I am in my third serious relationship with an AMAB person - the first two were cis men, my current babe is non-binary (they/them). We've been hooking up for six months, and

I am in my third serious relationship with an AMAB person - the first two were cis men, my current babe is non-binary (they/them). We've been hooking up for six months, and things are good, but there's that one particular lonely feeling that keeps crawling back, just like the other relationships... I feel an imbalance in emotional effort. They don't seem curious about my life, they don't ask me questions, validate or empathize with me when I talk to them.

Don't get me wrong - they are a tender sweetheart, and they care about me, but I just don't think they've socialized to breathe emotional labor like it's air. They're listening to me, but they don't say anything. They change the topic. I've asked for more verbal, emotional validation, resulting in them complimenting my new haircut as "hot"... This is becoming a breaking point for me.

Should I give them some emotional labor 101 in the hopes that they understand what I'm talking about? Is that being condescending? I'm not sure how much longer I can handle listening to them talking about themselves without bursting with resentment.

Hello Fren,

This sounds frustrating. In the heartbreaking words of Ms. Lauryn Hill that were just perfect before Drake’s input thank you very much, “Tell me, who I have to be/ to get some reciprocity?” (*cue one thousand hours of sobbing*).

I’ve got a couple of thoughts.  

Firstly, that you’ve attracted multiple, consecutive partners with high levels of distancing/ withholding behaviors or low emotional intelligence, certainly suggests a pattern.

Any time we encounter a pattern in our romantic lives, especially one that is troubling, frustrating, maddening, saddening and generally bad-feeling, it’s best to really take a hard, critical look at the narrative.

The phrase, “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical,” might be worth considering here. What about this feels familiar? What about this story-- of having to be the one that does all the hard work while the other person gets to be selfish, unaware, distant, disconnected-- feels familiar to you? When can you first remember feeling this way?

There’s nothing like a romantic relationship to trigger childhood wounding.

If you learned early in life that love is unreliable and feels destabilizing, or lonely, you might have coped by developing certain codependent tendencies: namely, that you expect to have to do “all the work,” that you’ve thus far chosen partners who affirm this expectation, and that playing therapist to them allows you to protect yourself and to remain in control.

It would be counterproductive to regard these 3 relationships as “great except for this one thing.” Clearly, this narrative is something you are working through. So let the experience in. 

That being said, the way in which you are feeling unseen is not your fault or your imagination.

Reading your letter, the whole “love languages” thing immediately springs to mind, and, optimistically, might be the most simple solution for your feelings of resentment and mismatch. It sounds like your primary love language might be “words of affirmation,” and that your partner’s love language might not be. That’s ok-- couples don’t need to come into a relationship with perfectly matching expectations or needs. It might help to read The Five Love Languages book together and discuss the things that make you different with regards to how you each express love and expect it reciprocated.

I think it’s really great that you are thinking critically about your boundaries, and considering your emotional labor as a finite resource that might tap out. It suggests that you have a growing sense of your boundaries, and that you are not interested in being sucked dry.

That being said, I think it might be worth it to examine whether this terminology is ultimately helping or hindering your feeling of satisfaction in this relationship.

For readers who may not know, the term “emotional labor” serves to describe services, actions, tasks, etc. that are not valued within a Capitalist economy of supply, demand, and value. Often, these tasks are critically regarded as the ones performed by women for men that don’t generate the type of currency that can be used in Capitalism, and are thusly undervalued or not valued at all. Very often, the burden of emotional labor falls on women and femmes who are pulled into the vacuum of emotional intelligence left by the ways in which men and mascs are socialized to leave their emotions unchecked.

I’m personally a little wary of the term’s current ubiquity; the term seeks to liberate certain labors from a Capitalist value system and affirm them on their own terms. But very often, the obsession with value and external, objective validation creeps in, and the conversation about “emotional labor” shifts into a Gollum-style grab for compensation and “fairness.”

As though fairness, especially “emotional fairness” can ever actually be achieved; as though every action requires compensation in some way, thus defeating and negating what makes this concept radical to begin with.

What I mean is, we don’t get everything from our partners. There will always be some kind of inequity, something you aren’t getting, or something you are getting that you didn’t even want. It is highly possible that your AMAB partner was not socialized to be breathe emotions, as you say. And this is not fair. And this should be acknowledged and become part of the conversation.

Do I think giving your partner “emotional labor 101” is condescending? When you put it that way, yes. Do I think you need to find a common language so that you feel more emotionally fulfilled? Yes.

My advice is to look into your own history and expectations. Do the work, because it’s good to do it. And then start from where you are, not where you think you should be. Work with, challenge, and evaluate your relationship on its own terms to make it better.

And ultimately, if your partner is not able to hear you and meet your needs, they are not the right person.