Once upon a time, I made a pretty convincing straight girl. I dated only men until I was 27. After I came out as gay, people made a lot of interesting assumptions about what it must be like to date women after so many years with men: “It must be so much harder — there must be constant drama and so many emotions all the time!” “It must be so much easier — women are much better communicators!”
In my experience, none of that was true, but there was one clear trend I encountered — consistently — in my relationships with men that made me thankful I was no longer dating them.
My experiences dating men fell into a specific pattern. We would start seeing each other. They would become very interested and intentional. They would initiate the transition into a more serious, relationship-y place. Then… something would shift.
My behavior never changed at this point. I didn’t suddenly become clingy, possessive, or high-maintenance. But either quickly or eventually, they’d do a dramatic 180 and go from being very thoughtful to acting fully apathetic. They’d still want to see me, but they’d stop acting like it.
When a guy I was dating made this 180-degree shift, I would address it with straightforward communication. My assumption was always that he just wasn’t interested anymore, so I’d say something like, “If things have changed and you’re just not into it, that’s fine. Just let me know.” Instead, they would always listen, assure me that they were as invested in our relationship as ever, and say they felt terrible for hurting me. They’d offer a genuine apology and promise to go back to treating me with basic decency — but then they’d never actually change their behavior. So, after another round or two of communication, I’d leave. What surprised me most was that when I left, they were always shocked and upset.
Most of us would assume that if someone starts acting like they don’t care as much about a relationship anymore, it’s because they don’t. Sometimes that’s definitely the case. But dating men taught me that sometimes it isn’t the case at all.
After a while, I went to one of my wisest friends for advice. “There has to be something wrong with me,” I told her. “I’m the common denominator.” She calmly responded, “First of all, you are 100 percent enough. What you’re dealing with is a demographic (men) socialized to be inconsistent at best.”
She didn’t say “Men are scum.” She didn’t say “Men don’t have the capacity to sustain thoughtfulness.” Her opinion was that men as a demographic are socialized to default to lazy self-centeredness. We teach them they can get away with it because we expect it from them.
How many tropes are there in pop culture about men not paying attention or not being considerate or communicative? How many sitcom jokes revolve around men not remembering their own anniversaries? The core of these societal attitudes comes down to a concept called emotional labor.
Remembering to send a “get well” card to the co-worker in the hospital. Listening to an acquaintance talk at length about their ugly divorce (and showing interest). Tasks like these might seem small and insignificant, but they add up and require a lot of energy each day. Emotional labor refers to constantly directing your energy toward catering to the needs of others and always being aware of how your choices might affect them.
In a romantic relationship, emotional labor can look like regularly asking your partner how their day was and really listening to the answer, taking notice of the best ways to cheer them up, being mindful of the balance of give-and-take during sex, or making plans with them for when you’ll next spend time together. We as a society expect women to do significantly more of these tasks than men.
Emotional labor is not a bad thing. We all need to care for and be considerate of one another. But the expectation to consistently perform these countless unpaid, unrecognized daily tasks is almost exclusively placed on women. When a woman doesn’t regularly perform emotional labor (or isn’t good at performing it), it’s seen as unacceptable, whereas for a man it’s seen as totally normal.
Like racism or ableism, emotional labor is usually invisible to those not burdened by it. It’s taken for granted. And to justify its sexist nature, we cling to the idea that women are just inherently better at emotional labor or have more natural inclination toward performing it.
But let me tell you a secret: Women really aren’t naturally or genetically better than anyone else at remembering people’s birthdays or appeasing irate clients. We don’t have any more aptitude for these tasks than any other gender. Rather, we’ve been trained from early childhood to think we have to do these things. We have to learn to be good at them even if our individual tendencies don’t mesh with them, or else we are seen as less acceptable.
Men are socialized to see emotional labor and basic relationship maintenance as “extra credit,” whereas straight women aren’t granted a passing grade without them.
Through every medium, from movies to social messaging, men are told that being thoughtful and intentional is something you do when you’re trying to “win” somebody, but once you “have” them or get what you want, you can drop that effort. This teaches boys from a young age that to get lazy and stop trying is just part of being a man. It’s one of the many sexist paradigms that hurt people of all genders. It leaves women mistreated, it portrays men as garbage, and it perpetuates the erasure of everyone who’s trans, nonbinary, and/or not straight.
Even if a man isn’t particularly egocentric, society gives him permission to exist in a self-centered orbit within a relationship because of the unspoken expectation that his needs will be centered and catered to.
There’s nothing inherently inferior about men, just as there’s nothing inherently superior about women or nonbinary folks. It all comes down to the self-fulfilling prophecies we create through our collective conscious and subconscious gendered expectations. Men are as human as anyone of any other gender — they, too, are emotional beings fully capable of compassion and intention. Countless men are disproving society’s low-bar expectations every day and consciously learning to take responsibility for their share of emotional labor.
So if you’re in a relationship with a man and he’s pulling this kind of thing, it may be that he truly has lost interest (which still doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you), or it may simply be that he’s failing to shoulder his share of the relationship. Regardless, if you’ve conveyed that he’s hurting you and he hasn’t really taken that seriously, leave him. Leave him to give yourself the care and respect he isn’t giving you and to refuse to co-sign the idea that this is OK. Because it isn’t.
Dudes, on the bright side, there’s nothing inherently wrong with you. But this also means you don’t get to use your maleness as a cop-out. You aren’t scum. You absolutely have the capacity to do better. So, for the sake of all your partners out there, do better.