He’s the classmate in section who takes up six minutes per comment and aggressively corrects the female professor at every opportunity. He’s the friend who sends you essays over text whining about his current romantic morass and expects you to discuss it for the next three hours. He’s the boyfriend who thanks you for being consistently caring, but is somehow always too stressed or busy to reciprocate.
A specter is haunting Yale’s campus — the specter of the Emotionally Stunted Male.
The concept of “emotional labor” has only recently entered the public vernacular, and the discourse around it tends to be confused. No one who enjoys caring for and validating their friends and partners wants to define that effort as “labor,” particularly if it’s something for which one has great aptitude. Despite these negative connotations, the language of emotional labor accurately captures the kind of investment that is necessary for meaningful relationships to flourish. Mutual respect, individual responsibility and reciprocal care simply cannot arise without a genuine effort from both parties to understand each other and consciously incorporate that understanding into their interactions.
Unfortunately, the overwhelming bulk of the work that is done to build and maintain functioning relationships falls along gendered lines. Especially in a high-pressure environment like Yale, populated by budding adults trying to collectively figure out life, women are disproportionately saddled with the expectation that they will be nurturing, maternal figures and remain constantly attentive to the emotional needs of their male peers — all while miraculously handling academics, a student job, laundry (plus their boyfriend’s) and their own mental health.
I have often heard my (female, exclusively) friends at Yale joke that relationships are a “sixth class,” and they’re absolutely right. Many men act as though they are entitled to the time and energy of the women in their lives, and are staggeringly unaware of the toll it takes on them. I happen to be a natural caretaker, and nothing gives me more pleasure than listening to those whom I love and helping them with their problems. But far too often my own needs are ignored by people who take my effort for granted, who flag me down with blithe insensitivity so I can serve as their security blanket or their general angst receptacle. Considering all the arguments over “coddling” that took place this year, it strikes me as odd that men were not immediately identified as an egregiously coddled group.
Much of this problem is societal. Public schools do little to educate people about the rudiments of emotional literacy beyond “sharing is good,” and men are conditioned from a disturbingly young age to eschew vulnerability and empathy. A litany of damaging phrases such as “man up” coupled with a warped image of masculinity define their formative years, with the consequence that many men are emotionally stunted and unable to understand the concept of emotional work. Accordingly, women are perceived as “naturally” caring and pressured to perform as such all their lives, whether in the workplace or the home, lest they be condemned as “unlikable.” But the gender disparity in emotional capacity only exists because society has systematically deprived men of the tools and vocabulary to engage in emotional labor.
I understand that it can be difficult and even daunting to unlearn a lifetime’s worth of conditioning, or to realize one’s chronic negligence toward loved ones. But until society learns to neutralize the gender gap in emotional education, or your boyfriend actually does the Virginia Woolf reading he skipped in Directed Studies, there has to be stop-gap measures for the Emotionally Stunted. Emotional work cannot remain a one-sided affair. And there are in fact attainable courses of action men can take in between “nothing,” “crying exclusively to women you want to sleep with” and “being perfect.” Read online articles and testimonies about emotional labor (just Google it). Communicate openly with your female friends on how you can better respect and validate them. Take responsibility for yourself, so that the women in your lives don’t have to.
“By far the worst thing we do to males … is that we leave them with very fragile egos,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states in her essay, “We Should All Be Feminists,” a call to arms for the rigorous deconstruction of gender roles. “And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of males.”
This is my call to arms. Learning emotional labor is a vital skill that will have significant consequences long after we have left Yale. It will affect how you treat your loved ones, how you raise your children, the sorts of friendships you form, how you interact with coworkers, even how good a sexual partner you are. This is a vicious cycle that we can and must end.
Sherry Lee is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .