How To Make Talking About Sex With Your Partner Easier

I have an article up at Everyday Feminism about why it’s hard for a lot of people to talk about sex openly with their partners, and ways they can make it easier.

I have a confession to make.

Despite writing about sex on the Internet, facilitating workshops about consent and sexuality for dozens or hundreds of people, and being openly queer, feminist, and polyamorous, I sometimes choke up when it comes to talking about sex with one of my actual partners.

I want to tell them what I want, or to set a boundary around something I don’t want, but all of a sudden, words completely fail me.

I feel like a hypocrite – but I think there’s more to it than that.

Even in spaces that emphasize celebrating rather than stigmatizing sex, such as feminism and LGBTQIA+ communities, people often have trouble putting their ideals into practice and opening up when talking about sex with partners.

Being part of a sex-positive community can create a lot of pressure: If we’re really sex-positive, shouldn’t we be ready to spill all our deepest fantasies to whomever we want to sleep with?

Not necessarily.

If you have a hard time talking about sex with partners, you’re not alone.

There are a lot of reasons why people might have difficulty with it, and many of them apply across cultures and subcultures. After describing a few ways in which our experiences and the society we live in can make talking about sex challenging, I’ll suggest some strategies for making it a little easier.

5 Reasons Why Talking About Sex Is Hard

1. Internalized Sexual Stigma

Even if you really want to believe that there’s nothing shameful or inherently dangerous about sex, it’s not always easy to internalize that when you’ve grown up in a society that stigmatizes sexuality, especially that of anyone who isn’t a straight, white, cis, able-bodied man.

This can make talking about sex embarrassing or anxiety-provoking, and it doesn’t mean you’re a “prude.”

2. Not Knowing the Words to Use

Sometimes talking about sex is hard because most of the words we know sound either cold and clinical (like vagina and erection) or vulgar and pornographic (like cunt or pussy).

Of course, there’s nothing about these words that makes them inherently wrong or weird to use, and many people do enjoy using them. But if we’re used to seeing them in the context of a high school health textbook or a terribly inappropriate OKCupid message, it might be hard to use them in a more positive way.

3. Cultural Scripts About Sex

In romantic films, the couple usually has an amazingly passionate and satisfying first hook up without ever talking to each other about what they like in bed.

Although we understand that movies aren’t real life, many of us nevertheless end up believing on some level that there’s no need to talk about sex explicitly, and that if the couple “really” clicks, they’ll automatically connect sexually without any prior discussion.

That’s just one example of sexual scripts and how they influence our behavior.

4. Bad Previous Experiences

Some of us are initially enthusiastic about discussing sex openly with partners, but after some bad reactions from others, we lose that openness.

I’ve had partners shut down in response to my attempts to tell them what I like or ask them what they like, or respond with “Uh, that’s weird.”

If this has ever happened to you, I can see why you might not feel too confident about talking about sex anymore.

When it comes to setting sexual boundaries, you may fear that the person will get angry or push you away because that may well have happened in the past.

5. Past Trauma

If you have a history of sexual trauma, sex may not be a topic that you can discuss casually, even with someone you’re close to. Conversations about sex may be triggering or just deeply scary and unpleasant.

This is not your fault, and you can heal with time. These articles may help you.

But whatever the reason discussing sex is tough for you (whether it’s one of these or one of many more), the good news is that there are ways to make it easier.

Here are a few you can try.

Read the rest here.

“You’re in my prayers.”

[Content note: mentions of grief, loss, illness]

I follow The Best of Tumblr on Facebook for the cat photos and pop culture jokes, but recently I saw this:

[Text version here.]

I’ll admit that I used to subscribe to this way of thinking, even as an atheist. But a few things changed my mind: 1) understanding more about what it means to comfort someone, 2) learning about the dynamics of Christian privilege, and 3) listening to the experiences of those who found religion abusive.

First of all, the point of comforting someone who’s going through some shit is to help them. To help them, not yourself. While that doesn’t make intent totally irrelevant–I’ll get to that in a bit–it does mean that you need to at least try to help them in the way that they would want to be helped, not in the way that you would want to be helped. The Golden Rule is a nice thing to teach children but eventually we need more nuanced and empathic ways of looking at things.

That’s why, as I discussed in my previous post, “How can I support you?” and variants thereof is a great approach. But many Christians don’t even pause to consider that the person they’re speaking to might not be religious, and that–as I’ll also get to in a bit–is an example of Christian privilege. Much of the time, they’re not going out of their way to alienate and irritate atheists; they just conveniently forget that atheists even exist. The idea that someone might not pray, or care about your prayer, is simply invisible.

Where does intent fit in? Well, it can make a difference, but not a huge one. As I’ve written previously:

Not intending to hurt someone is different from intending not to hurt them. If someone accidentally breaks my nice vase, I might be glad in the back of my mind that they didn’t do it on purpose, but I might still be annoyed that they weren’t being careful around my nice vase, especially if they are often clumsy and break people’s things by accident. The analogy holds up for saying/doing bigoted things, too. People who say/do them rarely do so just once.

I’m not going to respect you just for not meaning to say hurtful things. That’s one of those bare-minimum-of-being-a-decent-human-being things. Actively seeking information on how not to be hurtful, on the other hand, is a rarer and more important habit to have.

The intent of phrases like “You’re in my prayers” can be especially difficult to parse. For many atheists, intentionally manipulative deployment of such phrases by Christians is a really common microaggression. They say it to us not because they don’t realize we don’t believe, but because they know we don’t. It’s a power move: “I know this means nothing to you [or even hurts you], but I’m going to say it anyway.”

That doesn’t mean that all (or even most) Christians say it for that reason, obviously. It does mean that almost all atheists have had it said to them for that reason, though. It shouldn’t be surprising that many atheists really don’t want to hear it anymore.

At this point, someone usually puts forth that, yes, sometimes referencing religion in these situations can be self-serving or even passive-aggressive and manipulative, and sure, it’s not ideal, but can’t we just assume good intent and force out a smile and a “thank you”?

Well, assuming good intent and being polite are definitely things I generally encourage because they make social interaction smoother and less stressful, but it’s a heavy burden to place on someone who just lost a loved one or got diagnosed with a terminal illness. I’m glad we seem to have all this empathy for socially awkward Christians who just want to comfort you the best way they know how, but how about some empathy for the person going through the fucking trauma? Maybe they’re not at their best when they’re burying their mother or lying in a hospital bed. Maybe that’s okay.

Further, being able to assume good intent is a privilege. It’s a function of your position in society and the experiences you’ve had as a result. That doesn’t mean it’s bad! It’s great! But not everyone can do it and it’s unreasonable and small-minded to demand that they do.

(This applies along all axes of oppression. When you see a police officer approaching, do you worry that you might die? If not, you’re probably not Black.)

Why might an atheist be unable to assume good intent from a Christian? Religious folks and more-fortunate atheists often erase or disregard the fact that many atheists have had coercive and abusive experiences with religion. Some consider their time in religious spaces to have been traumatizing.

And when you’ve experienced a trauma, little reminders of it can be overwhelming.

Before you rush in with #NotAllReligiousSpaces, remember that it doesn’t matter. Not all religious spaces, but theirs was. It would be good to see more religious folks and more atheists acknowledge this reality. Many are still dismissive or openly contemptuous of the idea that religion can be traumatizing.

Viewed through this angle, a certain amount of snappiness or impoliteness from an atheist being told that “At least your mother is smiling down on you from heaven” makes much more sense. But there’s another way in which Christian privilege plays out in this situation, and that’s in our (yes, atheists’ too) perceptions of tone and “politeness.”

Look at that post again. “Some egotistical shit about being an atheist” often, in my experience, refers to comments like “Actually, I’m an atheist.” Not “fuck you I’m an atheist,” not “take your religion and shove it up your ass,” but “Actually, I’m an atheist.” This is what’s so often perceived as “some egotistical shit” and people who say it are apparently viewed by some as “emotionally inept morons.” (Sorry, the ableist wording was not my choice.)

And while it’s apparently “egotistical” to reference one’s atheism in response to an explicitly religious comment, it’s somehow not “egotistical” to reference one’s religion in response to someone else’s trauma. It’s somehow not “egotistical” to offer unsolicited help that’s not what the person needs, without bothering to ask what they need, and then getting offended when that help is rejected as irrelevant.

This sort of double standard pervades all oppressive dynamics, and religion/atheism is no exception.

When a person with a marked/stigmatized identity does something someone doesn’t like, that identity often gets dragged in to explain it. That’s why an atheist getting snappy about a religious comment following a tragic loss is obviously snappy because they’re an atheist, not because they just lost a loved one and don’t have a lot of emotional energy left to micromanage their responses and perform politeness.

And, look, getting snapped at is an occupational hazard of interacting with someone who’s going through a ton of pain, whether it’s physical, mental, or some combination. If you want to support someone in pain, you need to set a bit of yourself aside and be prepared for some rudeness. That doesn’t mean you have to put up with it indefinitely, and it certainly doesn’t justify anything abusive, but you also don’t get to demand that they be impeccably polite and patient with you while they’re in pain, especially if you’re (unintentionally or otherwise) making that pain worse.

