When I go out with my girlfriends, we inevitably (ahem, after a few glasses of wine) start venting about why dating is so damn hard. We’re not talking about ghosting or catching feelings, we’re referring to the exhaustion of emotional labor.
In her book “Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward,” Gemma Hartley describes it as “the unpaid, invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy.” Although this “second shift” is often linked to the imbalance of housework in heterosexual couples, it’s very much applicable to modern dating.
For example, you’re on the clock of emotional labor if you’re the one remembering important milestones, making all the first moves, or taking mental notes about what your crush likes and dislikes. I even had a man ask me to choose his outfit (sweatpants or jeans, seriously dude?) for our second meetup.
The longer our went on, the more he started expecting the benefits of a girlfriend without the commitment of a real relationship.
Take it from me. I was dating Jack*, and we’d agreed to keep it casual. Yet, the longer our fling went on, the more he started expecting the benefits of a girlfriend without the commitment of a real relationship. He’d often rope me into doing last-minute favors — like running errands for him or helping him move — which I (stupidly) agreed to despite them being inconvenient for me. Finally, I stood my ground.
In another all too common circumstance, I’ve been guilty of matching and messaging people on dating apps, without ever actually meeting IRL. Since I want to form an in-person connection, this takes a toll because I’m getting to know someone online when it may not go anywhere in the end. It’s no surprise to me that some single people are writing “not looking for pen pals” on their profiles.
On the other hand, if you finally get to the point when you’ve swapped numbers and are scheduling a first date, don’t be that jerk who asks “where are we meeting?” This puts the onus on them to find an appropriate spot that’s conveniently located for both of you. That’s a lot of hours wasted on Yelp and Google Maps.
“Communicating and coordinating through text is really complicated,” Brigham says. “So people tend to want to push the planning to the other person [to avoid the back-and-forth].”
Ryan, 23, has had a similar experience. “Some guys I’ve gone out with don’t want to commit to making plans, let alone plan the date themselves,” he says. “It’s really annoying to always be the one finding fun things to do.”
Ideally, Brigham thinks it’s important for the initiator to arrange everything. Or, my solution: You both share your favorite bar and choose one of them together so it feels like there was equal effort. It’s also a great way to learn about more cool activities in your own backyard.
“If you find that whenever you talk, they’re draining you like an emotional vampire, then that’s not who you should have in your life.”
However, the most egregious of all offenses is being your fling’s unofficial therapist. Picture this: You’re splitting a couple drinks (or, yikes, having pillow talk), and they unload all their work stress, family drama, or personal problems on you to magically solve like a fairy friend with benefits. Depending on the heaviness of the issues, it can be a big burden to carry on your shoulders.
“I love sharing personal stories, breaking down walls, and getting nitty gritty with people,” says Holly, 30. “Some of the dates I’ve been on, however, I felt they should be speaking to a therapist instead of me.”
On one such first date, Holly describes how the man went into detail about the death of his mother two decades ago. “It’s hard to judge — maybe that’s something he feels the need to share right out of the gate,” she says. “But it left me feeling guilty for not [feeling more of a] connection, and I wondered if I should follow up because I was genuinely worried about him.”
According to Brigham, this is a typical concern. “There’s this instinct of wanting to be there for someone because it’s hard to see them suffer and struggle,” she says. “But if you find that whenever you talk, they’re draining you like an emotional vampire, then that’s not who you should have in your life.”
The good news? You don’t have to deal with it.
“When you’re casually dating someone and are an hour into a conversation that’s all about them, you have the right to stop and say, ‘I’m not enjoying this, this isn’t fun for me. I’m going to call it a night’ and remove yourself from the situation,” Brigham says.
Or, take Holly’s advice, and be kind but direct. “I don’t want anyone to feel ashamed or like they can’t share something,” Holly says. “I would usually close [the date] by encouraging them to keep being open with people but to choose appropriate parties.”
Next time you think you’re stuck in a labor of love, take a litmus test. If it feels one-sided and all you’re hearing is ‘care for me, listen to me, help me,’ then do yourself a favor and call it quits. After all, this isn’t your job.