The Bar Shouldn’t Be This Low, Fellas: Some Truths On Emotional Labor.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 0.603% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I think a lot of straight guys are poisoned by all the emphasis on HOW TO GET SEX FROM A WOMAN – because honestly, “Getting laid” isn’t all that difficult. Assuming you haven’t inflated your incel-size ego enough that you demand a perfectly-plucked, porn-perfect partner to satiate your kinda-saggy, kinda-unshaved body, then finding an enthusiastic partner to hook up with isn’t hard.

HINT: You don’t have to trick women; many of them, too, are looking to get laid. It’s often just a matter of convincing someone “Hi, I am not a stalking murderer and also the sex will be fun.” Which is another low bar to clear, but hello here we are.

(I say this knowing that some dude will most likely reply, in voluminous detail, all the ways that women have let him down even though he followed all the steps and it’s not that easy and you don’t understand my travails and my answer will be, “…do you think this makes you sound like someone who’s fun to have sex with?”)

Anyway. Finding someone to share fun times with is the comparatively simple bit, because women who want to have sex are motivated to help you along with that process.

The difficult part is what comes afterwards.

Because what I see way too much of is men who have grown fond of someone they’re having sex with, so they shuffle down the prearranged path to move in/get engaged/get married/have kids, and they’ve gotten the sex but still have very little understanding of the sex-provider they’re with.

And what all too often happens is that they have a female partner, who is often conditioned by society to tend to everyone’s needs, who takes care of all the things they don’t like doing. Which takes on a variety of things that these dudes may be so alienated from their so intent that they may not even recognize they require – oh, they’ll bitch about having to go out with Wanda and Herman again, but truth is they get lonely if their wife doesn’t arrange the socialization. They want their laundry done just so, and rely on their wives to tell them when they’re looking too grubby to go to the big event. They rely on the fridge to be filled by their wives, so when they go for food it’s just sort of there.

Now here’s the thing:

What the wife is doing is not necessarily bad.

In an ideal marriage, both partners are pitching in to tend to each other’s needs. I mean, my wife manages the prescriptions in our home, but I’m the one who monitors our health and nudges her to see the doctor when she doesn’t wanna. My wife handles me when I’m in a depressive fit, but I also try to look for nights out doing fun things so we don’t sit at home curdling.

That’s a functional relationship.

But what too many of the dudes who have put all their character points into “getting sex” instead of “maintaining functioning relationships” do is to just assume their wives are okay until they complain.

There’s the real trick.

There’s a concept called “emotional labor” which takes on a bunch of complex forms, but what it often boils down to for these men is the skill of “Pondering what would make your partner happy before they get upset enough to complain about it.”

That shit will save your relationship pronto.

Lemme give you a real-life example: I’m a slob. My wife wants the kitchen clean. And about three times a week, I look at the kitchen and go, “That’s fine.” Then I look at it through my wife’s eyes and go, “No, she thinks that’s messy. She’s not said anything to me about it, and she’s too busy to clean it up right now, but it’s worsening her day a little every time she walks into that kitchen.”

So I clean it up.

Now, there’s a loudmouthed contingent that says, “Why are you rewarding that behavior? She should ask for what she wants!” But that’s a dimwitted approach, for two reasons:

The first is that getting to the point of vocalizing a complaint is a process that involves several stages of irritants. First, you have to recognize the problem – and Gini may just be feeling the subliminal “This is a crappy place to live” vibe for a long time before it bubbles to the surface why she’s unhappy – and then you have to decide whether it’s worth trying to convince someone else to fix it for you. (And if you’re prone to arguing back that the kitchen looks fine to you, then they have to weigh a potential argument in mind.) And then they have to ponder the way to say it, or just wait until they snap.

That’s a lot of other irritations to load onto something that already makes ’em feel strained. In fact, depending on how conflict-averse they are, they may choose the lesser of two miseries and clean the kitchen themselves, figuring that “avoiding an argument and feeling isolated” is a better call than “getting into a fight and dealing with my husband being pissy all evening.”

But even if you didn’t believe in all of that, consider the difference here:

Wife waits until kitchen is messy enough to reach critical mass, chooses to vocalize a complaint. You do the thing. At that point, your best outcome is “Gosh, they’re nice enough to move when I bug them” – but it’s probably closer to “Jesus, I had to ask?”

Wife walks into kitchen, discovers it clean. At that point, the worst outcome is “Just like I expected,” but the probable outcome is “Oh, wow, he was thinking of me and I don’t have to do that – thank God.”

One outcome is grudging. The other speaks love.

And so as a long-term partner, my dude, your goal is to not just passively wait until your wife boots your butt into action, but to study her – see what vexes her, mark it in advance, and proactively change your behavior to make her feel better.

And yeah, that involves the effort of remembering to watch for things when you could just be sipping a beer, and to get up from watching TV to handle the kids when you know that she’d handle it eventually.

