In a completely different context, I have been known to say to my coworkers:
"I can totally tell you're a straight dude, because you've *obviously* never dated another guy. Y'all think you're all rational and logical and shit, and that you're all about the sex and not the romantic stuff, but I know what y'all say to women when your dudebros aren't around. You whine about not 'connecting' and missing the romance and all the fucking talk, talk, talk. After a while, it's like 'do we have to talk about our relationship ONE MORE TIME? Can you please just shut up with all the relationship talking? Is it too much to ask to just come home, have some dinner, watch a little TV in quiet, have a little sex and go to bed? Jesus fuck, you guys with all the talking!' You sit there and complain about girls doing that but as soon as a girl doesn't WANT to do that, y'all turn into the whiny little bitches you complain about! And don't tell me it never happens, unless you've dated as many men as I have, I'm pretty sure I have more experience with how dudes behave in relationships than you do. You're getting the story your dudebros TELL you and the side they want you to THINK. You're not seeing them behind closed doors. I am. Y'all are just as whiny and emotional as any of the girls you complain about."
Now, keep in mind that, when I phrase it like this, I'm talking to dudebros. I'm talking to guys who are working in a masculine industry, talking to other guys, and doing that toxic masculinity bonding thing where they complain about how girly girls can be. But the story under the language is true - I have spent a lot of time in relationships throwing my hands up in the air, yelling in frustration, "what the fuck, dude, I don't want to talk about our relationship anymore!"
Before I started dating Franklin, about 13 years ago, just about every relationship I ever had ended in accusations of being a cold-hearted bitch. I've had a few since then too, but he sets a high bar and my tolerance for partners who can't even come close to meeting that bar is rapidly dropping as I age, so my other partners since dating Franklin have been a better ratio - with only a couple of outright abusive assholes using that accusation and the rest breaking up for other reasons. By the end of things with those who accused me of being a cold-hearted bitch, I was no longer interested in hearing about their day, in listening to them whine (because that's how I thought of it by the end) about how much they "missed" me, in making them dinner, in sitting with them to watch their favorite show, in, really, doing anything at all kind or compassionate for them. There would come a point in the relationship where I would just ... check out.
And I bought into this idea that I was some kind of borderline sociopathic monster (or, a dude in a girl's body, because the other common accusation is that I act like "the guy" in the relationship, which "forces" them to act like "the girl", because there always has to be one of each? Oh right, if *I'm* not performing the emotional labor, *someone* has to, and it's just not *fair* that it has to be the actual penis-holder!). So I would warn people up front that I'm "the guy" and this is what I do.
But, in the beginning of a relationship, I like performing some amount of emotional labor - I like hearing my partner's inner most feelings. I like baking for them. I like validating them. I am actually pretty schedule-oriented so I will keep the calendar and schedule events and remember (or get calendar notifications for) people's birthdays and anniversaries. I even like the cuddling and the sex, in the beginning. So they get used to me behaving in a way contrary to my warning words.
Then they start to feel entitled to that behaviour, and that turns me off. So then they're surprised when I start acting exactly like I said I would because they weren't hearing my words, they were seeing my actions which contradicted my words and they put a filter over their interactions with me that projected their own biases onto my actions and filtered out my words. Then they accused me of being "cold" and I would yell right back at them "what part of 'I'm a cold-hearted bitch' that I said in the beginning didn't you understand?"
The Five Love Languages theory claims that everyone has one primary Love Language that they use to express their love for people or that they feel love when expressed towards them. It claims that it's possible to learn the other languages just like it's possible to learn actual languages, but that there is always The One. I disagree. I think that there is no limit (upper or lower) to the number of languages any given person naturally "speaks". Some people have a single language and all the rest will always be a struggle for them. Others, like me, speak all five fluently and naturally. And most everyone else is somewhere in between.
Here's something I learned about the Five Love Languages - if a person has a particular Love Language, and that Love Language gets abused from an early age, and/or often, then that person will develop a strong aversion to the expression of that Love Language precisely because that Love Language is so important to them. It's like touching an exposed nerve almost. Maybe not quite, but touching something sensitive - if you do it exactly right, it will make them melt with pleasure, but if you do it wrong, it'll be a screaming, painful experience for them when the rest of us are all like "I don't get it, what's the problem? This doesn't hurt *me* that much!" (we see this very clearly in the "can't you take a joke?" defense where some people have no problem slinging insults around as signs of affection, but get confused when someone they love takes it "personally"). If that Love Language gets abused early enough, before the person is aware that this is a Super Important Way To Express Love, this person might believe that they are actually opposed to it completely, instead of it being extremely important to them. And then, because they are avoiding the expression of that Love Language out of self-defense, their "love tank" runs on empty for most of their life.