Just as people often try to help others in order to satisfy their own needs, people often reference religion to those going through bad things for the sake of their own coping. Watching someone go through a terrible illness or a painful loss is difficult, and praying or thinking about God’s Ultimate Plan can be comforting for those who believe in such things. So naturally they’d verbalize what they’re thinking. It’s not necessarily the grand selfless act this Tumblr post makes it out to be. Neither is it necessarily a cruel and manipulative act (though it can be); it’s very human to assume that others’ minds work the way ours do.

That it’s human doesn’t make it empirically accurate. It also doesn’t make it kind, let alone the kindest sentiment someone could possibly express. It doesn’t obligate someone who’s suffering a trauma or tragedy to put on a good face to spare that person’s feelings.

The kindest thing you could do for someone in pain is to set aside your own opinions on how they ought to be helped and help them the way they want to be helped.

~~~

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“How can I support you?”

When people share mental health struggles online, well-meaning friends and followers often rush in to give them unsolicited advice. That’s something many of us find irritating and push back on. One of the responses we get often goes something like this: “But I give advice because I need to say something. How am I supposed to know exactly what they need?”

These days my response is usually the same: “Have you tried asking them?”

It’s both surprising and unsurprising how often the response is: “Oh. I didn’t think of that.”

It’s surprising because, rationally, that seems like the obvious thing to do when someone is struggling and you have no idea how to help them. It doesn’t make sense to waste your time and energy and risk upsetting or pissing them off by guessing what they might want and offering that. When you need information to make a good decision, and the information is readily available by asking someone who is as close as it gets to being an authority on the subject, it makes sense to just ask them.

At the same time, it’s also utterly unsurprising that people so rarely do this.

For one thing, we have all these cultural scripts about how this stuff is supposed to go, and one of them is that if you’re really a good friend/partner/family member to the person who’s struggling, you will “just know” what they need and be able to offer it without needing to be told. On the flip side, you might believe that if someone is really a good friend/partner/family member to you, they shouldn’t have to ask you what you need; they should just know. If they do ask, and you tell them, and they do that thing, then that might be nice and all, but it’s not as special as it would’ve been if they’d just known.

You’re probably familiar with these dynamics from discussions of sexual communication and the importance of asking/telling partners what they’re/you’re into, but this applies to so many other interpersonal situations.

That second part is talked about a little less often than the first, because the first seems on the surface to do more immediate harm. But they’re two sides of a coin. We need to get rid of that sort of thinking in order to be able to intentionally create strong, communicative relationships of all kinds.

In fact, I suspect that a small part* of the reason many people are vague about what they need when they let close ones know about their struggles is because they hope that those close ones will be able to help them without being explicitly told how. When you’re neck-deep in some sort of life shit, that sort of effortlessness can be so incredibly affirming. It satisfies a need many people have to feel taken care of.

(*Note I specifically said “small part”; there are many other, probably more significant reasons people do this, such as not knowing what they want, not having the emotional energy to communicate extensively/clearly, fearing criticism or pushback for stating what they really want, etc)

Besides cultural scripts about Just Knowing what someone wants, another reason people might not ask “How can I help?” is that they worry about annoying the person or putting an additional burden on them (that is, making them explain what it is they need). While that’s definitely a risk, especially with someone who expects you to Just Know, it’s significantly less annoying than shoving useless (or even harmful) advice or assistance at someone.

In her article about unsolicited advice online, Katie Klabusich lays all this out in a great way:

“How can I support you?” is a question that works in almost every situation imaginable. It preempts judgement and assumptions while oozing humility. Often the person won’t have an immediate answer—likely because they aren’t used to being asked a question that’s about what they actually need as a unique human being. If they look stunned, I suggest something like: “It’s OK if you don’t have an answer or don’t need anything right now; the offer’s open for whenever. Just let me know.” And then use an emoji of some sort or make a face that conveys warmth so they know you mean it. (This could be a unicorn, the two señoritas dancing, or the smiling poo. Up to you.)

*Here’s the fine print: you have to believe their answer, whatever it is. If they tell you they don’t need anything, you don’t get to push or pressure or demand they give you something to do so you feel less helpless. Remember, this isn’t about you.

Following up a few weeks or months later (whatever equals “a while from now” with the two of you) is totally fine. Asking clarifying questions about what they need if they need something is also totally fine. Being unsure and having to ask along the way if the thing they asked for that you’re trying to provide is helping or being provided in a helpful way is also totally fine.

Telling the person you don’t know if the thing they need is something you can do is also totally fine; no one expects you to be everything they need, and we’d all rather you not promise than drop the ball. These are all honest, humble, supportive responses and, frankly, just being asked “How can I support you?” will make the person feel less alone and more cared for.

 

As Katie notes, the fact that many people won’t have an answer right away doesn’t mean that the question was wrong. It could mean that they’re surprised at actually being asked, and it could also mean that they’re not used to thinking of some of their needs as needs. For instance, we might ask someone for advice or for practical assistance, but it feels a little weirder for most people to ask someone to just listen or to tell them something affirming. Being asked “How can I support you?” can help shift them into that way of thinking about it: “Hm, what would feel supportive for me right now?”

Feeling supported is not always the same as Making The Right Decision or Growing As A Person or whatever, which is another reason people are sometimes hesitant to ask others what they need to feel supported. “But what if they’re making the wrong decision!” they might protest. “I need to tell them they’re Doing It Wrong!”

Yes, there are some cases in which it’s probably a good idea to speak up and rain on someone’s parade because you’re seriously concerned about their safety or wellbeing. But most cases are not that and most people are not the kinds of people you have that relationship with (i.e. children, little siblings, partners with whom you have that sort of understanding, etc). I have watched friends and partners make decisions that I personally thought were bad decisions, but because they were clear with me that they wanted support/affirmation and not constructive criticism, I kept my concerns to myself. For the most part, those people turned out okay, because they are adults and they have the right to make their own decisions.

I’ve written before that self-awareness is really important when you’re trying to help people, because you need to make sure you’re not just doing it to try to relieve your own feelings of helplessness. Even if you are doing it to relieve your own feelings of helplessness, you can still go ahead and try to help, as long as you acknowledge those feelings and understand that they are your responsibility and not that of the person you’re trying to help. Only then can you focus on helping them in the way they need rather than in the way you need.

Asking what they need is a big part of that. Don’t try to show off how amazing you are at magically intuiting what they need. You’re likely to mess up and cause more trouble than you solve. Just ask.

“How can I support you?” is not a magic question. It will not necessarily get you the answers you need or them the help they need. Maybe that phrasing sounds weird and stilted to you; try not to get too caught up in that and find other ways to ask the same essential thing. The point isn’t the exact words, but rather the idea that you should figure out how best to help someone before trying to help them. They might not always know, but they certainly know better than you do, even if it takes them some time to be able to access that knowledge. They are the expert on what they need, or as close to an expert as anyone is going to get.

Be prepared, too, for the answer, “Nothing.” Sometimes people share their struggles not to get help or support but to be heard and witnessed. Sometimes they don’t know why they’re sharing at all. Sometimes they will tell you that the best way you can support them is to hear what they have to say; sometimes they will tell you, “Nothing.” Thank them for their honesty and move along. “Nothing” is a difficult thing to hear, but it is also a difficult thing to say.

~~~

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Brains Lie, But So Do People

[CN: mental illness, gaslighting, abuse]

For those of us with mood disorders to manage, learning and understanding the fact that brains often lie was a revelation. Suddenly we had an explanation–and not a BS, pseudoscientific explanation–for why we think and feel things that don’t make sense and that make life unbearable. We learned that feeling like everyone hates you isn’t actually a feeling; it’s a thought, and the thought isn’t based in reality. We learned that we have a much easier time remembering the bad than the good, which leaves us with the skewed impression that everything is awful and must always continue to be awful.

And so we adopted a new language. We talk about jerkbrains and depression!brains and all sorts of other brains, and we teach ourselves to constantly question and second-guess the negative things we tell ourselves.

For the most part, this is how mood disorder recovery happens. Once you develop the awareness that many of your depressive or anxious thoughts are not based in reality, you are able to develop coping skills to stop these thoughts or minimize their impact. This is CBT, in a nutshell. CBT is not a panacea–some people, especially those whose disorders started early in their life (or seem like they’ve been going on forever) don’t find this sufficient to actually stop the thoughts. But recovery can’t happen until you internalize the fact that brains lie.

Here’s where I worry, though. When I start hearing this:

“My friends are always making jokes at my expense and it makes me feel hurt. But that’s just my depression, I know they don’t really mean it.”

“I know I should be ok with my partner wanting us to be poly. It’s just my anxiety, it’s not a rational thing.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to have sex with him, it’s just that I don’t really have a sex drive because of my medication. So I do it anyway because I mean, I don’t mind.”

Sometimes we overcompensate. We get so used to these tropes–depression makes you feel like people hate you, anxiety makes you freak out that your partner’s going to leave you when there’s no evidence, medication makes you lose your sex drive–that we assume those causations. If you’re diagnosed with depression and your friends are making mean jokes and you feel hurt, it’s because of your depression. If you’re taking medication and you don’t want to have sex, of course it’s the medication.

Obviously these things are all true in many cases. It could very well be that all evidence suggests your friends love you and assume you’re be okay with some good-natured teasing. It could very well be that all the evidence suggests that your partner is committed to you, poly or not, and that your anxiety contradicts your other beliefs about the relationship and your preferences. (For instance, polyamory often makes me very anxious, but I’ve decided that it’s nevertheless what’s best for me and so that’s what I’m doing.)

