It's Time for Men to Return the Favor

  Charlotte Cooper     / Creative Commons

 Charlotte Cooper  / Creative Commons

“You attract broken people,” a male friend told me after I spent an afternoon letting him cry into my pillow. I wonder if he’s right. Someone once told me I depend on others depending on me.

I know I have an unhealthy need to feel needed. As I grow more as a feminist, I’m realizing that it’s partly because I’ve been socialized to think I’m only valuable when I’m providing care to others. In a society where women are seen as caretakers, I guess that makes sense.

In recent years, this has changed. I’ve become friends with women and non-binary people who care for me as I care for them. But, while my friend circle is becoming more and more progressive, my friendships with men aren’t getting any better.

The same male friend who cried into my pillows showed no concern for me after I ran into my rapist, had a suicidal bout, and fell apart. It would be fine if it weren’t habitual. I’ve lost a dozen friendships with men over the past few years for the exact same reasons: bar some, the only men who are willing to be there for me are those who want to sleep with me.

A week later, a childhood friend told me about a male friend who, in her words, "cracked her heart in two" by constantly ignoring her while she was going through difficulties. She was there when his mother died, but he didn’t show any concern when she was hospitalized or when she had a breakdown.

“Why do we let men treat us like this?” she asks. “We’re there in their darkest moments, and then they disappear when we need them.” She’s not speaking about romantic relationships.

I’m in the same boat. Increasingly, I find myself retreating from friendships with men as an act of self-care. Despite the fact that they’re all generally pro-feminist, the divide of emotional labor in the relationship is always tainted by gender inequality.

Whether it’s a good thing or not, feminism’s recent spike in popularity can partially be attributed to the current wave’s appeal to men.

One of the ways feminism has become more popular among men, specifically, is by pointing out the ways in which patriarchy harms men. This includes the hyper-masculine tendency to vilify emotion. Men are often discouraged from expressing emotion because it’s seen as feminine, and thus weak.

Encouraging men to discuss their feelings is really important. For one, it helps them find mental healthcare, which is particularly necessary when we note that men are more likely to die by suicide. It also challenges the sexist notion that feelings are a woman’s domain.

But what happens when men are encouraged to express their emotions, but not encouraged to be attentive to the feelings of women and non-binary people around them? What happens when they don’t know how to return the favor?

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild first coined the term "emotional labor" in her iconic book The Managed Heart. Hochschild discusses how women make up the majority of workers in the care and service industries – industries in which a great deal of emotional effort is required.

‘Emotional labor’ isn’t a concept limited to the workplace – it’s been applied to the work women are expected to do in personal relationships.

According to the Pew Research Center, women, especially working mothers, still perform all or most household tasks, for which they’re usually not compensated. This work forms a crucial part of the economy as an efficient household makes for efficient workers, but because it’s uncompensated, this labor is invisible.

Emotional labor is invisible in a similar way. Writing on emotional labor for The Toast, Jess Zimmerman points out that it’s difficult – awkward, even – to monetize something as simple as kindness and friendliness. At the same time, though, the way women are expected to perform certain chores for free while men are not is a notable mark of inequality.

And it does cost women. It costs us in the personal sense, because feeling like you need to force friendliness and kindness is exhausting. It costs us because of the underrated emotional toll of caring for someone who doesn’t care for you in the same way. But we still do it, because it feels awful telling people you won’t help them, especially when we’re socialized to have a need to feel needed.

While a majority of the discourse around emotional labor has centered women as the only victims of this inequality, I’d argue that non-binary people are also expected to do a great deal of emotional labor – probably even more than women.

The inequality in a friendship both reflects and perpetuates the real-life inequality we see in the world around us.

One of the most notable symptoms of overdoing emotional labor is the low self-esteem. How am I supposed to feel comfortable with myself when I spend sleepless nights worrying about men who wouldn’t spend a second worrying about me? How am I meant to deal after I spend my emotional energy comforting someone who never shows a shred of concern for me?

You kind of feel like the friendless loser who knows all about the popular kid in school, when they don’t even bother to wish you for your birthday.

We have an exhausting laundry list of heart-wrenching activities that we do Talking them out of fights when they’re about to get messed up, wrestling away their car keys when they’re too drunk to drive. Remembering their allergies and favorite foods when you plan a night out. Holding their hands while they’re struggling to cope with family drama, or work, or school, or social issues.

And then, there’s the advice. I had a friend who only ever contacted me when he wanted career advice or sex, which would have been fine if he paid attention to my desires or needs. For some reason, I let this go on for too long – perhaps because I was desperate for his approval and friendship, or perhaps because I liked feeling needed.

Perhaps one of the most ironic forms of emotional labor I’ve done is for men who claim to be feminist in some way or another. Every so often, a male acquaintance or friend tags me in a Facebook conversation about misogyny, expecting me to explain 101-level feminist concepts to their bigoted friends, all under the guise of allyship. Or, someone pops up in my life asking for some-or-other feminist resource or opinion or advice on a personal issue. And while I’m happy to do this for those who offer to return the favor, I’ve decided I need to ignore the rest.

I want to believe that most of these questions are genuine, if unreflective. But sometimes the question is followed by a faintly self-satisfied grin, as if they’re impressed by their ability to offload on me.

I fall for it most of the time, but I’m starting to get fatigued from this double standard where I, as a woman, am still seen as needy or ‘crazy’ when I express my emotions – especially to men.

I’m not annoyed with the men in my life for leaning on me, nor do I expect my male friends to support me when they can’t. I love caring for others and I understand that self-care can include not taking on other people’s struggles. But what I expect – and what I hope all women and non-binary people will eventually come to expect – is some kind of equality; I would like for a friend who asks for my care and offers care in return.

More and more men are learning to open up, and that’s seriously fantastic. But if we sincerely want to advocate for liberation from gender-based oppression, they need to learn to support women and non-binary people, too.