A "love tank" is often compared to a car's gas tank or a bank. It's this metaphorical space that gets "filled up" when you do things that makes the person happy. When the tank is "full", they have a reserve to fall back on when things are tough. When the love tank is full, and you have a fight, they are more likely to be charitable or compassionate during the fight and get over it afterwards because they have this extra cushion to fall on, this extra reserve to draw from, so they can afford to bend more, be more flexible, give more during a conflict. This is why conflict, anger, or arguments are not necessarily a sign of a bad relationship - all relationships have these. It's contempt that is the big warning sign. Contempt, and similar emotions, are what gets brought out when these love tanks are running low. Contempt and disgust lead to a lack of empathy, and that lack of empathy leads to "selfish" behaviour. If you can't empathize with someone's position, you prioritize your own safety or your own security or your own escape route.
These behaviours are labeled "selfish" because you are putting yourself ahead of them. I, personally, make a distinction between "selfish" and "self-interested". "Selfish", when I use it, means putting WANTS ahead of someone else's NEEDS, and doing so either knowing that your actions will harm another and not caring; or thinking of yourself to the exclusion of the other person so that it doesn't even occur to you that someone else might get harmed. When I say "self-interested", I mean that you are putting your NEEDS ahead of someone else's WANTS. I might include "putting your needs ahead of others' needs" as well because sometimes there are situations where two people have legitimate "needs" that are incompatible and someone might have to choose themselves over someone else. I don't consider that to be "selfish" so much as "self-interested". Often, the person putting their own needs ahead of someone's wants is aware that someone else might feel hurt by it, but they feel it is a regrettable necessity. They aren't lacking empathy, they are making a choice about priority.
I think this distinction is very important because the accusation "selfish" is a very powerful tool of abusers to maintain their victims. Being "selfish" is one of the worst things a person, especially a woman or someone coded as "female" or "feminine", can be. So it's easy to keep her in line by grooming her for her entire life to not be "selfish" and then drawing on that grooming whenever she acts self-interested.
Meanwhile, the actions of the abuser are, in fact, "selfish", by this definition. I think it's important to note these two similar but distinct actions and belief systems with their own labels. This is not a criticism of the original article's use of the term, but an explanation of my own position on the subject and how I normally use these terms. Regardless of which term is used, I completely agree with the posted article's position on this subject, which is why I'm sharing the article. It prompted me to take a look back on all the times I've been called "selfish" and "cold" in relationships and to be critical of those accusations.
So, back to the Five Love Languages - I apparently speak all 5 fluently and naturally. Which might sound awesome at first hearing, because there are so many ways that people can express their love for me and I can speak naturally to any of their individual ways so you'd think that I'd get along well with a whole bunch of different people. But, as I like to joke, it's actually more like there are so many *more* ways that people can fuck this shit up than those who only speak 1 language. Because there are *5 separate love tanks* that people have to keep filled, not one, if they want me to feel secure in our relationship.
So, I would start out in a relationship with the NRE filling the role of the "cushion" or "reserve" in the relationship. Kinda like how lactic acid works when there's an oxygen deprivation to keep you physically moving, only in reverse - I start *out* with the NRE giving me a boost just long enough for the new partner to start making emotional "deposits" that I will eventually start drawing on when the NRE wears off. So, the NRE makes me all physically affectionate, verbally validating, intensely interested in everything they have to say, interested in doing things for them, and even wanting to give tangible things to represent my feelings for them or to show them that I was thinking of them when they weren't around (in order, the Love Languages of Physical Touch, Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service, and Gift Giving).
But here's something that the Love Language theory doesn't cover. I propose that "entitlement" can actually draw *out* any saved reserves from love tanks. So, even if my partner is actually expressing love for me in ways that might otherwise fill up my love tanks, if he is acting *entitled* to any of these expressions of love from me, that entitlement will start to siphon off some of those reserves. So, he may be showing his love for me by wanting to spend Quality Time with me, but if he's also *demanding* that time of me because he feels that I owe it to him as part of our relationship bargain, that Quality Time now starts to act as a deficit instead of a deposit.
"Leaving aside the fact that it’s still her phone and she still gets to decide who gets to use it and for what–a very important fact that I’m only leaving aside because I’m writing about something else–our brother has a pattern of entitled, demanding behavior towards her. He treats her time, belongings, and energy as if they’re his to take. Unfortunately, that happens a lot to selfless and caring people.
Because of that pattern, my sister has stopped being as giving with our brother as she used to be. Often she angrily refuses to do even tiny favors for him, like letting him borrow her phone for a few minutes to take some photos. Occasionally he makes his requests in a more appropriate way, but sometimes she still reacts with knee-jerk irritation and, raising her voice, tells him no."
I have been quoted as saying that I have a long fuse, but a huge blast radius. This means that I seem to have these endless reserves of patience and caring and compassion and empathy ... until you reach the end and then I blow up in what appears to be a totally disproportional way. I have yet to find a way to fix this, because I actually have gotten very good at clearly stating my boundaries and warning people that I'm nearing the end of my rope. But that seems to make it worse for me, because then when they overstep my boundaries, they're doing it *knowingly*, from my perspective, and I take it now as a deliberate blow. But, there's something else that gets added on top, it's just that very few people ever get to see it these days because I've gotten more comfortable with the banhammer and burning bridges.
When I have finally lost my patience with someone on a particular thing, but for some reason I haven't decided to nuke the entire relationship, I never again build up any resources to deal with that particular thing. So, for example, my family. My family doesn't do anything so horrendous that I'm willing to cut ties with them. They're not abusive, they're not racist (at least not all of them, and the ones who are aren't overtly racist), and since I live 3,000 miles away I can enjoy their company in small doses of my own choosing. But when we were kids, my sister used to steal my stuff. My clothes, my cassette tapes, whatever I had, she would steal it whether she liked it or not. One day, I'd had enough and we got into a fight about something probably not even related, and I shoved her bedroom door through the connecting wall. I got grounded forever and I had to do the repair work on the wall when my parents got home. To this day, I am extremely short-tempered about my stuff going missing and I'm incredibly territorial about my stuff.
Another example is my parents not respecting my agency. In a million tiny ways almost too hard to describe, my parents have never respected my autonomy and my desire or ability to make my own decisions or be an independent person. It's hard to describe because any one example is minor enough that many people just don't get why it's a big deal. The big deal is the aggregate. It takes a lifetime of tiny little chips away at my autonomy before I finally blew up about it. I got into a huge fight with my mom and moved out (and into the arms of my first abusive fiance, but that's another story). My mom tried to physically restrain me from leaving the argument and, for the only time in my life, I pushed her back and into the hallway wall. My sister came running down the hall and broke up the fight and I left.
My mom and I have repaired things and I consider her a good friend in addition to being my mother now, but every time she does even the slightest thing to remind me of an infringement on my autonomy, I get red-faced, temperature-raising, pissed off. The most common example is that, every time I visit or they visit, mom asks me if I need her to wake me up in the morning to get to whatever we have to do that day on time. She doesn't believe that I can do it myself just because my sleep disorder showing up in my teen years took me some time to learn how to compensate for. No, I don't fucking need mom's help to wake up. I'm motherfucking middle-aged and I've been getting myself up for two-thirds of my entire life. Don't fucking wake me up before my goddamn alarm. I have a system that works for me, don't fucking do it. See? Totally unreasonable reaction if seen out of context and in isolation. But I have never been able to build up any extra reserves to my mother infringing on my autonomy, so it is *always* that exposed nerve, that empty tank.
"Once I realized that my partners thought that it was my job to do emotional labor for them, I started rapidly losing the desire to do it."
"Even now, even to myself, I sound selfish and cold. But so does my sister, out of context. Neither of us is selfish or cold. What we are is exhausted. What we are is tired of being unable to set any boundaries. What we are is totally done doing things for people who have never, ever asked us what we need."
"When someone’s reserves of compassion get drained like that, they start setting boundaries that are much stricter and tighter than what they would’ve been otherwise. No, you can’t borrow my phone for even a few minutes. No, I don’t want to listen to your feelings at all. No, I honestly don’t even have enough emotional energy to give you a compliment to make you feel better about yourself."
"Because others’ entitlement often shuts down our desire to help them, and when we’re constantly afraid that our boundaries will be ignored, one strategy that many of us feel compelled to use is to start loudly, bluntly stating and defending those boundaries, as if to remove any plausible deniability from the person who continually crosses them."
The author goes on to say that they're not very optimistic about salvaging a relationship after the point at which it has collapsed from one person just flat out giving up on doing any more emotional labor. I can relate there too. Once I "go cold" like that, once I'm just done giving a shit about their feelings in the matter - any matter - I really have no interest in trying to repair the relationship and I don't see it as being very likely that anyone else will have any success in their own relationships after someone reaches that point. I'm reading a book now that claims to be able to help people come back from that precipice, but I'll be honest, I have some reservations about it.
The book I'm reading is all about the scientific research being done about "trust" in interpersonal relationships, and it actually had me for about half of it. I was on board, I was nodding my head as I read, I was already trying to come up with ways to work some of its theories into my Love Languages and Breaking Up workshops. And I *still* think those parts have merit, so I may still reference them. But then I got to this one part where he lumped kink into "impersonal sex", which tells me that he has no fucking idea what kink is, which means that he really doesn't understand what's going on in the minds of people regarding trust at all.