But sometimes, your “friends” are being callous assholes and don’t care that their jokes hurt you. Sometimes, your partner is pressuring you to try polyamory even though it just doesn’t work for you, and everything about this is (rightfully) freaking you out. Sometimes, meds or no, you’re just not attracted to someone and haven’t internalized the fact that you don’t owe them sex. Sometimes the reason you don’t want to have sex with someone is because they’re giving off a ton of red flags and you should pay attention to them.

This gets even worse when close people, well-meaning or not, start pulling out these sorts of phrases in order to “help” you: “Oh, that’s just Depressed Miri talking.” “That’s your jerkbrain.” “This isn’t who you really are, it’s just your illness.” “Did you take your meds today?”

The message? “That’s not based in reality.”

Don’t get me wrong. When used by a kind, perceptive, absolutely not abusive person, these responses can be incredibly powerful and helpful. Sometimes we really do need that reality check: a partner who helps you draw the connection between skipping meds and feeling bad; a friend who patiently reminds you that sometimes depression feeds you lies.

When used by someone who wants to control you, though, they become very dangerous.

Upset that your partner keeps canceling your plans to see their other partner? That’s your depression, of course they still love you, it’s only natural that they’d want to see their new partner a lot. Scared to have sex without a condom? That’s just your anxiety, they already told you they’ve been tested, so what’s the problem? Annoyed that your friend keeps cutting you off in conversation? You know that irritation is a depression symptom.

I’ve written before that attempting to treat your depression or anxiety by invalidating your feelings can lead to a sort of self-gaslighting; even more harmful, I think, is when others do it to you. I have to admit that I start to get a queasy feeling when I see someone trying to manage their partner’s mental illness for/with them. As I said, sometimes this can be a great and healthy situation, but never forget that in a relationship between a person with a mental illness and a neurotypical person, the latter holds privilege. With privilege comes power, and with power comes responsibility.

The problem here, obviously, is not with CBT or the term “jerkbrain” or even the idea that thoughts/feelings can be irrational; the problem is abusive people learning this terminology and taking advantage of it. To a lesser extent, too, the problem is with ourselves over-applying these concepts to situations that are legitimately unhealthy, unsafe, or just straight-up unpleasant.

I don’t have a solution to this, but I do have some suggestions if you worry that you might be in this situation:

1. If you have a therapist, ask them to work with you on (re)learning how to trust your gut when appropriate. Most of us have a spidey sense when it comes to abusive people and dangerous situations; the problem is that our culture often trains us to ignore that sense. “But he’s such a nice guy, give him a chance!” “But it’s not your friends’ job to make sure none of their jokes ever offend you!” and so on. For many people, especially marginalized people, a crucial task is to remember what that sense feels like and to feel comfortable using it.

2. When an interpersonal situation is making you depressed or anxious, ask for a reality check from more than one person, and make sure that none of those people is directly involved in the situation. If you’re sad because your partner hasn’t been spending as much time with you as you’d like, that’s obviously an important conversation to have with your partner at some point, but the reality check part has to come from someone else, because your partner probably has a vested interest in keeping things as they are. (Not necessarily a bad thing! Maybe your partner has already patiently explained to you many times that they love you and wish they could see you more, but this year they need to focus on completing and defending their dissertation. Or maybe your partner is neglectful and stringing you along in this relationship that they’re only in for the sex and not being clear with you about what they actually want.)

It helps to find people that you can trust to be kind and honest. In many social circles I’ve been in in the past, there was a tendency to support your friend no matter what, and “support” meant agreeing with them about all interpersonal matters. If I’m upset at my partner, my friend agrees with me that they’re a jerk who doesn’t deserve me. If another friend is angry at me for missing their birthday party, my friend agrees with me that they’re obviously overreacting and being so immature. That’s not helpful for these purposes. You need someone who will say, “That sounds really rough for you and I’m sorry, but the fact that your partner has been busy lately doesn’t mean they hate you and don’t care if you live or die.”

3. Remember that feelings don’t have to be rational to be acted on. While it’s good to treat feelings with some amount of skepticism when you have a mental illness, that doesn’t mean you have to just ignore those feelings unless you can prove to yourself that they’re rational. There are many interpersonal situations that trigger my depression or anxiety for reasons I’ve determined aren’t rational, but I still avoid those situations because, honestly, life’s too damn short to feel like crap all the time, and I can’t will myself out of my depression and anxiety.

For example, here’s a meme I come across often:

Yes, rationally I know that sarcasm doesn’t mean you hate me, that that’s a perfectly valid way of expressing yourself and interacting with people, that for many people that’s part of their family culture/subculture, etc. etc.

But this interpersonal style interacts really badly with my depression. It makes me feel insecure and small. It is disempowering. It makes my brain go in circles about What Does This Person Really Think Of Me Do They Hate Me Or Not Did I Do Something Wrong.

(A part of me wonders if the reason people do this isn’t so much because they enjoy feeling relaxed enough to just be their snarky, sarcastic selves, but because they enjoy making people feel the way I just described. I’m not sure.)

So I decided at some point that I just wasn’t going to put up with it. When someone treats me this way, I remove them from my mental list of people I trust or want to get closer to. I minimize my interactions with that person. I prepare myself to set specific boundaries with them if that becomes necessary, but it usually doesn’t because distance does the trick.

At no point do I have to convince myself that, yes, all the available evidence suggests that this person hates me or is a cruel, bad person. I’m sure they don’t hate me. I’m sure they are a decent human being. For my purposes, though, it doesn’t really matter.

You are allowed to act in ways that minimize negative emotions even if those emotions are mostly being caused by mental illness.

~~~

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On Conflicting Emotional Needs in Relationships

[Content note: personal discussion of emotional imbalances in relationships. If you’re struggling with feeling like a burden to your partner(s), you might want to skip my perspective on this. Or maybe not.]

On the one hand: you deserve to be able to express your feelings in a relationship, and if your partner refuses to hear and affirm your feelings, that’s probably not a healthy situation.

On the other hand: you deserve to be able to set your boundaries. If someone you’re close with is having a lot of strong feelings that they want to express repeatedly–especially if the feelings are about you or the relationship–that can be very difficult to reconcile with your own mental health needs.

I don’t really know what to do in these situations except end the relationship or transition it to a more casual one. (That’s my own approach, not my advice to others.)

I used to believe, back when I was more often in the first situation, that the right thing to do when you care about someone is to just make yourself listen to them even if you don’t really feel like it. Relationships Are About Compromise, after all.

I didn’t realize at the time how easily this attitude can lead to becoming your partner’s untrained, unpaid therapist, or having your own issues exacerbated or triggered. It’s nobody’s fault; it’s just an occupational hazard of being a human in relationship with other humans.

But the other thing I learned is that it also isn’t healthy for me to frequently feel like I’m reluctantly doing my partner a favor just because it’s The Right Thing To Do.

Of course not all favors that we do are reluctant. If a friend needs help moving, I usually help out if I can, even though I would never choose to move furniture just for fun. But I didn’t do it because it’s The Right Thing To Do; I do it because it’s ultimately rewarding and because I get to spend time with friends in the process.

Likewise, I’m (usually) happy to listen to my friends’ and partners’ feelings, even when they’re strong and negative and expressed “uncharitably.” I’m used to hearing lots of sad things; it’s sad to hear them but it usually doesn’t harm me in any noticeable way. Although I can’t solve my friends’ problems for them–and wouldn’t want to–these conversations can be very rewarding for both of us.

But by the point in a relationship where we’re having the tenth conversation about “I just feel like you don’t really love me that much,” there’s generally nothing rewarding in it. (Truthfully, I’m not sure it’s rewarding for the person sharing it, either.) At that point, I’m listening because I feel like that’s what I should do, not because I want to.

For a while this seemed like an okay thing to do. It even seemed like the ethically correct thing to do, until I thought about how it would feel if I know that someone was only doing things for me out of a sense of obligation or commitment, and not because it’s actually pleasurable, meaningful, or rewarding for them.

(Note that difficult conversations can be meaningful and rewarding, if not pleasurable. Difficult conversations can bring a conflict towards resolution, build emotional intimacy, and develop more understanding of each other, to give just three examples. But I’m not talking about those.)

In fact, when I realized that this was going on and that people in my life were listening to me basically just to avoid feeling like Bad People, it totally messed up my ability to open up about my feelings. I stopped trusting people to set boundaries with me, because I’d seen proof that they don’t–ostensibly to avoid the possibility of hurting me, but also to avoid their own guilt.

In fact, it probably would’ve been hurtful to hear, “Sorry, babe, we’ve already talked through this a lot and I don’t have the bandwidth to talk through it again. Is there another way I can support you?” But hurtful doesn’t always mean wrong. What’s ultimately more hurtful, the sting of having a boundary set with me, or the steady, years-long erosion of trust in everyone that happens when enough people I care about act dishonestly with me?

And maybe, in a perfect world in which everyone is honest and direct, some of my partners would have said that they weren’t able to listen to me talk about certain things. Maybe that would’ve been a dealbreaker and I would’ve found partners who do not have those particular boundaries, and I would’ve trusted them to let me know if that changed.

But there are no easy answers for people who can’t find anyone willing to support them at the level that they need (and who cannot access therapy, presumably). Quite a few of us with a mental illness history can probably even say that someone’s failure to set their boundaries ended up saving our lives.

I don’t know.

But thankfully, most situations are not life-threatening. It should be ok if your partner has already processed your fears of rejection with you and isn’t able to do it anymore. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you or aren’t committed to you, it just means their needs are conflicting with yours. And it shouldn’t be the case that the needs of the partner who needs more support automatically override the needs of their partner.

I think part of the problem is our cultural conception of romantic partners as The One and My Other Hand and such. Many people believe that you should be able to tell your partner everything and have all your emotional (and sexual) needs met by them. If you need some sort of support–for instance, someone to listen to you regularly talk about your fears of being dumped–your partner should be available for that, and if they’re not, there’s something wrong with the relationship (or with your partner as a person).

(While this sounds like it’s only applicable to monogamy, plenty of poly couples actually work under the assumptions. Their “primary” partner is supposed to be able to fulfill all of their emotional needs, and their “secondaries” are for a bit of fun on the side. Aside from the sexual component, the “primary” partner still has to be able to do all the emotional support stuff.)

This is the point where someone is tempted to protest But It Works For Us, but okay–if it works, it works. But for many people it doesn’t. Worse, they think that the problem is with them, and not with our collective assumptions. If you and your partner are being honest, open, self-aware, and respectful of boundaries, but you still can’t fully meet each other’s needs, maybe it’s time to explore other options–not necessarily breaking up, but adjusting your expectations about how much of the support you need should come from one person.

(By the way, that doesn’t even imply that you should try polyamory. There’s no reason why certain emotional support needs can only be met by partners and not by friends.)

My concern about these conversations is that we’re always auditing people’s boundaries and shaming them for not being available enough to their partners. (Even when we’re not those people’s partners, perhaps especially then. I get so many comments from people I literally don’t even know about how I must be a terrible selfish partner. Suppose I am. What’s it to you?) I could already hear the responses to this post as I was writing it–“So what, you’re saying it’s ok to refuse to listen to your partner’s feelings?” “So it’s ok for someone to just shut down all their partner’s concerns?”

It’s notable how words like “all,” “always,” and “never” end up creeping into these conversations when they were never originally there.

Well, first of all, there’s setting boundaries and there’s abuse. Setting boundaries is, “I’m sorry, I don’t feel like I can handle this discussion. What else can we do?” Abuse is, “Come on, you’re acting crazy. This isn’t a big deal. You should be grateful I’m still with you at all.”

Second–and this is basically the whole point of this post–expectations about what’s reasonable to ask of a partner vary wildly from person to person. For me, listening for hours per week to someone venting about work or school or people they know is totally reasonable, but having more than a few “I just feel like you don’t love me as much as I love you” conversations per relationship completely destroys my ability to stay in that relationship. For whatever reason, I just can’t with that conversation. I hate feeling like I have to prove my love, I hate feeling like we have to quantify the amount of love we feel and compare it, I hate feeling like I owe my partner stronger feelings just because they have stronger feelings for me, I hate being pressured to show my love in ways that I’m not comfortable with. I just hate all of it. But that’s me. And some of the things that I am happy to do for partners, others probably aren’t.

Finally, I’m not sure that “is that ok?” is even the right question to be asking in these situations. Is it ok for you? If not, then don’t date that person. Otherwise, it’s not really relevant. Relationships with zero or minimal emotional support do exist; they’re casual hookup situations and they work great for some people.

As always with needs and boundaries, the more extensive yours are, the pickier you’ll have to be about your partners. If you need a partner who is able to support you through your mental illness at a very high emotional level, many people will not be a good fit for you, and it’s not because they’re selfish and emotionally withholding. It’s because your needs are in conflict.

Likewise, if you need a relationship in which Serious Conversations About Feelings and Relationship Talks are minimal, many people will not be a good fit for you, and it’s not because they’re clingy and suffocating. It’s because your needs are in conflict.

Of course, everyone always tells me that it’s not as simple as “just don’t date the person who isn’t a good fit for you,” because you have strong feelings for them and you can’t just get over them. This is true, and being unable to date someone you really want to date is never a good feeling no matter what the reason. But I’m not sure that being in a relationship with strongly conflicting needs is any better, unless you’ve made a plan with yourself/your partner about how those needs are going to be met (outside the relationship).

Instead, people tend to assume that being single (for now) is necessarily worse than being in a very emotionally mismatched relationship, and then end up blaming and resenting their partner for not meeting their needs or for having needs that the relationship cannot accommodate. The belief that romantic relationships should provide for all of one’s needs makes it both impossible to accept the relationship as it is, and impossible to leave it.

Gently guiding that belief to the grave where it belongs is a topic for another post, but understanding the fact that many couples have conflicting emotional needs and that this doesn’t make anyone wrong or bad is a crucial first step.

~~~

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In Praise of Facebook’s New ‘Like’ Button

At the Daily Dot, I wrote about Facebook Reactions.

When rumors spread online last month that Facebook was going to add a “Dislike” button, the Internet reacted with a great deal of, well, dislike. Although CEO Mark Zuckerberg clarified that he didn’t intend to suggest that the platform was instituting its own form of Reddit downvoting, nobody understood what he was really planning until Reactions was revealed last week. The site’s new version of the ”Like” button includes six additional emotions: “Love,” “Haha,” “Yay,” “Wow,” “Sad,” and “Angry.” When users click to “Like” a post, they will be able to choose one of these options, including the iconic thumbs up to which we’re all accustomed.

In a Facebook post from last week, Zuckerberg explained the rationale behind the change:

Not every moment is a good moment, and sometimes you just want a way to express empathy. These are important moments where you need the power to share more than ever, and a Like might not be the best way to express yourself. … Reactions gives you new ways to express love, awe, humor, and sadness. It’s not a dislike button, but it does give you the power to easily express sorrow and empathy—in addition to delight and warmth.

It’s great to see Zuckerberg finally acknowledging the many ways in which people use Facebook. When he used the platform back in August to speak publicly about the three miscarriages he and his wife experienced, it appears he understood the power of Facebook to share news and stories that aren’t exactly likable.

Reactions makes sense as a next step—both for Mark Zuckerberg and his company. While some might dismiss Reactions as silly or weird, I predict that it will help people communicate with each other in ways that feel more intuitive and that end in less awkwardness. Think about it: When someone says something funny, we don’t say “LOL” or “that’s funny.” We laugh. When you share a devastating loss with a friend in person, you might be comforted by the obvious concern and sympathy on their face.

Facebook can’t perfectly mimic the experience of laughing with a roomful of friends or having someone there with you when you hear terrible news (at least, not yet), but it can help people express the emotions they actually mean to express, which can be difficult online. A thoughtless “Like” on a sad post can be read as insensitive or flippant, but there’s not always anything to say in a comment about it, either—nor would a whole thread of “wow that sucks” make you feel any better.

Friends often tell me that they struggle with figuring out how to respond to posts that share serious problems or frustrations. Often they end up saying nothing at all, and clicking a thumbs up icon doesn’t feel like an appropriate substitute. Instead of leaving an empty space when users are grieving or feeling blue, Reactions might help people support friends and let them know that they are heard and that their pain is acknowledged. Sharing a sad post would feel less like screaming into an online void and more like talking to a group of friends.

Read the rest here.

“Oh so I can’t say ANYTHING anymore”

Ready to get meta? Let’s get meta.

It seems that anytime the words “Please don’t say…” come out of someone’s mouth, someone else is always ready to start with the “Oh so I can’t say ANYTHING to anyone anymore” and “I guess we should just never talk to anyone ever again” and “What an awful world it would be if nobody ever said things to other people.” It also happens all the time with posts about street harassment (“Oh so now I can’t EVER talk to a woman again, how is the human race going to procreate”), racism (“Oh so everything is racist now, I guess I just shouldn’t talk to Black people except then I’m a racist anyway”), mental illness (“Ok so I should just never say anything to my friend with depression ever again, got it”), and probably others too.  I was prepared to get this response to my previous post about telling people they look tired, and oh, I got it.

And I decided that I’m tired of it and I’m not going to entertain this bullshit anymore. I’m not going to patiently repeat, “Well, I didn’t say you can’t say ANYTHING, and I even provided a list of things that are better to say…” and “No, as I said, it’s totally acceptable to say it when you’ve got that kind of relationship with the person…” Because you know what? Life’s too short. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, and all that.

I’m fully cognizant of the fact that this is only going to provoke even more “Well now I REALLY can’t say ANYTHING EVER AGAIN” like tribbles on the Enterprise, but here goes anyway.

Tribbles. So many tribbles.

First of all, it’s an annoying thing to say. It’s antagonistic and whiny. That wouldn’t in and of itself make it inadvisable to say; I’ve noted many times that it’s important to learn how to separate the message from the way the message makes you feel. So, sure, I could be annoyed at this for no good reason and maybe I should set that annoyance aside so that I can instead grasp at the nugget of truth hidden therein.

