Quitting Emotional Labor Cold Turkey



How-i-learned-to-quit-emotional-labor


By Sophie Stevens


David* and I broke up at our six-month dating check-in. I told him that I loved him and that I looked forward to what we could build together. He told me that he didn’t see a future for us and was unable to invest any more time and effort into the relationship. The root of his inability to see us together lay in the fact that he was Ashkenazi Jewish, and I was not. I am Irish and Filipino, the first person in my family of mixed origin and the first on my mother’s side to be born in America. My ethnicity was not a surprise to David, but that it was a dealbreaker was a surprise to me.

During the ensuing conversation, he was miserable, conflicted and sad, but in defense of my vulnerability, I turned matter-of-fact. I couldn’t make him love me or accept me for who I was. I wouldn’t get between him and his family, or complicate the struggle with them that he had suffered privately until now. Their pressure on him to marry had, he said, prevented him from being able to focus on a bond with me. He said nothing about why he had continued the relationship as long as he had, why he had been so sweet or caring, or consistent with me through this internal conflict.

I told him that he knew how I felt about him, and that communication between us was now up to him. I told him that I was offering mercy and that I did not want to increase the drama in his life. Then, refusing his offer to call me a taxi, I walked home alone, an uphill mile through the exodus of last call on a Saturday night.

I filled my schedule with friends and family, showed up for work every day, and stayed away from alcohol. I slept hard every night because I filled every moment of my day with activity and active thoughts, blowing through self-help and spiritual healing books, grounding meditations, and long walks and drives with podcasts. I held friends’ babies and the hands of the elderly, cuddled with family pets, and let people feed me and hold me in their arms. I gave myself three weeks, until the end of Mercury retrograde, and told myself with the confidence that comes from desperate, superstitious faith, that all would be resolved in that time. I signed up for Mend for the soothing sound of the recorded messages that they sent me every morning. I craved words and voices and wisdom. I was jonesing for answers.

I was overwhelmed by the responses I received, not only the generosity of my friends and family, but how many of them had similar experiences with multicultural relationships, with varying results. The divisions in our society were reflected in people’s perceptions. I heard the lamentations of people who saw fear being chosen over love: racism, classism, isolationism, all expressions of the pain of our collective consciousness.

My grandmother, the matriarch of my Filipino family, threatened to call her friend who was on a women’s foundation board with David’s grandmother, to straighten things out. At this, I fell apart, racked with tears and anxiety, and she relented. I told her that I could not interfere, or I would lose him forever. Taking my hand, she told me, “Kawawa na man, this is wretched. He is wretched, but you cannot reach out to him, hija, he is the one with the problem.”

I felt the roiling anxiety of emotional addiction, the desperate desire for contact, the confusion and unresolved itch when the contact was not enough. I reminded myself that over the years, I had quit Diet Coke and smoking, stopped dating bad boys, and quit unfulfilling jobs. I had transitioned from partner to friend numerous times, helping men through the uncoupling process with me, needing a place to put the love I had been giving them and a safe exit for myself. I had also taken on this role professionally, helping employers think that it was in the best interest of the company for me to go. I had outgrown the need to please those who were no longer good for me. I cared more about my emotional health than about being likable, at least in situations where I did not want to stay. Surely, I could quit wanting to reach out to someone who was not actively reaching out to me.

David’s face popped up in all of my Instagram story views, where I documented my solo museum visits, a half-joking poll of friends if there was enough sage to smudge the world, and other proof that I was doing the work to earn my healing. I wanted to message him, to ask him why he was watching me, to ask him anything. I wanted to ask how he was doing, if his family had already set him up with a nice Jewish woman, if he needed anything. But I didn’t ask. I didn’t text or call. I fantasized about sending him a letter, saying “I love you, the rest is just noise.”

Instead, I sat in the truth of our silence. There was no labor for me to perform, no act of service that would prove my love, nothing more important than the work before me: to maintain my boundaries and my integrity. My greatest challenge was to give us the space to live our own lives and trust in our ability to make our own choices. In confronting my limits and my expansiveness, seeing the edges of where my love can reach and accepting where my love cannot grow on its own, I felt the thrill of self-mastery in the face of a world completely outside of my control.

*Name has been changed.

writer photo

Sophie Stevens

Sophie is a sommelier-turned-writer in Washington, D.C.

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