He moved away from kink and went back to just talking about repairing trust and betrayal and I thought, well, OK, the 5 Love Languages is deeply problematic too, coming as it does from a heteronormative, couple-centric, deeply Christian perspective, but I managed to strip it of all that bullshit and find something usable to present to the poly community so perhaps I can pick and choose with this book too.
But I'm not entirely sure I agree with his premise for using his research on trust and betrayal to mend broken relationships. He seems, from my perspective as someone who has been thrust down the rabbit hole of abuse in poly relationships, to be fetishizing the couple and prioritizing the needs of the relationship over the needs of the individuals in the relationship - a core axiom of ethics violation in poly relationships.
We go through so much trouble to try and salvage relationships after things have gone sour. There is a point before which things are rocky but there are enough good parts to a relationship that things can be improved and bring value and joy to everyone involved, and there is a point after which I'm not so sure it's worth the effort even if it *can* be turned around and start bringing more joy than suffering again. And that's not a hard and fast point that I can just say "if X happens, it's not worth it anymore, for anyone, no matter what!" I think that's something only the people in the relationship can decide for themselves, and I think it's possible for it to be true for one / some of the people and simultaneously not true for the other(s).
But I think that point exists, and I think it's very important that we as a society acknowledge this. Relationships and love are abundant. We can find them all over the place. But we can't *see* them, or won't be open to receiving them, if all of our resources are tied up in Scotch-taping broken relationships back together. Sometimes, we might just be better off by using our resources more efficiently by giving up on a broken relationship and spending those resources in other places that aren't so broken.
In this book that I'm reading, the author talks about this point where someone in a relationship starts comparing what they have to what they could have elsewhere, either a real person / relationship that they know of or a fantasy in their head of something that might exist elsewhere if only they could go look. I really want to expose this researcher to healthy poly relationships where believing there is "someone else" out there who can do or be this other wonderful thing *isn't relevant* to whether or not we choose to stay with our current partners.
But there is a nugget of truth in there, that if we are too busy spending all of our resources on a sinking ship, we don't have any resources to maintain or repair all the other ships in our lives, whether it's other romantic partners, family, friends, hobbies, or jobs. This even has a name - the Sunk Cost Fallacy, where we keep dumping in resources after resources into an endless pit because we feel that we have to justify all the resources we have been dumping in so far. To cut our losses and run is to have "failed" and to invalidate all those spent resources. So we keep spending. And that contributes to people staying in abusive or toxic relationships (among other things).
I think we need to stop romanticizing the Forever After and accept that relationships, even successful ones, may not always last until Death Do We Part. I think that it is not necessarily a bad thing to reach this point of No More Fucks To Give and decide that, even if it's possible, it's not desirable to try to "fix" the relationship. I think that, not only is not a bad thing, but it's actively a good thing in many cases, and that it's also not a bad thing to decide it's not desirable *before* reaching that point in order to meet a different goal of maintaining a civil breakup and post-breakup relationship. Better to walk away still remembering the relationship fondly and perhaps even harboring some loving feelings, than to wait until the only feeling you have left for them is contempt, disgust, or anger. Assuming, of course, that you can choose when to walk away, but that's a different discussion.
When we have someone who repeatedly violates our boundaries, or regularly draws upon our emotional reserves in the relationship without putting enough of their own back in to compensate, "selfish", or as I have termed it, "self-interested" behaviour is a valid response. If you're wondering why someone seems to have "checked out" or why they seemed to have lost all their compassion for you, it may be because you've been drawing on their "love tank" reserves instead of filling them up. If you're being accused of being "selfish" and you're wondering why you seem to be this heartless monster around this person in particular but you either remember not being that person or you aren't that monster around other people, it may be because this particular person is crossing your boundaries in small, almost unnoticeable ways or because they're acting entitled to your emotional labor or because they're withdrawing your love tank resources instead of depositing into them.
And if that is the case, it may be for everyone's benefit that you act a little more "selfish", or at least self-interested, and remove yourself from that relationship. If full removal isn't possible at this time, I'd recommend embracing the accusation of being "selfish" and/or looking into ways that you can get away with enforcing as many of your boundaries as possible and acting in your own self-interest in as many ways as possible, as often as you can.
If "reclaiming" the label of "selfish" gives you the strength you need to do what you have to do, go for it. If just reminding yourself that "selfish" and "self-interested" are two different things and that people who have a vested interest in keeping you under their control often use the "selfish" accusation when you're really being "self-interested" - if that reminder is enough make you feel better about taking care of yourself in the face of boundary-crossing and entitlement, then hold onto this until you can improve your circumstances and keep reminding yourself of it. It is not a bad thing to take care of yourself in the face of this kind of violation, even if that means you have to "shut down" something in order to cope.