Second, in the context of a discussion, it adds nothing. It’s empirically inaccurate. It neither asks for clarification nor provides it. The only thing it accomplishes is that it expresses disapproval, but it does so in an indirect, passive-aggressive way that’s ultimately ineffective. You could, for instance, say “Now I’m worried that I’m going to offend someone through no fault of my own” or “So what can I say instead?” or “I still don’t understand why this is offensive, and that’s freaking me out because how am I going to know what else I’m not supposed to say and keep people from hating me?” (Hey, did you see that? Those were examples of things you can still say. See? You are still allowed to say things to people.) Passive-aggressiveness is a great way to annoy people and get them to ignore you, and not necessarily a great way to get your needs met.

Think about how ridiculous this argument would sound in any other context:

“I didn’t like Age of Ultron.”

“Wow I guess all movies are bad and should never have been made”

“Can you not tease me about that? It’s a sore subject.”

“So I’m not even allowed to talk to you anymore?”

“Can you please keep it down after 11? That’s when I go to bed.”

“Ok so I guess I have to be completely silent 24/7 and never communicate verbally or do anything that causes sounds”

Come on. It’s not fooling anyone.

Third, it derails and shuts down people who are trying to share their experiences. Most “Please don’t say” articles aren’t coming from Experts Dispensing Sage Advice; they’re coming from ordinary folks who are talking about difficult stuff they’ve gone through and how other people unintentionally made it even harder. If that’s not interesting to you and you don’t care about making their lives easier, that’s fine. That’s what the “close tab” button’s for, you know. If you do care about being a better friend or ally to people who are dealing with said issue, then read the article and consider it seriously.

It’s been suggested to me that “Oh so I can’t say ANYTHING” responses are coming from a place of fear of social disapproval and frustration with changing social norms. I believe it. Those are valid feelings. As someone who’s lived in three countries and six cities and has shifted political, religious, and sexual identities, I know the struggle of constantly trying to fit in and be accepted in new social spaces. It’s not easy.

Remember that ring theory thing I keep referencing, though? You need to find the right spaces in which to process your feelings about someone else’s feelings. The person who is having the original feelings–the Original Feeler, I suppose–is not the appropriate person on whom to foist your own feelings.

Just because your feelings and needs are valid doesn’t obligate anyone to do anything about them. That may sound harsh, but remember that it applies to everyone. You don’t have to take care of your friends with depression or fatigue or whatever, either. You don’t have to care about the shit that anyone else goes through. You only have to respect their stated boundaries.

Fourth, another consequence of this tendency to exaggerate someone’s actual criticisms into something grotesquely ridiculous is that, intentionally or otherwise, you’re poisoning the well. That entire line of criticism starts to be considered laughable, not something for serious people to actually contemplate, because the exaggerations become louder, more visible, and more accessible than the original criticism. Maybe you’ll even find some obscure, poorly-written example to prove your point and use that as a stand-in for the rest of the criticism. See! This feminist blogger says she doesn’t want men to ever speak to her for any reason, not even to yell “Fire!” when the building’s on fire. Here’s one random college student who thinks that every single classic novel contains sexism and racism and therefore should be permanently banned from their college curriculum. That’s definitely what street harassment and trigger warnings are all about.

It starts to turn into a weird sort of gaslighting. “I know you’re saying that you’re only bothered by these specific things, but actually you’re bothered by literally everything so the problem is with you and I don’t have to take you seriously anymore.” And so we have to focus our energy on preempting these immature and derailing accusations by insisting that there are plenty of men or white people or whatever that we do like, and plenty of compliments we do appreciate, and so on. Imagine how much easier things would be if we didn’t have to spend all that time stroking egos and could instead just state directly what we’d like you to stop doing, and you could either agree to stop doing it or disagree and take yourselves out of our spaces and lives.

There is no other option, by the way. If you don’t like my boundaries, you can choose not to interact with me, but you cannot choose not to respect my boundaries. And no, I’m not talking about honest mistakes. I said “choose.”

There’s something to be said for the weaknesses of “Please don’t say” articles, which is why many writers try to frame these things more positively, like “How to support your friend with depression” or “Some better things to say to people with chronic illness” or whatever. That can be a great idea. I try to do that when possible.

However, sometimes, that’s not enough. Sometimes I really do need someone to stop saying a particular thing that I don’t want to hear anymore, and I have the right to set that boundary. Whether or not you agree and are prepared to honor it, I get to set it. You don’t get to tell me I don’t get to set it.

And even when I do that, I usually provide alternatives. In that last post I had a bunch of them, which at least a few readers apparently either didn’t bother to read or considered so insufficient as to persist in claiming that WELL NOW WE JUST CAN’T SAY ANYTHING ANYMORE. Really? I literally gave you some stuff to say. I can’t exactly take it in good faith when you claim that I’m telling you you are not allowed to speak to other human beings ever, especially when I only gave you one sentence not to say. Does your entire vocabulary consist of the words “you,” “look,” and “tired” in various combinations?

Basically, I’m disturbed by these responses to folks attempting to set their boundaries. That is really weird to me. You (usually) have the option of not interacting with someone if you don’t like how they’re asking to be interacted with. Sure, that doesn’t always work for your boss or your child, but it certainly works for me, a random writer that you’ve probably never met in person and never will. If my boundaries bother you that much, close this tab. Do not return to this blog. Do not pause to leave a childish little comment about how you are closing this tab and not returning to this blog. Your irritation is not my problem.

And then do that with the other people in your life whose boundaries you’re not willing to respect. Do it for yourself, and do it for them.

