2017-09-08

joreth: (boxed in)
2017-09-08 09:20 pm

The Cost Of Emotional Labor In Relationships

Me: I need this information to assess where I should place my boundaries.

Them: It hurts me that you would even ask me about that! Don't you trust me to tell you? Your boundaries make me feel bad. Don't you care about me to let me in?

Me: Sure, it's cool, I'll just do the emotional labor so that you don't feel bad.

If people wonder why I'm so standoffish and hard to get to know on an interpersonal level, this is why. It's easier to keep people at a distance than get into fights over who should be shouldering the burden of emotional labor. If I push, I'm a nag or I'm disrespectful of someone's hurt feelings. If I don't push, then I don't feel safe so I place my boundaries farther out and then I'm "cold" and "emotionally distant". Which hurts their feelings.

When I was a portrait photographer in a studio, I used to have lots of clients bringing in their toddlers and babies. It was my job to make their bratty, cranky, frightened children look like the advertisement photos of baby models who were deliberately selected for having traits conducive to producing flattering portraits (including temperament and parents whose patience was increased by a paycheck). I would spend more time than I was supposed to, patiently waiting for the parents to get their kids to stop crying and fussing.

Every single session, the parents would exclaim how patient I was! How did I do it?! What I couldn't tell them was that I had built a barrier in my head to tune them out. I just ... spaced. I did not notice the passage of time and I wasn't really paying them any attention. I just let my muscle memory control the equipment and make the noises that got kids to look and smile. It's an old trick I adapted from getting through assaults by bullies as a kid - tune out, mentally leave the body, make the right mouth noises to get the preferred response.

That kind of emotional labor management takes a toll. I couldn't express any irritation or annoyance at the client and I couldn't leave to let them handle the kid and the photographing on their own. So I learned to compartmentalize and distance myself while going through the physical motions.

But the price? I now hate kids. I used to like them. I was a babysitter, a math tutor, and a mentor and counselor. I originally went to college to get a counseling degree so that I could specialize in problem teens from problematic homes. Now I want nothing at all to do with kids unless it's an environment where I am teaching them something specific and I can give up on them the moment I am no longer feeling heard or helpful.

That's not what made me not want children, btw. I was already childfree-by-choice at that time. I just still liked them back then. Now I can only stand certain specific kids who are very good natured, interested in my interests, and able to function independently (as in, introverted and not dependent on my attention).

So, yeah, I can do the emotional labor. But the cost is high. Doing the labor for too long, to the point where I have to shut myself off from empathy to bear the consequences of doing that labor, results in my emotional distance.

That's what happened with my abusive fiance. He wanted a caretaker, not an equal partner. Everything I did to remain an independent person "hurt" him. I bent a little in the beginning, as I believe partners are supposed to do for each other. But eventually catering to his feelings while putting my own on the back burner took its toll.

So I shut down. In the end, I was able to watch him dispassionately as he lay on the concrete floor of our garage, supposedly knocked unconscious by walking into a low-hanging pipe conveniently in the middle of an argument. And then calmly walk upstairs without even a glance behind me to see if he was following. He described my breakup with him as "cold", like a machine. I had run out labor chips to give, even to feel compassion as I was breaking his heart.

Of course, I didn't recognize his behaviour as "abuse" until years later, or I might have bothered to get angry instead of remaining cold. Point is, emotional labor isn't free, and if you don't pay for it in cash or a suitably equitable exchange, it will be paid by some other means. I don't mean we should never do emotional labor for anyone, just that it needs to be compensated for because it will be paid one way or another.

Since this method has served to end several relationships with abusive men where I never felt "abused" because it didn't "stick" (I just thought of them as assholes), I don't feel much incentive to change it, even though it would probably be better to either not take on so much emotional labor in the first place (which is hard not to do because I *want* to do some forms of emotional labor in the beginning as an expression of love back when I'm still expecting a reciprocal exchange) or to leave or change things before I run out of fucks to give.

But I do eventually run out of fucks to give and I do eventually stop taking on too much emotional labor. And it always seems to surprise people when I do. Because I was so accommodating before so that I wouldn't push "too hard" or seem "too selfish". But that always comes with a price. People are often surprised to learn that.