I’m very happy with my life – normally. But this Christmas and NY, which is our first proper holidays where everyone is acknowledged by all our families, has been emotionally and physically draining for me. Various families have met for the first time and we’ve held three separate celebrations as well as one all together, in order to support and recognise everyone’s traditions. Although my partners have been willing participants, I’m the one who’s planned all the presents, meals, timings and – as ashamed as I am to admit it – worried the most about who will mix well and planned about how to avoid unnecessary poly-drama.
All in all, although the end result was great, I can’t do this again because the emotional toll on me has left me feeling drained, and resentful. I feel like a horrible person because I blame them for not helping when it was me who initiated and wanted the whole family Xmas thing. They think this is my issue alone and in some way I guess they’re right… but that just makes me feel more alone. Do I just forego it next year? I can’t expect them to help with something they aren’t invested in… can I?
Dear Ms. OTE,
It’s like looking in a mirror. And I see several issues to unpick.
I note that you are the woman and the mother in this configuration, and it’s therefore (unfortunately) foreseeable that the emotional toll would fall on you. What is known as ’emotional labour’, is – probably unknown by and – horrendously hard for many men because generally speaking they are denied the opportunity to learn this skill as children. It is not you or your partners’ fault per se, but it is your joint responsibility to change it. When one of you is unhappy in a relationship, you all have a vested interest in looking at what’s going on, because that’s part of what being in a relationship means.
And it’s going to be tough because the world doesn’t really acknowledge emotional labour as a thing – yet; although I live in hope when I get questions like yours. Tougher still because (if it wasn’t obvious) you are not their mother and shouldn’t take the responsibility of teaching adult men how to do emotional work. Yet I see no other way than for you to start these conversations. I don’t think that it is possible for many men to understand or therefore empathize fully with what is going on, because it’s a wider and more systemic problem than anything occurring in just your family.
We are told frequently that women are more intuitive, more empathetic, more innately willing and able to offer succor and advice. How convenient that this cultural construct gives men an excuse to be emotionally lazy. How convenient that it casts feelings-based work as “an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depths of our female character.
So firstly, and importantly you (all) need to be able to acknowledge that this dynamic is one you have (all) created together but this does not need to be a conversation of blame and shame. Lazy is a loaded word for a start, and I would be careful around using it, since there’s a difference between intentionally and consciously lazy than running an unconscious script. Look at the bigger picture Ms. OTE, and you can see that a imbalance of emotional work happens everywhere and in almost every relationship, whether polyamorous or monogamous. It just so happens that, as usual, polyamory highlights it more clearly where monogamy might allow it to be swept under the carpet. You can read and research this phenomenon starting with the article above.
As usual then, the starting point is communication and what a fantastic opportunity for you all to change your own world. Yet, this presupposes that you and your partners are interested in personal growth which will necessarily take you all out of your comfort zones. You have been warned.
Where does your own responsibility lie? Well, because women are used to emotional labour and programmed by society to run the ‘carer/nurturer’ script, it is perhaps also the case that you took on this work – in all likelihood without asking for help, without communicating your wants, needs and expectations – and are now left feeling resentful. This, I fear is why so many women turn to nagging to get things done. Men are unaware, and women resentful. I also believe that you were unhappy at least in part, during these celebrations and probably wore a happy mask. That will create even more stress and cognitive dissonance. So whilst I feel for you, let’s redirect it. Far better to be angry at the world and how it separates us into gendered roles than to be angry at your partners who were only running the scripts that you were also running. Anger can give us impetus to change. Express it, but use it wisely.
Finally, being in a relationship means being invested in (although not responsible for) for the happiness of your partners. You can absolutely desire them to contribute to something that is so important to you, but not unless you have directly communicated it and they have agreed! If your partners are not willing to discuss systemic issues, family integration and emotional growth, then I might wonder about what is preventing that. For me, these are great subjects to tackle because they give the possibility to forge new paths in your relationship together.