Or, you know, consider respecting their boundaries. That works too.

~~~

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Stop Telling People They Look Tired

Seriously, stop it. It’s rude.

I am, for no specific medical reason I’ve ever been able to discern, chronically fatigued. I’m almost always tired. I sleep a solid 7-8 hours a night, stay fairly active, eat fairly well, and don’t have an especially demanding daily schedule, but I’m always tired all the same. I was always tired in middle school. I was always tired in high school. I was always tired during school breaks. I was always tired in college. I was always tired in grad school. I continue to be always tired now that I’m employed full-time. I was always tired before puberty. I was always tired during puberty. I was always tired after puberty. I was always tired without birth control and with periods; I was always tired with birth control and without periods. I was always tired when I exercised almost every day, when I exercised several times a week, and when I scarcely exercised at all. I was always tired when I ate good home-cooked food my mom made, and I was always tired when I ate ramen and Easy Mac in college, and I was always tired when I started cooking real food for myself. I was always tired when I slept on a shitty dorm room mattress and when I slept on a nice memory foam mattress. I was always tired when I used my phone or laptop right before bed, and I was always tired back before I had any phones or laptops to use. I was always tired when the morning light came through the window at 6 AM, and I was always tired when I used special curtains and sleep masks. I was always tired when I took vitamin B and vitamin D and vitamin C and probably other vitamins too, and I was always tired when I didn’t.  I was always tired before my depression started, and I was always tired during my depression, and I’m always tired now that I’m mostly not symptomatic. I was always tired during stressful times and I was always tired during careless, stress-free times. I was even tired on vacation.

I expect things will continue in this way, because I’ve lived with all sorts of schedules and lifestyles and mental states during this time and the one constant was always, always, always wishing I could just lie down and close my eyes.

(A meta-note here: the reason I included that huge paragraph is because people literally will not take me seriously about this topic until they’ve audited me to make sure that I really have Tried Everything to “cure” my fatigue, even though that doesn’t actually matter for what I’m about to say.)

(I’m not interested in any advice or input about managing fatigue. I really do mean it.)

I’m not actually here to talk about my fatigue, because it really doesn’t matter for the substance of my argument. I’ve done pretty much everything I can afford at this point to try to make it better, so anyone who is so disturbed at the sight of my tired face will just have to deal with it.

What I wish is that it were generally considered rude to comment on people’s bodies unless you are quite certain that the comment will be appreciated, or that there is some other pressing need to do it. (I can’t imagine right now a situation in which someone doesn’t want to hear your opinion about their body but the harm of stating it is outweighed by some greater good, but I’m hesitant to make absolute statements and I know that if I don’t include that caveat, the comments will fill up with fantastical examples of extreme situations in which that is indeed the case. “Yes but imagine if an evil wizard threatens to curse you and your entire family unless you tell your random coworker that they look tired…”)

“Do not comment on people’s bodies unless you are quite certain that the comment will be appreciated.” Such a general rule would mean no physical compliments unless you have that kind of relationship, no asking strangers when the baby is due, no expressing your unsolicited negative opinion about someone’s tattoos, and no awkward “You look tired” comments.

And sure, there are probably situations in which “You look tired” is appropriate. “You look tired” with a knowing grin the morning after a shared night out on the town (or in the bedroom). “You look tired” along with an offer to help carry something. “You look tired” in acknowledgement of a difficult task well done.

Everything is contextual with human interaction, so I don’t claim to offer absolute rules.

Most of the time, though, “You look tired” either communicates something that’s better kept to yourself or something that would be better communicated some other way.

Instead of saying “You look tired” out of concern for someone’s well-being, ask them how they’re doing. Leave their physical appearance out of it and say something like, “You seem overwhelmed lately. How are you? Can I help?”

Instead of saying “You look tired” because someone looks bad and it’s bothering you so you feel like you need to say something, deal with that discomfort on your own. We’re all adults here. Fatigue and stress and sleep deprivation are things that happen.

Instead of saying “You look tired” because you’re concerned about someone’s ability to do something safely, say so directly. “Do you want me to drive for a while? I’m worried that you’re getting tired.” “Why don’t you take the rest of your shift off and get some sleep? You almost dropped that equipment.” Again, the problem isn’t how they look; the problem is how they probably feel based on a variety of cues that you’re picking up on.

Instead of saying “You look tired” because you’re hoping they’ll tell you why they’re so tired, ask them how they’re feeling today. I don’t treat “You look tired” as an invitation to tell you how I actually feel, because it’s awkward and I’m not sure what it’s meant to communicate. I get the sense that some people say it because they’re genuinely curious about how I feel, but who knows?

Instead of saying “You look tired” because nobody’s talking and silence makes you feel awkward, either deal with that discomfort (there’s nothing wrong with some silence) or think of something to say that doesn’t force them to defend or explain their physical appearance.

Ask yourself what sort of response you’re hoping for when you say “You look tired” to someone. “Uh, I guess”? “Yup”? “Not really, just bored/sad/depressed/worried/stressed”? Because I really don’t know what I’m supposed to say in response, whether I’m actually tired or not. Maybe they expect me to launch into some wild story about dancing at the club till 5 AM or spending the whole night chasing my runaway cat through the city, but no, the answer is that I went to sleep at 11 PM after reading for a bit, and woke up at 7 AM feeling like total garbage, and here I am at 1 PM still feeling like total garbage, because that’s how my body is.

If I merely found this rude and weird, I probably wouldn’t be writing a blog post about it, but it does harm me in a very real way. Basically, the only reason I’m able to continue to be a human and do things despite my crushing fatigue is by keeping myself busy and engaged enough that I can ignore it. That takes effort. For instance, it’s why I’m almost never just “doing nothing.” If I’m on public transportation or waiting in line for something or I arrived five minutes earlier to the restaurant than my friend did, I’m reading. If I’m eating, I’m reading. If I’m driving, then I’m listening to music or an audiobook or making conversation with a passenger. Smartphones are an essential coping tool for me, and I don’t give a fuck if that makes me a Millennial Stereotype.

So what happens when someone pointlessly blurts out “You look tired”? All of that is sort of ruined. I’m forced, if temporarily, to pay attention to the physical state of my body, and it feels awful. In attempting to assemble a response to this awkward statement, I have to actually contemplate my own tiredness, which I try as much as possible to avoid doing. (Writing this constitutes an exception.)

And to what end? What is gained by someone telling me that I look tired? What do they learn about me? What do I learn about them, except that they’re sort of rude? How does either of us benefit?

Generally, when someone looks unusual or “bad” in a way they can’t control, such as fatigue or disability or scarring, I think it’s best to give them the dignity of letting it pass unremarked unless you have that kind of relationship or unless they invite comment on it themselves. When someone looks unusual or “bad” in a way they can control, the dynamics are a little different, but it’s still useful to keep in mind that 1) nobody asked for your opinion and 2) giving your opinion uninvited is unlikely to accomplish anything useful for either of you. In fact, it will probably hurt the person and your relationship with them, however passing it might be. Exceptions include letting someone know that they’ve got something stuck in their teeth or that there’s a tear in their clothing they probably can’t see. It’s just like I said before: do you honestly think they’ll appreciate what you’re going to say? If so, then it’s okay.

This wonderful bit of advice from Captain Awkward is about pregnancy, but towards the end it applies to all sorts of body stuff:

Readers, if you did not know, the only time to notice or talk about someone’s pregnancy is when they tell you, in words, that they are pregnant. And the thing to say to a pregnant person about their appearance is “Well, you look very nice today, that color suits you/your hair is pretty/I am glad to see you” and to NOT comment on anything about how their body looks, and then you let them take the lead on bringing up the subject of body stuff. If you need a cautionary tale to drive this home, let me tell you about the time I was in mall food court with a friend who had just miscarried at 5 months and how a stranger came up to tell her that she was “absolutely glowing” and “obviously meant to be a mother” and how “that precious baby didn’t know how lucky it was to have such a beautiful mommy!” and how “the way you’re carrying, it looks like a boy. Do you know the sex yet?” and we both froze like deer. My friend excused herself to go to the restroom because she’d forgotten to wear purple shorts under her pants today and didn’t want to Hulk out or cry in public, and after she left I babbled something at the lady like “I’m sure you meant well, but she just lost her baby, not that it’s any of her business, but pregnant strangers and their bodies are also not your business” and she fell all over herself apologizing and unfortunately science still doesn’t let you wish people into the cornfield. Moral of the story: You DON’T know what’s going on inside other people’s bodies, you DON’T know how they feel about it, so DON’T comment on their bodies.

No, I don’t think my chronic fatigue is “as bad” as miscarrying at 5 months, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s pretty bad for me, and it’s something I’ve had to carry with me (it really feels like a burden to carry) for about 12 years and it’s probably not going away soon. Why remind me of that? Why force me to awkwardly stammer something about how I’m always tired, don’t worry about it, that’s just how I always look?

Why should I have to defend or explain my chronic condition to anyone?

I have to wonder how much of these comments that I get are being made on some level because I fail to present as enthusiastic and energetic and peppy as we expect young women to be. When my face and eyes look physically tired, it seems to almost offend some people, as though I should’ve been considerate enough to cover all that unpleasantness up with makeup or at least force a disgusting cup of coffee down my throat so that nobody has to see me so tired. (I hate coffee, truly.) My exhaustion becomes about their discomfort and worry and irritation at my appearance.

I don’t know what to tell you. If I can drag myself out of bed every day and stay busy from sunrise to sunset (and sometimes much later), you can deal with the sight of my tired face without making it my problem.

~~~

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A Vacation from Emotional Labor

What follows are some (even) more personal reflections on the piece I wrote a couple days ago on emotional labor.

As I was writing that piece, I was feeling guilty. I kept thinking, “But some of these things haven’t happened to me for years. It’s gotten better. What right do I have to complain about this?”

As people (women especially) often do when speaking about their personal experiences, I kept questioning if it was really “as bad” and maybe I’m just unusually independent (or, as some would rather say, cold or selfish) and maybe none of this would be a problem for anyone besides me and maybe a few other people. It’s funny that I thought this even as I copy-pasted excerpt after excerpt of other people talking about this exact issue, and quoted two articles written by women who have dealt with it too.

Of course, whenever we talk about things like imbalanced emotional labor, others are eager to tell us that we’re the fucked-up ones, and pity to everyone who has to deal with us. These days, my response to that is a mental “okay,” because after years of very intense self-doubt (more intense than I expressed above), I’ve more or less reached a place where that shit just slides right off.

But other people are not at that place yet, and for those people (as well as for myself), I want to say this: even if you are Very Weird, and Entirely Too Selfish or Fragile, you still get to set boundaries for your relationships and to try to find ones that work for you. Yes, if you have more needs or dealbreakers than the average person, then you will find, on average, fewer compatible friends and partners. That’s rough, but that’s okay. That doesn’t make you “wrong.” That doesn’t make it okay for others to ignore your communicated boundaries because they expect or wish that they were different, more statistically normal.

And that brings me back to why it is that my experiences with emotional labor have been a lot more agreeable lately. That’s because a few years ago, I started really setting boundaries in ways that 1) attracted great people who know how to take responsibility for their own emotions, and 2) alienated people who wanted to take advantage of me. I left all those paragraphs-long messages unanswered, or answered them as monosyllabically as they answered my own attempts to share about my life. I started writing tons of blog posts about boundaries. I made Facebook posts in which I clarified my own boundaries to others. I mostly stopped having serious romantic relationships (not just for this reason, though–I’ve just lost interest in them). I decided that making sure that other people are happy is not my problem. I made it very obvious, in every way I knew how, that if you want a friend or partner who will take care of you, that cannot be me. If you want a friend or partner who will care for you, then that can absolutely be me.

Throughout all this, and still, I’m not always very nice. “Nice” is bending over backwards to accommodate people while silently resenting them for encroaching on your mental space. Instead, I try to be kind. Kindness, to me, is being honest and upfront about my limitations and needs and making space with/from people before it gets to the point of passive-aggressive sniping. Kindness is avoiding assuming the worst about people unless I have a good reason to. So when someone clearly wants things from me that I can’t give, I try to train myself out of assuming that they want to hurt me or take advantage of me. Instead, I say to myself, “We just need different things.” Kindness is making sure that whatever I do to support or help the people in my life, I do with all my heart, not grudgingly. I make sure they know that, too. I don’t want people to ever feel like they’re my obligation. I want them to know that I chose them. On purpose.

I do think that I probably overcompensated. Sometimes I guilt-trip myself about it, about how little emotional work I do nowadays. “You just want everything to be easy,” I berate myself. Maybe. On my better days, though, I understand that this makes complete sense. After years of wearing myself out with emotional labor, I’ve decided to just take it easy for a while. Consider it a nice long vacation after accumulating a decade’s worth of vacation days.

Moreover, I’m not sure I trust myself with emotional labor right now. I’m not sure I know how to get the balance right, so for now, to protect my own mental health as I went through grad school and as I take on the challenge of starting a career, I err on the side of doing very little. That’s why things are relatively easier right now.

Of course I worry that I’m a terrible friend and partner. I try to make sure to ask very little emotional labor of my friends and partners, so that it’s still about equal. (That’s why I’ve only asked for affirmation about not being a terrible friend/partner once that I can think of, in all these years.)

