Following on from my three recent posts on change in modern hetero relationships, here, here and here, let’s dig into that emotion work. How do you feel, how do I feel? Do either of us feel we are getting a good deal, a fair hearing, right and proper treatment, in this partnership (or even because of it)? Boil it down further: Am I pissing you off? Am I exploiting you? Are you pissing me off or taking advantage of me? Where is this leading us? What do we want? If some of what we each want is the same, and some is different, are they compatible?
In my own life the most painful experiences I’ve had have been the results of what has happened as a result of me not being willing or able to speak ‘my truth’ clearly and at the right time. That’s not self-deprecation; there was no possible right time, and I didn’t know ‘my truth’ consciously. The second most painful experiences of my life have probably been speaking my truth. (Okay artistic license here, not looking to remember any more painful experiences than these right now lol).
The emotional pain I feel when I have to confront a truth about myself, and haul it, kicking and screaming, out from behind its slimy rock in my own swamp, is often just as acute as what I feel when I have to make myself say some horrible ‘observation’ about a partner’s imperfections – or infuriating oversights. Striving to be a good friend to someone, even while effectively saying they have some behaviour which is doing your head in, at least carries the sense of possible reward. So you tell them they are still using sexist language, or that they are too rude to shopkeepers, or why you are fed up with their post-work rants. You may be rewarded by some subtle but wonderful improvements, you can at least enjoy your own practice in being brave or kind or assertive or supportive. You also get to remind them (and yourself) of all the marvellous things about them that prove (hopefully), that this negative issue is no deal breaker, it’s just a thing – to sweeten the pill, so to speak. When there is fear of angry denial or retribution this is a different ball game for sure, not that men have the monopoly on anger.
Facing up to your own hidden flaws
When you have to hear it though, when you’ve been a dick and you don’t know it, the reward is a fucking long way off by comparison. We have to listen and hear, we have to be sure we’re not being bullied or gaslighted or manipulated, we have to stay focussed on awkward or embarrassing or downright painful topics to come up with creative compromises. Worse than all of this though, sometimes we will have to admit that we have been a dick. And, we will have to genuinely ask ourselves why. I don’t doubt that some of you find this easier than I do, because I suspect I was unusually closed-down emotionally as a child – who knows, it’s hard to compare. I do know it gets easier over time, which leads me to suspect that for lots of people it’s a normal part of everyday life and not quite so intense.
But what if we really can’t bear the pain that comes up when we are asked to question the roots of behaviour which impacts on other people? We are asking those people to make a choice: do more emotion work for me, or leave me.
Clarification: emotional labour vs self-analysis!
After a break from this post I realised I have been talking mainly about the process of investigating behaviours which cause others difficulty. Yet the emotional labour which first appeared in feminist discussions is that of carrying unexpressed emotions for another person. This is the labour of the wife who gets shouted at every night when her husband gets in drunk from the pub and has to convince everyone around them that everything is okay. Or of the single parent who has to pretend to their children that the other parent is not well when they forget to collect them for a day trip. We not only exhaust ourselves but also compromise our integrity by performing appropriate emotions for someone who is emotionally illiterate. We often can’t see how telling the truth is an option. So we build up a Sisyphean debt of emotion-tasks which we perform on rotation, too overworked to go looking for solutions or even allies.
The fact that I think of ‘emotion work’ now as the mutual critical engagement of fighting over who’s been the biggest dick is a symptom of how many hetero couples have indeed moved on to live lives where men cannot languish in emotional dumbness any more. No cultural phenomenon disappears overnight, and so for generations from now we will continue to remember and suffer for patriarchs whose behaviour made the whole family cringe – whether from fear or embarrassment. There are some pretty dreadful mothers and grandmothers out there too – can you think of one?
Luckily there are great rewards to doing our own ‘work’, as well as being fair and being together: you actually get better. Clearly this is truer when with a partner who does listen and change. It’s a terrible myth that people can’t or don’t change, or that it’s wrong to ask or expect a person to change, or that we’re right to be outraged if someone asks us to change. When someone resists hearing at first, but later after some persistence they get it, you develop trust and hope. This makes it more likely that you can later forgive yourself, when you look back at the times you have resisted someone’s observation of yourself fucking up … creating a positive cycle where self-confrontation gets less scary and painful over time.
And let’s not forget, there are always going to be some situations where trauma is safer under its rock in the swamp, rather than flailing about in the public swimming baths! In this proliferated age, there are literally dozens of different types of therapists that can share significantly in carrying the load during the hardest phases. There is also a staggering variety of workshops you can now go to, to be supported in a group to practice the skills of speaking your (emotional) truths, and of scratching your own surface. For example, ‘family constellations’ is a workshop method where participants can literally reveal nothing personal about themselves yet still absorb experiences offering deep healing and change.
Any experiences we can open ourselves up to, that loosen that rock, reduce the dangers of trying to share a life with someone we can’t tell things to. That means reducing the burden on one person of having to guide us through a painful self-re-development which we are bound to fiercely resist at times (and which they may not be at all qualified for). It also means protecting that person from carrying the emotional package (baggage) on our behalf – the unexpressed emotion which leaks into our next of kin – because we are porous beings and we share emotions non-verbally even when they strike us dumb. I have always observed sex as a mechanism by which people exchange deep emotional build up, enabling a partial re-set, but at the same time passing a version of that experience literally into the other. But maybe that’s just me.
And that brings us neatly back to the conversation between men and women as such. Whenever my partner/s and I have had something really painful (i.e. involving fear, insecurity, shame, anger, jealousy or embarrassment) to deal with, I find sooner or later that it’s gendered, usually sooner. And no, I don’t mean that almost every dispute we have had comes down to ‘pink jobs and blue jobs’ – re-negotiating what is or isn’t okay for men or women to expect of each other, or imagine one another to be.
I mean that almost every deep scar either of us has sustained, links in some way back to experiences dictated by our gender. Maybe it’s an expectation put on us which we ‘failed’ to live up to, or one which we lived up to until it broke us. Maybe it’s a hidden belief that our aspirations are the wrong ones, or that our flaws make us unfit as a man / a woman. Or it may be common or garden sexuality issues, where our expression of who we are at the deepest level through our sexuality causes us to be fearful of rejection or mockery or failure. We may be blocked, stifled, reduced, constrained, as well as the possibility that we are oppressed, suppressed, exploited or abused. I cannot speak first hand about doing emotion work together as a same-sex couple but I cannot imagine that is different – except that perhaps there are more affinities in relation to past hurts resulting from sexual-orientation-related abuse or repression. Again, I have found it is more often that the deepest roots of a problem are not in the sexist behaviours of a partner, but in the sexed and gendered damaged we have each sustained in the past.