That’s the emotional labor: that commitment to not just passively consuming any kindness your wife chooses to give you, but to actively contemplate her as a person and deduce what kindnesses will actually make her life easier.

And there is a danger here, because a lot of dudes try to apply stereotypical fixes they read about elsewhere – “I’ll bring her flowers and book a weekend retreat.” But if you don’t have money for flowers and a cabin, maybe that’s just gonna stress her out more.

The trick is to figure out kindnesses that suit her. Her specifically. Not some idealized version of a woman, or a woman you saw in a movie, but here.

And here’s the other secret:

A lot of those kindnesses are really mundane things.

They’re filling up the tank the night before when you know she has a lot of errands to run.

They’re taking the kids out for a walk so she can have a bubble bath without being bothered.

They’re respecting that her job is every bit as important as yours, and offering to switch shifts to run some errands when she’s in crunch mode.

They’re listening when she’s talking about something that seems meaningless or boring to you, and trying to figure out what is of interest to her in it, even if you eventually say, “Hey, can we change the subject?”

And yeah. Not every female partner is a caregiver, and a lot of them are also selfish and don’t care much about you, and if that’s the case you have every much a right to leave as they do with an unresponsive partner. There’s bad eggs in every gender, or lack thereof.

But what often happens is that a lot of these style of dudes get dumped on the floor in a divorce, and they’re struggling because all these quiet services that their partner used to provide are gone, and they’re lonely and the wrong food is in the fridge and what the fuck is this medication for and it’s an awful, lonely position to be in…

One that can often be avoided if instead of being an unthinking recipient of kindness, you spend a few extra minutes a day figuring out how to be kind to your partner and actually having them be surprised with loving acts from out of nowhere.

That’s a form of emotional labor. It’s honestly not that hard once you realize the need for it.

It’s also one of the most useful ones to know.

12 Comments

  1. cold and alone
    Mar 8, 2019

    Fuck you, dude. Stating relationships is hard, especially when you’re not just adding new connections in a polycule.

    • The Ferrett
      Mar 8, 2019

      Before Gini, I dated over about 30 women over a 12-year period, and hooked up with somewhere between 60 and 70. And I was a bug-eyed, pudgy depressive.

      Now, admittedly, the game is a little different now thanks to Tinder and OKC and whatnot, but I keep seeing younger guys with the same principles: convincing people that you’ll be decent in bed and not a stalker is usually a fair ways towards getting you where you want to go. And when I read the pick-up guides, I was honestly shocked at how much of the advice was “Women want to get laid, convince them you’ll be decent and fun.”

      So finding women? It’s not trivial to hook up with someone. But it’s also not scaling Mount Everest.

  2. Doug S.
    Mar 9, 2019

    The flip side of this is gatekeeping – you try to do something to pitch in, and then you get chewed out because you Did It Wrong. You stop helping out in a hurry after this happens to you a few times. :/

    • Dan B.
      Mar 9, 2019

      It’s not that gatekeeping like that never happens, but in my experience the situation is usually more like “Jesus, how could a grown man do such a shitty job at a simple task?”

      So yeah, you loaded and ran the dishwasher and she chewed you out because you loaded it wrong. Maybe she’s unreasonable. Or maybe you put plastic stuff on the bottom rack where it’s going to melt, and didn’t rinse the mashed potatoes off the plates first so now all the glasses are coated in a light layer of potato starch. And now she’s got to do all the extra work of fixing what you did by ‘helping.’ If she has to supervise you doing the work, you’re not doing emotional labor.

      This bit from the essay is key: “actively contemplate her as a person and deduce what kindnesses will actually make her life easier.”

      Make her life easier. If she figures that your help is likely to create more work for her rather than less, don’t expect her to be grateful.

      • Stephen
        Mar 16, 2019

        Because it’s not a simple task! It looks like one, but there’s a lot beneath the surface: knowing when/what you have to pre-clean, efficient methods and what you have to take time to do, knowing what things go on what rack and what things can’t be placed in the dishwasher, knowing what settings on the dishwasher matter when and which don’t.

        Understanding the function of the dishwasher – how it cleans, that you have to organize the dishes in a certain way if you want them to get clean – you can’t place them in certain ways, you can’t block them with other dishes in certain directions.

        The problem: *both* people aren’t valuing the knowledge and effort involved from the person who is actually doing the work. Ditto with cleaning: you have to actually think through that dirt only appears in certain lighting or angles, so you’re not going to see it unless you spend the time and attention, or have the experience to know at what rate things get dirty.

    • Mavis N.
      Mar 9, 2019

      Did you ever think that maybe you really are doing it wrong?

      To give you an example from my life: my husband decided to help me out by doing the laundry. Awesome! But he forgot to check the pockets and a lipstick got melted over the whole load and baked in by the dryer. I know he didn’t mean to and that he feels bad about ruining a bunch of my clothes. I forgive him and ask him to be more careful.