That said, I also trust my friends and partners to make their own decisions about me. I hope that if they decide they need more from me, they will ask, and if I say no, they will either accept that or choose to make more space between us, whatever feels right for them. I hope that if they feel that I’m asking too much, they will let me know. I think they will.

It’s super important to point out that nobody is A Bad Person in this situation. I am not A Bad Person for having limits, even if they are more limiting than other people’s limits. My friends are not Bad People if they were to want more from me. They also wouldn’t be Bad People if they decided that this doesn’t work for them and made some space or left.

I suppose some would call me selfish. I’m definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m anything but selfish. A selfish person thinks only of themselves without ever considering their impact on others. I think about my impact on others constantly, and I try to make sure that it’s a net positive. The challenge is doing that without burning myself out. I think it’s working okay so far.

~~~

I’ll close with one last example of gendered emotional labor that I forgot to include in the previous piece and haven’t seen discussed anywhere else. Men, you need to stop demanding that women laugh at your jokes and getting upset when they don’t. This is exhausting. Forcing laughter, especially believably, is difficult. But what else can I do when every time I fail to laugh at one of your jokes, you start with the “But you didn’t laugh!” “Hey, why didn’t you laugh?” “You’re supposed to laugh!” “Uh, that was a joke!”? Yes, I’m aware. It wasn’t funny. Learn from that and make a better joke next time. Or, if you can’t handle the relatively minor embarrassment of making a joke that doesn’t get laughed at (which everybody, including me, has done at some point), then don’t make jokes. Because if you ask me why I didn’t laugh and I tell you honestly that I didn’t find it funny, then I’m suddenly the mean one. Someone tell me how that makes any sense.

And especially stop demanding laughter at jokes that are sexist, racist, otherwise oppressive, or simply cruel.

Women are not your Magic Mirrors, here only to tell you that you are the funniest and the manliest in the land.

~~~

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Emotional Labor: What It Is and How To Do It

Ages ago, I read this fantastic piece about practical things men can do to support feminism. Almost every item on the list really resonated with my experience, and this was one of the most resonant:

2. Do 50% (or more) of emotional support work in your intimate relationships and friendships.

Recognize that women are disproportionately responsible for emotional labour and that being responsible for this takes away time and energy from things they find fulfilling.

Since this was just a list, that’s all it had to say about this very important topic. As I shared the article and discussed it with others, especially men, I realized that many men don’t actually know what “emotional labor” means. That, I think, is part of the problem.

I kept meaning to write a piece that explains the concept, but life happened, and I forgot. Then I read this brilliant thing:

We are told frequently that women are more intuitive, more empathetic, more innately willing and able to offer succor and advice. How convenient that this cultural construct gives men an excuse to be emotionally lazy. How convenient that it casts feelings-based work as “an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depths of our female character.”

This, in turn, spawned this great Metafilter thread in which people discuss their experiences with emotional labor. And, that, finally, led to this Ask Metafilter thread, which addresses the very question I initially meant to address: what is emotional labor and how do you know if you’re doing your fair share of it?

If this topic interests you, I encourage you to read these resources, because they’re extremely useful and accessible. I wanted to highlight some of the contributions to the Ask Metafilter thread here.

The original Ask Metafilter post:

# Partnered Life

* Am I checking in with my partner to see if they had a rough day?
* If so, am I stepping up to make their life easier in other ways (cooking, cleaning, etc.)?
* Am I open and clear about my wants, and not forcing my partner to guess/drag it out of me?
* Am I contributing constructively to planning of meals, events, trips, etc?
* Am I actively trying to make my presence feel safe for my partner?
* Do I try to do nice things for my partner without being asked (flowers, treats, etc.)?
* Do I take care of my own administrative life (paperwork, bills) without needing to be repeatedly reminded?
* Am I supportive of my partner’s decisions, big and small?
* Am I respectful and validating of my partner’s emotions?
* Am I vocally grateful when my partner goes out of their way to do something nice for me?
* Am I nice to my partner’s family [if that’s a thing they want]?

# Friend Groups

* Do I work to coordinate peoples’ schedules so that we can have a nice picnic/party/board game night/etc.?
* When planning an event, am I conscious of possible interpersonal conflicts?
* When planning an event, do I take into account different peoples’ preferences for food, beverages, music, etc., so that no one feels excluded?
* Do I actually have everything prepared in advance for an event I’m hosting, or at least clearly and fairly delegated?
* If there is an imbalance of emotional or physical labor occurring, am I willing to risk social awkwardness to improve the lot of those negatively affected?

# Third Party Relationships (Familial & Otherwise)

* Do I remember to make phone calls and visits to people I care about and want to have relationships with?
* Do I remember to send cards to people I care about?
* Do I send thank you notes to people to acknowledge their emotional labor for me?
* Am I actively sensitive to and supportive of people who are experiencing a difficult time (death of spouse/child/pet, etc.)?

User phunniemie adds:

I’d add “am I going to the doctor regularly” to what you have.

I hear a lot of guys (I take it you are a dude) complain (complain, or even just mention offhand) all the time about x, y, or z weird body thing that they have going on, but 9 times out of 10 (actually more, but then we’re getting into fractions) when I ask if they’ve talked to a doctor about it their response is no, or it’s not that big a deal, or they can’t because they don’t have a doctor despite living in the same place for 5+ years. So now they’ve involved me in concern for their Problem Freckle but have no ability or intention to manage it themselves.

Make sure you’re taking care of yourself and being proactive about your healthcare (physical and mental) so that the women in your life don’t have to feel like your nurse.

WidgetAlley adds:

Huge one for me, especially in reference to mental illness or trauma or disorders: are you doing your own emotional work?

This means asking for support and accommodation for your feelings and your illness if you need it, and negotiating with your partner about your needs, but also not making your problems their problems. If you have depression or past trauma, tell your partner– don’t make them guess. Ask them to make reasonable adjustments to their behavior and interactions if you can, or if you’re not sure what you need, just keep them in the loop as much as you can.

And then, do your own work and get to a doctor, a therapist, or another appropriate person who can help you in a solid professional context. It’s reasonable and sane and wonderful to ask for support and love and reassurance, but don’t make fixing your own internal workings your partner’s problem any more than you can help it.

wintersweet adds:

Do I pause to observe the context (my partner’s body language or current activity, what’s been happening today, etc.) before I involve my partner in something me-focused? (Whether that’s a request or a touch or whatever.)

Am I answering my partner’s bids?

Am I taking responsibility for my own reminders by putting things in a calendar app or whatever reminds me to do things?

Am I aware of all the unseen work involved in things like meal preparation*, and am I educating myself so that I can share the work?

HotToddy adds:

How often am I saying knee-jerk defensive things like “I forgot,” “I’m trying,” “I’m doing my best,” “It’s not a big deal,” vs “Oops, shit, I’m sorry, let me [take independent action and come up with my own fucking idea for how I can finally make this change that you’ve repeatedly told me is important to you and that I’ve said I would do but still haven’t].

RogueTech adds:

Am I difficult as hell to work with and expect everyone to work around it because I present as male?

E. Whitehall adds:

Are you interrupting your partner unnecessarily? Is their busy-ness less valuable to you than a question you could likely just Google instead of interrupting them? Consider whether you really need to ask them, specifically, right now, about this particular thing. Consider whether you’ve actually looked for answers. Have you googled? Have you checked the most likely places? Several times? Have you actually reached in and looked with your hands for whatever you’ve lost?

There are a lot more great examples in the thread, but this should give you some sense of what emotional labor is.

You might notice that some things in the thread sound like “bare minimum for being a decent friend/partner” type things, such as respecting and validating others’ emotions. Others sound like things that aren’t necessary (or even desirable) in every relationship. The important thing is that there’s a balance. If you and your friend or partner have the kind of relationship where you share household responsibilities and expenses, for instance, it’s unreasonable for your partner to always have to remind you to do your duties when they never need a reminder from you.

Of course, it’s easy for people to look at these lists and immediately start doing this thing: “Well, but, my partner’s so much better at planning things than I am, so of course they plan all of our social events as a couple” or “Well I have a mental illness and my friend doesn’t, so I can’t always be expected to remember to ask about their day the way they ask about mine.” Okay. This isn’t a be-all end-all list, and different people’s situations have their own particular needs and restraints. I encourage you not to get too hung up on any particular item on the list, and instead focus on the concept itself.

The point is that, for the most part, women are expected to do a lot of these sorts of things in relationships and friendships, and men are not. It may well be that men are on average objectively worse at them than women are, but that’s only because they’ve never been held responsible for these things and therefore haven’t developed the skill. Most men have gone their whole lives hearing that women are “naturally” suited for these things and men are “naturally” not, so why bother working on it? Gender essentialism doesn’t exactly foster a growth mindset, and many people don’t realize that things like communication skills and empathy can actually be improved to begin with.

After reading these articles and threads, I started to understand my frustrations with my male friends, roommates, and partners much better, because these imbalances have touched every single relationship I’ve ever had with a man. Male partners have consistently ignored glaring issues in the relationship so that I had to be the one to start the difficult conversation every single time, even though they supposedly had as much of a stake in the relationship as I did. Male roommates have made me beg and plead and send reminder texts to do even the most basic household management tasks. Male friends have tried to use me as a therapist, or drawn me into worrying about their physical health with them while refusing to see a doctor even though they had insurance.

