I have been thinking a lot recently about emotional labour, and the disproportional amount of it that women do in relationships. At this point, you might wrinkle your nose and dismiss this blog post as more shit that feminists have made up to be angry about now they’ve got the vote thing sorted, but bear with me here. I was recently dumped by a man that I was desperately, insanely in love with and now that he’s left, along with the debilitating heartbreak, I’ve found that I have an odd sense relief. Considering that he told me he didn’t want to cook and clean the flat whilst he was unemployed because he “felt like a maid”, you can imagine that in terms of gender roles, he wasn’t the most modern in his ideas. But it isn’t this total inability to help around the house that I feel freed from, it’s the absolute exhaustion of the amount of emotional labour I did in our relationship.
As an example of this phenomenon, take the reasons that we said we loved each other. I would tell him that he was the most amazing man I’d ever met, intelligent, handsome, gentle, I felt unbelievably lucky to be allowed to be with him. He told me he loved me because I made him happy. Now you can immediately see the flaw in this sentiment. If you love someone because they make you happy, the minute you cease to be happy you also cease to be in love with that person. Of course, that is exactly what happened. When he left his job and was unemployed for a long period of time, his entire self-worth evaporated and I was left with a man that I had neither the strength nor the resources to make happy. I felt powerless to improve our relationship, and he, in turn, began to remove himself from it, spending more and more time drinking with the friends that could help to distract him from his situation. And eventually, I was unbearably lonely and he was unbearably unhappy, so he left. On his way out of the door he told me that the breakup wasn’t about me, because not everything is about me. At the time I was devastated that I was so inconsequential as to not even have caused by own dumping, but in hindsight, I realise that he was in fact right. Nothing that I could have done could have made him stay, because it is impossible for anyone, no matter how superhuman, to entirely support another person’s happiness. In our relationship I loved and he felt loved. The entire emotional burden of our relationship rested on my shoulders and I, like anyone, crumbled under the pressure.
Now, looking back, I can see that from the very beginning I entirely orchestrated and supported the emotion in our relationship. When I met him, he was in a relationship with a girl that he swore wasn’t his girlfriend, but that he had been with for too long for them not to be together. No, it doesn’t make sense to me either. Apparently she felt the same, but I am yet to distinguish exactly what the feeling is that she was being attributed with. Anyway, this allowed him to see both of us for an entire month, without either of us being aware of it. He told me that he had never been in a relationship that lasted longer than six months, and that had been when he was sixteen. He had never been in love. Taking this as a challenge, I set about to force our relationship into something that could be described as serious with extreme gusto. I soothed him about his emotional and physical issues, treating them with a patience and kindness that you would usually reserve for a man you had been married to for ten years. Like so many before me, I thought I could heal this broken man and he, in turn, would think I was as amazing as I thought him to be. As things advanced we talked about marriage and children, I told him he was worthy and worthwhile, he would make an amazing husband and father, that I had never met anyone like him. He told me that I had given him confidence he had never had before. We ran towards the imagining of our shared future far too fast, and I was delirious with happiness.
Four months in, he told me that he had still been seeing the first girl for the first month of our relationship, but it was okay because she was still his girlfriend at the time. I, suddenly the other woman, fell into a spiral of self-loathing, questioning what was wrong with me. I wept, blind with rage and self-hatred, sick with the thought of her. He told me my emotions were terrifying, that I was unhinged and should go back on the antidepressants that I hadn’t taken since I was fifteen years old. I swore to him that we had discussed exclusively seeing each other and he’d told me he didn’t want me to see anyone else. He told me I was insane and it had never happened. I found texts that attested to my version of things. He told me that I was a spiteful, mistrusting bitch for looking for evidence in months-old conversations. I curled in on myself with disgust and self-hatred. His friends told me he was a great guy, lovely, kind, he would never have meant to do this to me. He was distraught, I should forgive him. He told me that it was the worst thing he had ever done, but also we weren’t exclusive, you know. And so, crushed and desperately in love, I set about forgiving him. If I cried or brought it up, he would lash out in anger, saying that forgiveness means never speaking of it again. And so I pushed it down. The last thing I wanted was to hurt or upset him, so I never spoke to him about it. I looked at her pictures on Instagram obsessively, trying to work out what was better about her, what I needed to change.
I spent my entire savings on a holiday to Paris, a trip to a fancy hotel, nights out, a fancy watch to replace his plastic one. I came home from work and he told me he had a train booked in an hour. He was moving to London. He had done it like this so I wouldn’t make a scene. When I wept, he left. When I rang him up devastated, he called an ambulance so I “wouldn’t do anything stupid”. Then he blocked me on all forms of social media and asked me to “refrain from speaking to him”. Three months later, I’m still dealing with the emotional fallout of the most devastating break up of my life. I’m not so sure about him.
Now, obviously, this is all one sided, and without a doubt he would tell you that I was a psychobitch and he just couldn’t cope with me anymore. Perhaps I was. But I also did all of the emotional leg work in our relationship, desperately trying to make him happy, show him how I saw him, how handsome, how clever, how talented, how amazing and interesting he was. Months later, just the thought of him still brings me to tears.
But why is it that the labour of love always seems to rest with women? We tell him he’s amazing, we dull our light so that he doesn’t feel threatened, downplay the importance of our new job, buoy him up with compliments, text his mother so that he won’t have to deal with the difficulty of his parents not loving us. We remember birthdays, choose gifts, spend hours with his horrible friends. Then he leaves us, because ultimately we stopped making him happy. A new city, a new girl is all he needs to fill the gap of us, because we were excitement, we were a confidence boost. We can never look after him as well as his mother, because unlike his mother, we have needs that must be met in return. And when he leaves, we have to do the emotional labour of our break up as well. We are “crazy ex-girlfriends”, to be torn apart at the pub, to make the next woman feel satisfied about herself in comparison.
I’ve read several articles recently about how masculinity is in crisis, because the world has changed but men have not changed with it. It’s no longer enough to go to work, because two people can’t live on one person’s wage anymore. Our boyfriends are the result of the last generation of mothers who had the time to do all the cooking, all the cleaning, all the emotional labour. And whilst we can teach them to cook, pretend that emptying half a bottle of bleach into the toilet counts as cleaning, we can never do enough emotional labour to make them happy on our own. In a world where everyone is connected, where your phone holds a thousand possible girls who might do all this without you having to change, how can we ever convince men that we need more? How do we ever get our needs met? Stop ourselves from taking the whole burden of creating happiness in a relationship? I don’t want to feel relieved when he leaves. I don’t want him to leave.