will. Fine by me.