Well-meaning men of varying roles in my life have consistently ignored my nonverbal cues, even very visible ones, forcing me to constantly have to articulate boundaries that ought to be obvious, over and over. (For instance, “Do you see how I’m intently reading a book right now? That means that I’m very interested in the book and am not interested in having a conversation right now.” “Did you notice how I’m hunched over with my arms folded over my stomach and a grimace on my face? This means that I’m in pain and probably not in the mood for cheery small-talk!” “Pay attention to how I’ve got huge headphones on and am staring at my computer screen and typing very quickly. This is why I didn’t hear a single word you just said and now is probably not a good time to chat about your day!”)

This is why being in relationship with men, even platonically, is often so exhausting for me. As much as I love them and care for them, it feels like work.

Like all gendered dynamics, of course, this isn’t exclusive to male-female interactions and the imbalance doesn’t always go in the same direction. It can happen in any relationship, romantic or platonic, serious or less so. I’m pointing out the gendered dynamic here because it’s so extremely prevalent and so very harmful, but if, for instance, you’re a man realizing that you’re doing the bulk of the emotional labor in your relationship with someone of whichever gender, you still have a right to try to sort that out.

I strongly suspect that the emotional labor imbalance underlies part of the problem men often say they have with forming and maintaining friendships with other men. When neither of them is able to rely on the other person to do the emotional labor, relationships fall apart. In friendships and relationships with women, men are able to trust that we’ll handle all that messy feelings stuff.

I also suspect that this underlies the fear and anger with which some men respond to women’s emotional unavailability. That’s not to excuse the manifestations that these emotions often take, but to explain them. I empathize with this, because it must be terrifying to feel like you can’t deal with your own stuff and the person you thought was going to help you is refusing to. It must be especially terrifying when you don’t even know where the feelings are coming from, when you can’t even tell yourself, Okay, this is scary because I’ve never had to do this for myself and now it’s time to learn how.

It would be like if you’ve gone your whole life having fully prepared meals just suddenly appear in front of you whenever you’re hungry (or whenever you say the words “I’m hungry”), and suddenly you’re being told that not only will the prepared meals not be provided anymore, but now you have to go out and hunt and gather for yourself. Whaaaat.

Emotional labor is often invisible to men because a lot of it happens out of their sight. Emotional labor is when my friends and I carefully coordinate to make sure that nobody who’s invited to the party has drama with anyone else at the party, and then everyone comes and has a great time and has no idea how much thought went into it.

Emotional labor is when I have to cope, again, with the distress I feel at having to clean myself in a dirty bathroom or cook my food in a dirty kitchen because my male roommate didn’t think it was important to clean up his messes.

Emotional labor is having to start the 100th conversation with my male roommate about how I need my living space to be cleaner. Emotional labor is reminding my male roommate the next day that he agreed to clean up his mess but still hasn’t. Emotional labor is reassuring him that it’s okay, I’m not mad, I understand that he’s had a very busy stressful week. Emotional labor is not telling him that I’ve had a very busy stressful week, too, and his fucking mess made it even worse.

Emotional labor is reassuring my partner over and over that yes, I love him, yes, I find him attractive, yes, I truly want to be with him, because he will not do the work of developing his self-esteem and relies on me to bandage those constantly-reopening wounds. Emotional labor is letting my partner know that I didn’t like what he did sexually last night, because he never asked me first if I wanted to do that. Emotional labor is reassuring him that, no, it’s okay, I’m not mad, I just wanted him to know for next time, yes, of course I love him, no, this doesn’t mean I’m not attracted to him, I’m just not interested in that sort of sex. Emotional labor is not being able to rely on him to reassure me that it’s not my fault that I didn’t like the sex, because this conversation has turned into my reassuring him, again.

Emotional labor is when my friend messages me once every few weeks with multiple paragraphs about his life, which I listen to and empathize with. Afterwards, he thanks me for being “such a good listener.” He asks how my life has been, and I say, “Well, not bad, but school has been so stressful lately…” He says, “Oh, that sucks! Well, anyway, I’d better get to bed, but thanks again for listening!”

Emotional labor is when my friend messages me and, with no trigger warning and barely any greeting, launches into a story involving self-harm or suicide or something else of that sort because “you know about this stuff.”

Emotional labor was almost all of my male friends in high school IMing me to talk about how the girls all go for the assholes.

Emotional labor is when my partners decide they don’t want to be in a relationship with me anymore, but rather than directly communicating this to me, they start ignoring me or being mean for weeks until I have to ask what’s going on, hear that “I guess I’m just not into you anymore,” and then have to be the one to suggest breaking up. For extra points, then I have to comfort them about the breakup.

Emotional labor is setting the same boundary over and over, and every time he says, “I’m sorry, I know you already told me this, I guess I’d just forgotten.”

Emotional labor is being asked to completely explain and justify my boundaries. “I mean, that’s totally valid and I will obviously respect that, I just really want to understand, you know?”

Emotional labor is hiding the symptoms of mental illness, pretending my tears are from allergies, laughing too loudly at his jokes, not because I’m just in principle unwilling to open up about it, but because I know that he can’t deal with my mental illness and that I’ll just end up having to comfort him because my pain is too much for him to bear.

Emotional labor is managing my male partners’ feelings around how often we have sex, and soothing their disappointment when they expected to have sex (even though I never said we would) and then didn’t, and explaining why I didn’t want to have sex this time, and making sure we “at least cuddle a little before bed” even though after all of this, to be quite honest, the last thing I fucking want is to touch him.

Although these discussions cause it to have a negative connotation, emotional labor is not inherently bad. In any healthy, balanced friendship/relationship, the participants are all doing some amount of it, though the total amount varies based on the type of relationship and the needs of those involved. Emotional labor becomes bad when certain people are expected by default to be responsible for the bulk of it even though we’d rather be focusing on other things if given the choice. It becomes bad when it’s invisible, when it’s treated as an assumption rather than as something that the participants of a relationship intentionally discuss and negotiate together.

What might that look like in practice? Here are a few examples:

“I’m struggling with depression right now and am also extremely busy with my dissertation, so I’m not going to be able to do X, Y, or Z in this relationship. Instead, I’m going to make an extra effort to do A and B. Is that okay for you?”

“If we’re going to be living together, I need to make sure that we both do an equal share of X. Does that work for you?”

“I know you’ve had to give me a lot of reminders lately to do basic things for myself and for our household. I’m working on getting better at remembering on my own by [setting reminders on my phone/bringing this up in therapy/starting medication/cutting back on some stressful things]. While I work on this, are you okay with continuing to remind me? If you don’t feel that things have gotten any better in [timeframe], will you let me know?”

“I’ve noticed that you manage a lot of our interactions with my family. I feel like you get along a lot better with them than I do, so maybe it makes sense that you’re the one who plans our get-togethers, but is this okay with you? Do you need me to take more of an active role in this?”

“I’ve been the one who initiates the majority of our plans together, and while I always enjoy seeing you, I need some clarity about this. If you’re not that interested in spending time with me, I need to know. If you are, I’d really appreciate it if you sometimes invited me to do things, too.”

Remember that one way in which imbalances in emotional labor manifest themselves is that it always ends up being the job of the person who does the bulk of it to start these conversations and to let you know that they’re overwhelmed by the amount of emotional labor they have to do. End that cycle. Be the person who brings it up and ask your partner if this is okay for them. Remember that a lot of people who are doing the bulk of the emotional labor, especially women, might initially try to claim that it’s okay when deep down they feel that it isn’t. Leave room for them to change their minds as they feel more comfortable with you, and don’t pull the “But you said before that it was fine” thing.

I absolutely recognize that this work is not easy. If what I’ve described sounds exhausting and overwhelming and maaaybe you’ll just let your girlfriend/friend/etc deal with it instead, I get it. It is hard. But it would be a lot easier if that labor were distributed more fairly. Emotional labor isn’t a silly fluffy girl skill. It’s a life skill.

It’s hard, too, because most men have been intentionally deprived of the language and tools to even think about these sorts of issues, let alone work on them. That’s why so many men don’t even know what emotional labor is, and why they have no idea what to do when they feel really bad except find a woman and outsource the labor to her–often without even realizing why they’re doing what they’re doing. As I said before, this sounds absolutely terrifying and I do not envy men in this regard.

But you can’t get better at what you don’t practice. Start the tough conversations. Pause before speaking and intentionally observe your partner’s body language. Ask yourself, “What could I do to make life easier for her? What things is she doing to make life easier for me, without even being asked?” Spend some time listening to your own emotions and learning to name them before rushing to either unload them on someone else or drown them out with something that feels better.

I do not exaggerate one little bit when I say that if more and more men learn to do these things, we can change the world.

~~~

Although I chose to examine gender dynamics here because that’s what I feel most qualified to talk about, it’s very, very important to note that imbalances in emotional labor also happen along other axes. In particular, people of color often do emotional labor for white people, especially in conversations about race. Just as I was finishing this article, a friend on Facebook posted this poem, which illustrates this dynamic.

~~~

Update: Maecenas, who started the Ask Metafilter thread, has compiled it into this really useful google doc.

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