There’s an article by Gemma Hartley getting a lot of attention this week. The title is Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up. I find myself crying for Gemma and for all those women posting on social media that they, too, are fed up and nearing divorce.
The tears come because I remember exactly what this feels like. It was 1986 (I can’t believe it was 31 years ago, because those feelings well up again as if it were yesterday), and I felt the same way, convinced I deserved better than this and that even single parenthood would be better than what Gemma Hartley calls an unfair share of emotional labor.
I Was Wrong
I was wrong, and I want to tell you why. More importantly, I want to tell you what to do about it. Because even now, knowing what I learned back then, I sometimes fall right back into the same trap in my second marriage. It’s an awful, awful feeling. And your husband isn’t causing it.
I am not going to tell you being a single mom is tough. It is, but that’s no reason not to divorce. I am not going to tell you it’s sad raising your children without their other parent at your side. Sometimes, that’s necessary sadness. I am not going to tell you how rough supporting yourself or abandoning a relationship you thought would last until one of you died or waiting to find love again can be, because if you’re thinking of leaving, you already know this awful fed up feeling is even worse.
What I want to tell you is how to make the feeling go away, without the extra emotional labor of putting lipstick on a pig just to keep your family intact.
I think this is likely to be a longish post. Please find a comfortable position and keep reading.
How I Know What I’m About to Share
Let me take you back to 1986. I’d been married to the love of my life for 13 years. He had Crohn’s Disease. Now that it’s on every other TV ad, let me modify this. He had, most years, severe Crohn’s Disease. The sort worth risking all the side effects and enormous expense of those two drugs they keep advertising for it. Except they were not available yet. There was very little that offered any relief. This disease affected both of us, all the time.
Because we could not count on his health or his income, we’d decided early on to pass on having children. But life had other plans for us. So I was the primary wage earner. And we were parents of a nine-year-old son. My husband was an assistant professor at a university, not likely to ever feel well enough to take on the consulting work many use to bring that income up to one that can actually pay for the extra help it takes to raise a child when Mom works 50 to 60 hours a week, travels a lot, needs an expensive wardrobe of tall size suits, and commutes two and a half hours a day when she’s in town.
We’d made a cross-country move for his career a year earlier and rented from a faculty couple on sabbatical, but they cut that short, so we’d had a small house built to be able to keep our son in the same neighborhood, close to the university so my husband could get home easily when he was in pain. I’d gotten stuck with 100% of the planning, phone calls, negotiating, and pleading to get that house finished only ten months late. I’d also made all of the arrangements for the spare room, hotel, motel, and rental house we stayed in as the months wore on without a place to live. And for putting everything into storage, then taking it out again and moving it. It had to be me, because his illness crept up again and had him tied to an IV pole for 12 hours a day.
So all that other stuff, the stuff Gemma mentions in her article—the work to sustain relationships with his family and mine, to pick up what my husband didn’t notice needed picking up, to offer praise for things I did without praise, to ask for “help” with responsibilities I did not see as mine—all that stuff was on top of a few bonus stresses.
Granted, my husband earned a living, and not a bad one by most folks’ standards, even if it was far less than a brilliant mathematician like he was would make in the private sector. Granted, he took our son to school in the morning and brought him home in time for dinner. Granted, he cooked most of those dinners and read a lot of bedtime stories and was parent-in-charge when I had to travel for work. Granted, he’d lived without complaint in all those makeshift homes while I did my best to get our builder to finish the house.
But I was doing more. A lot more. Almost all of the planning and managing and shopping. All of the phone calling. Too many of the local errands, tough to make when my office was an hour and a quarter away and kept me there 25-50% longer than a normal 40-hour work week, while he left work by 4 pm most days and had more than two months off each summer. I also handled all of the gift-wrapping and all of the trips to UPS and the Post Office to make sure his distant family received their birthday and Christmas gifts in time.
I was fed up, perhaps even more so than Gemma and those high-fiving her well-written article in Bazaar. When I tried nagging, he would say he was too tired to do more. And I knew he was probably right, so I would suggest he take a year off on disability. Of course, I meant he should still work: catch us up on our housework and childcare responsibilities.
We went on vacation. Rented an IV pump and had all his IV fluids shipped to our hotel. Really. And we took one of our son’s friends. Had a good time, but it was exhausting for me. The next week, the friend’s parents took our son on their vacation, giving me a little break. And I lost it.