      It’s a month or two before he decided to help by washing our daughter’s clothes. He checked all the pokets and was good to go. But then he forgot to put them in the dryer and they sat there moldering until I did laundry. I then had to re-wash them and I asked him to make sure that he finishes the load that he started. He was grumpy because he thought he’s doing something nice for me and I’m grumpy because he didn’t think things through logically and made more work for me.

      So he stopped doing any laundry but his own because I told him that he needed to do it right. Gatekeeping? No. Trying to stop your partner from making extra work and getting unhappy because their efforts don’t earn them praise. Take a moment to evaluate the feedback your getting. If you don’t understand it then ask for the why.

  3. ZacAttac
    Mar 9, 2019

    It always baffles me when guys act like this is a foreign concept. Or that it’s unreasonable to think that guys should do emotional labor. Like, just the very idea that “hey, my lady partner has this need that is currently going unaddressed. I should try to meet it if I can, and have a conversation with her about it if I can’t.” This is not rocket science, guys. Poly or not, meeting your partners needs and communicating is literally the only way to start and maintain a relationship.

  4. Anonymous Alex
    Mar 10, 2019

    I didn’t think I had anything constructive to say (“I agree” doesn’t count), but I’m very uncomfortable with the tone of the few comments that have arisen.*

    So I’ll instead pose a question: Why is it that, in spite of the clear value of this sort of “emotional labor,” both theoretically and in practice–that is, it makes sense and I’ve personally experienced it working in my own life–it’s still so damn hard to do? Why is it so much effort to (using the above example) clean the kitchen, when I know from experience that it will make my wife happy–which, in turn, will make ME happy?

    -Alex

    * While I’ll grant that it’s my impression that Ferrett, despite his admitted flaws, seems to be in the skinny part of the bell curve with respect to “getting sex,” and therefore may be subject to the “if I, with my manifest issues, can do it, so can you” fallacy, that’s not really what this post is about.

  5. VioletHelix
    Mar 12, 2019

    My divorce court date is a week from Friday. This is one of the major reasons why.

    • The Ferrett
      Mar 15, 2019

      I had to click an “Approve” button to make this comment visible. But I do not approve. I wish you so well.

  6. Bea
    Mar 14, 2019

    You have a real gift for explaining alternate viewpoints for folks who are deeply embedded in their own.
    The replies here don’t give me much hope that those so embedded have any real interest in expanding their views of the world–only to defend how they don’t have to. 🙁

  7. Stephen
    Mar 16, 2019

    I have a few bones to pick with this post. I respect the message you have to send with it – the core point about emotional labor is valid, and things basically tend to boil down as you described on average, at least with cisgendered people in American culture.

    Getting laid, though. My personal experience is, well, directly the opposite of yours. I’ve learned not not to value myself as a person by whether women want to fuck me – because that part really isn’t happening. And I know good men, attractive men, kind men who have the same experience I have. With that in consideration, the line “another low bar to clear” is vicious and biting.

    Don’t the first two paragraphs reinforce those preconceptions about the connection between sex and worth as a person, the ones that say how attractive others find me defines my own value?

    As for emotional labor, I’m in that position right now with my current roommate. Whether it’s leaving his clothes in the laundry, the dishes dirty in the sink, or the empty trash bin on the curb for a week while I’m out of town, he’s got more than a bit to learn. But if you dump ten things at once on most people, they aren’t going to learn; they’ll just get hostile – or, worse, resentful. Since I don’t want to throw him out and find a new tenant, I’m teaching him the way that works: a bit at a time mixed with positivity. And, so, he is learning, and as he becomes reliable on the absolute most critical things I start mentioning things that are a little less important, a bit at a time.

    There’s another problem here: when you grow up with doing something, it’s easy to forget how complex and difficult it is – especially when you don’t respect yourself and the value of your own skills. Not only this, but being a good teacher and trainer – not at all common. So, we see the person who is normally responsible for these tasks demonstrating them while leaving out indispensable parts – because they assume any reasonable person would just figure it out, because they don’t even think about it, doing it unconsciously. And then they get pissed and upset when the person they trained doesn’t get it right.

    In this case, things work best when both parties properly value the knowledge and labor of the person who is currently handling tasks. It’s usually not a good idea to learn how to do it from the person who’s already doing it – there’s too much baggage there. So, if you want to make things work, you find someone else who has the time and willingness to teach you on your own time. With household tasks, people who had to learn them as an adult the hard way tend to work better because they remember the details of learning and how it felt.

    From here, things get complicated when someone who is used to having complete and total control about how things are done has to share space with someone else. Whether it be a computer network or cooking or cleaning, if someone else is doing half the work, they’re going to want to be part of the decision making, too. That can be very hard for the person who is used to unilaterally deciding everything to their own preferences (and those preferences include how to best satisfying the wishes of the household and even the person they are arguing with!) to deal with.

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