I became convinced this would all be easier without my constant fed-up feeling, my sense that my husband was shirking what needed to be done, my fear that damn disease would never allow him to do more even if I somehow convinced him he was responsible to do what needed doing without my needing to plan it, notice it, organize it.
Several days before our son was due to return home, I recited to my husband of 13 years the list of things I needed from him to stop feeling panicked. Then I suggested we divorce and live separately, because I knew I’d never get it.
It crushed him.
In retrospect, I know he still loved me. I also know I still loved him, and what was really behind my fed-up feeling wasn’t all I was taking care of but the sense of abandonment because I needed to take care of it.
A day later, I had full custody and all of our assets.
My timing stank. That damn disease caused a chain reaction of organ failures while my husband was taking his daily bath. I have no idea how much the stress of my list and my plan added to his inability to handle whatever went wrong in his body that day. He was dead when I arrived home from work. And there was nothing I could do about it.
In theory, I had what I wanted. I was no longer responsible for any part of his life. I wasn’t obligated to take care of any of his responsibilities to his family members. I no longer had to deal with the interruptions, the crises, the bad moods, or the expense of Crohn’s Disease.
And there was no point any more trying to get him to take on his share of the planning, the organizing, the phone calling, the cleaning up, the scheduling, the shopping, or the gratitude for whatever I managed to get done. There was no point trying to get him to make time to be my partner for dance lessons, and I was, in theory, free to ask someone else to do this.
Of course, I had always been free to do that. He was not a jealous sort. He would have been happy for me to take those lessons with anyone as my dance partner. But it’s not easy to find anyone who might say yes. It’s not easy to ask. And I didn’t even try until many months after his death. It was easier to tap my foot and wait for him to make my interest in dancing a priority.
Taking Care of Things Without a Husband
As I went down that list I had so readily recited for him a day earlier, I realized I had always been free to find other ways to handle all but one of those needs, too.
Many of them could have been solved with money, but I never felt there was enough money. To me, this meant we were obligated to find a way to do them ourselves. But here we were with one less salary, and I was going to have to make things work.
Many of them could have been solved by teaming up with neighbors or family members, trading chores I could handle for those I could not handle, but I never felt I had the time to organize such things. Now I needed to find extra time for making dinners. Reading bedtime stories. Driving to and from school. And being a Cub Scout den mother, when it turned out that was the only way our son was going to get to be part of the Cub Scouts.
I found the time. I found it by giving up a lot of things I’d always thought were mandatory, like home-cooked meals. We lived on TV dinners for months, until I could offload different chores. And commuting. I told my boss (in another city) I had two choices: move our office or work for a competitor with an office nearer my son’s school. Both options had always been there. I’d ignored them in favor of lambasting my husband for failing to take on extra responsibilities while I sat in traffic. Fortunately for me, my boss chose to let me move the office.
It turned out I could walk from that new office to the very places where my husband had walked to for lunch from his university office. We could have had adults-only time together several times a week if I’d done this sooner. On my list, it was just twice a month I’d longed for; I could have had so much more! And I would have seen then why the errands I thought he should have been able to handle easily weren’t at all easy during his work day.
The Emotional Labor of Family Ties
As soon as he was dead, I realized how much his family had become my family. I needed them. Our son needed them. And it takes time to keep up a cross-country relationship, but you know what? My primary Love Language (see Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages if you’re not familiar with them) is Gifts. Not a gift like Emma wanted in her article; that sort of gift is what Chapman calls Acts of Service. Gift gifts make me feel loved, even the sort purchased with Amazon’s 1-Click Ordering. My first husband came from a family of great gift-givers. And I wanted to keep sending them great gifts. And spend time with them when we could.
His family are still my family more than 30 years later.
When I fell in love with my second husband 20 years ago, his family was big on family gatherings. Chapman calls this language Quality Time. They exchange gifts, too, but my husband had never participated in this and would just as soon avoid the gifts they sometimes offered him. Gifts are definitely not his Love Language. It was the gatherings that meant something important to him. He sometimes brought wine but never food, usually showed up but never invited anyone to his place and often would not confirm whether or not they should expect him.
I was faced with that female dilemma: do I join in and do what the women in his large family do (cook! shop for dozens of tschotcke gifts! invite! inform! decorate! cook!) just because it appears to be expected? Or do I realize it will bring resentment to my relationship with the man I love to adopt a responsibility he’s never felt, when I would need to take the time and money away from other things I value? I chose the latter. I still don’t feel like part of the family the way I do with my first husband’s family, but I appear to be welcome anyway at the events my husband wants to attend, and I’m a lot less fed up, a lot less resentful, a lot happier with my marriage.
That’s the big thing I learned from my first husband’s death. I can choose. I must choose. And I choose to live with love, not resentment.
Without my first husband, I had to do more than I had to do when he was still alive, a lot more. (Did I mention I worked my tail off to increase my income by enough to offset my husband’s lost income and hired one disastrous au pair or live-in housekeeper after another to help me get there until I found a good one…who then got pregnant?)
But I discovered I had choices. I could say yes or no to expectations. And choosing them freely (like the Cub Scouts) allowed me to enjoy them.
I could buy or trade my way out of tasks I didn’t want. I could not buy or trade my way to a loving relationship.
I discovered I had limits. As soon as my husband died, I recognized I had always worked just beyond my limits. I could stretch myself to handle a lot, but I really was not capable of handling everything. I had to do without some of the things I thought were must-do’s, and now I had to let them go without handing them off to a husband. And if I could hand off those, I could hand off a few more and get myself back to a place where wrapping paper on the closet floor or hiring a housekeeping service or making sure the grandparents are kept apprised of family happenings isn’t too much to handle when they need handling.
Discovering my limits helped me see that the list of responsibilities in my head is always driven by how hard I’m working, not by any objective list of what’s important. Once I became a parent, I never again felt responsible for showing up to do my civic duty at town hall, even though I know many of my friends did. Organizing gatherings never made it onto my list when it was already filled with shopping for gifts for those I love or finding a better school for our son.
Once I could see my limits, I stopped wondering what in the world kept my husbands from putting the items on my must-do list on their own. We all have limits. We all have different Love Languages. We all notice different things.
Expending Less Emotional (and Actual) Labor
I could live with the consequences of not putting in some of my emotional labor, just as my two husbands always had before they met me. Many of these labors fall into the category my brilliant life coach Rachel Z. Cornell (aka ProNagger) calls “vanity tasks.” You tell yourself they must get done but you do them to look good to others or to bolster your own self-image. Forget them. Do the ones that actually build strong bonds with people who matter to you. Do the ones that get you to your most important goals.
Skip the tasks like interviewing friends and checking with multiple cleaning services to make sure you get the best bang for your buck on a one-time cleaning of your bathrooms, unless you have more than enough time for what really matters to you or need the saved cash for something important. And try not to be surprised if your spouse skips them.
If you ask for Acts of Service from someone whose Love Language is Words of Affirmation, expect to hear that request for praise. It’s how they know their attempt at speaking your language was successful.
If you ask for Acts of Service from someone whose Love Language is not Acts of Service, don’t be surprised if it never occurs to him that leaving you with a mess to clean up and kids to watch so that he can clean the bathrooms you want cleaned doesn’t really cut it. When he asks if you’d prefer he pay the extra price to have someone else do it, say yes and put your feet up to relish the event. Or say no and ask if he’s got someone to watch the kids while you write and he cleans.
If you want the person who loves you most in this world to take responsibility for planning or organizing something, let go of that responsibility. Your way of mowing the lawn might involve making time for it and checking the weather forecast in advance, but his might well be fitting it in wherever more important tasks allow and getting it done faster by spending more than you think reasonable on lawn mower features that speed up the work.
We’re all working at or near our limits. If you’re married to someone who stays this side of fed up, someone who can handle a little extra when something comes up, consider yourself very lucky. You’ve got a great role model.
I am so guilty of screwing this next one up, over and over, but I want to share it with you anyway: understand that when you take on a responsibility and start laying out the plans, lining up resources, or asking for help, any same partner will let this responsibility go, unless they really want control over the outcome. The moment you ask for help, you’ve put yourself in charge. If you don’t want the responsibility, ask what you can do to help instead. And then do what you’re asked, even if it’s nothing and the deadline’s coming up fast.
Is It Emotional Labor That’s Turning Us Into Nags Who Want Out?
Not entirely. The mess that Gemma describes, so common to so many marriages, is an excess of several types of effort:
- Physical Labor – Picking up her husband’s things and dragging a chair into the closet to reach the top shelf is physical work. So is cleaning the bathrooms, running after their children, walking the dog, mowing the lawn, getting the kids in and out of the car, etc., etc. This is some of the easiest work to offload. You can create an easier to reach storage space for wrapping paper needed throughout the year. You can create a play area with physical boundaries small enough to put your feet up while the kids run off some energy. You can hire people or swap jobs with your neighbors for a lot of it.
- Cognitive Labor – Planning menus, scheduling the physical work, making phone calls, keeping straight who needs to be where and do what when, and reminding yourself to do something to sustain important relationships are all cognitive work. This work is a bit harder to offload and a lot harder to see if your spouse is already doing work you think you must do. If he’s better at figuring out how to handle things when they go wrong, his plans will have fewer steps for preventing them from going wrong. If you thrive on deadlines, you’ll probably leave too much for the final days or minutes to suit someone who despises urgency. Try to avoid assuming you’re the only one tackling the cognitive work if you don’t see your spouse executing anything like your own plan. Ask.
- Emotional Labor – Offering praise to a husband who’s done something you feel you don’t get enough praise for is emotional labor. Hiding your fear or anger from a loved one going through an even more difficult time is emotional labor. It’s emotional labor to reschedule when you do what to get dinner on the table after you discover your wife is dealing with so much disrespect at work that there are 20 minutes after arriving home when criticism or the word “no” is likely to start your evening off on the wrong foot. Treating yourself to something that makes you happy so you can be the source for contagious happiness as you start a new project is emotional labor. But so is accepting rejection (a sign of mortal danger in days when humans were surviving through creating and sustaining social groups) in order to make a sale to be able to feed your family or taking your anger at an unfair boss to the gym. We humans have gone through a difficult transition period where women and children stopped being essential to the survival of most men but women were dependent on men because only men could bring in income. During this period, which is nearing its end as women discover they are finally able to support themselves just fine, women’s skilled emotional labor was vital to their survival. Women taught their daughters how to do a lot of emotional work that kept their relationships together, while men taught their sons to do the emotional labor that allowed them to tolerate the hardest physical labor or the abuses of bosses and clients for cognitive labor. Things are shifting now
- Fretting – I do a lot of worrying. Maybe you do, too. It feels like emotional labor, but it’s not, because it accomplishes nothing. I take offense when those who love me don’t make the source of my fears go away, imagining it’s because they no longer love me. I take offense when they find happiness while I’m anticipating all of the possible outcomes of a possible event I have no control over. There are things you can do to prepare for earthquakes or hurricanes or factory closings or breast cancer or infidelity, but once you’ve done the ones you’re capable of doing, all the rest of the worrying is not labor of any sort. It’s self-indulgence. I do a lot of it, so I sure won’t criticize you for it. I just want to point out that it is not emotional labor and the best thing you can do about it is the cognitive or emotional labor to take your mind off those awful possibilities. If your spouse is not worried about the things that worry you, you may find help there in doing what you need to do to stop fretting, too.
I Learned More with Time
I know a lot of you have been reading this blog for years, so let’s move onto some more advanced thoughts on the matter.
If you’re “[w]alking that fine line to keep the peace and not upset your partner”—and you’re not in fear of physical abuse or married to someone with an addiction problem, brain tumor, form of dementia, or any other ailment that leaves them unable to act in accordance with their intentions—it’s quite likely you’re making unnecessary emotional work for yourself. You’re expecting two conflicting outcomes at the same time and you’re working way too hard to hold at bay the resentment this creates.
I know this is really, really hard to believe. You don’t want to nag. You don’t want to get angry over really obvious failures to act or even outright screw-ups. And Mama taught you to swallow your anger and act nice, to work at your marriage.
Screw that! You’re doing unnecessary work. And it most definitely won’t protect your marriage.
You married for love. Maybe you married someone you’d fallen in love with. Maybe you entered into an arranged marriage with someone your parents chose or ran off with the first person who would provide for you when you needed a new home, but I’m pretty sure you did it hoping to find yourself loved.
Love is a remarkably unfair state. When compared to life without love, it’s quite unfair—in your favor. It’s likely you have fewer chores to do and more to savor and enjoy than someone who is not loved. It’s likely you’re financially better off than someone who is not loved, even if your spouse is completely dependent on you financially.
But we’re human. We search for fairness within our loving relationship. We don’t just want more than the unloved. We want at least as much of an advantage as the person who loves us. We want to do only our fair share of the emotional labor and the physical labor needed to gain those advantages.
That second comparison makes us miserable. Why? Because it sets up an unrealistic expectation, a premeditated resentment, a deliberately evoked emotion that makes it so much harder to recognize how much we’re loved, to see the advantages love is bringing us, to feel gratitude, forgiveness, and altruism toward the person who loves us.
So why is it unrealistic? First, each of us can see only what we’re tuned to see. The person tuned to watch only for integrity overlooks the value of stifling an angry or unkind thought and the effort behind it. The person tuned to effort overlooks the value of efficiency or cleverness. The person tuned to achievement overlooks the value of enthusiasm and encouragement. The person tuned to teamwork overlooks the value of solo preparation or follow-through. The person tuned to the quality of the time we spend together overlooks the value of the gift sent through the mail. The person tuned to energy and enthusiasm overlooks the value of risk avoidance through planning. None of us can measure another’s contribution, because we cannot see all of it.
Second, each of us has limits, different limits, and we don’t see as necessary that which is impossible or of too low a return on the investment needed when seen through our own limits.
Third, we have different ways of showing love and different things that make us feel loved, and the moment we tell ourselves we’re in an unfair relationship because of our vision, constrained by what we’re tuned to and what limits we face, we will crave more of whatever looks like love to us, throwing the balance of fairness even further out of whack.
Expecting a fair share of the effort or the benefits leads to resentment over the inevitable appearance of imbalance. The resentment makes us less loving and less able to feel the love we’re being offered. But love, not effort or benefits (both of which can be found outside the relationship as well as inside it), is the reason for the relationship.
You’re helpless to pull off everything you feel responsible for. Unless you’re married to someone creating chaos in your life, you’re going to be even more helpless if you divorce or if you find yourself widowed tomorrow. So just quit checking the fairness indicator.
Quit taking inventory of what needs fixing. Quit wondering why your husband doesn’t see picking up the wrapping paper as something that needs doing right now. Quit picking up the wrapping paper if you feel any resentment at all as you reach for it, because that resentment’s doing more harm than the out-of-place wrapping paper is. Quit planning what you don’t feel like executing, because you’re going to feel resentment at getting stuck with the execution of plans that exist only because you made them.
When you’re faced with something you wish were fixed, planned, organized, or taken care of, ask yourself what you’d do about it if you were divorced or widowed. Do that. If you can’t think of what to do, ask your husband for help—not help doing it, help figuring out how you can get it done. And not because it must be done but because you want it done. If he gives you a great suggestion, try it. If he offers to do it, accept the offer. Then notice you are loved, and it’s entirely unfair that you are, when so many aren’t.
This—love—is why you got married. Running a household, raising kids, bringing in income, sustaining your other relationships: these responsibilities are yours to accept or reject, but they stay with you, married or not, so try not to screw up your relationship the way I did back in 1986 while you figure out what to do about them.
Your marriage is not broken if your husband’s oblivious to the set of responsibilities you carry in your head. But it will break if you expect him to divine what they are and substitute them for his own list. And it’s already broken if you’re fed up with your inability to do more than you can do and choose to blame him for not rescuing you from your list, as I did.
I cannot tell you how much grief hit me when I realized it had always been within my power to dismiss my fed up feelings. I loved this man. I wanted his love more than anything in the world. I was fed up because I imagined I did not have his love. I imagined this because I was fed up with always falling short of what I felt needed doing and because I’d been fed many myths about princesses being rescued by the men (or fairy godmothers) who loved them.
It took my husband’s death to get me to look at my list of what needed doing and my other options for getting them done. The more I succeeded, the greater my awareness of what I had lost and my grief at getting no second chance. If my husband had lived, if I had had joint custody and half the assets and a smaller home in a different neighborhood, I doubt I would have ever let go of the sense that he was supposed to rescue me whenever I asked too much of myself. If he had lived, I doubt I ever would have found the strength to take the risk of demanding an office closer to our son’s school or looking for a dance class that provided a partner or saying no to what I believed were the expectations of my second husband’s family.
This is why I write this blog, to stop you from dragging your marriage into a very real issue and wrecking it. I hope you will hang onto the very reason for marrying, to give and receive love every day of your life, and not just with your children, who may become your adult friends but will always remain your children, but with your peer, your partner.
There is a genuine need for society to pay attention to the issue of the importance of emotional labor and the shifting forces on men and women and the slide into a service economy that will require some new ways of sharing the burden of this labor. Let’s deal with emotional labor in all its different forms. But let’s protect our marriages from unnecessary resentment.
Stop taking responsibility for delegating whatever you no longer want to be responsible for. Stop doing what causes you resentment, whether it’s emotional, cognitive, or physical. Don’t mistake Love Language differences for a lack of loving or a gender-based incompetency. Or don’t throw out the baby with the bath water—of course you could live just fine on your own, but if you’ll still have the same responsibilities or more (because it’s your list), why do without the love you could keep if you simply find a better way to tackle the responsibilities on your list while you share a life together?