“Black Men and Their Ignored Emotional Labor In Relationships” by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

Just had a strange flashback. I’m watching a film dealing with a married couple who could not have children. At every street corner they walk by women with babies in babycarriers or receive letters from family members who’ve just had babies. At each instance the wife nearly collapses in tears…UNLESS, the husband gently redirects her before she even comes into contact with such situations.

My late wife and I lost three pregnancies in all (despite that she had to deliver one) and I remember damn near developing a radar-like spider-sense to help her avoid such understandably devastating situations. To not do so could mean she’d spend several days in bed curled up in silence.

There’s one scene in the film where she’s reading her sister’s letter about her becoming pregnant and starts crying. I’d learned how to read my wife’s body language and voice inflections in hyperspeed to know when to listen, when to read it for her, when to change the subject, when to come back to the letter when she could better handle it, or when to catch her before she collapsed to the ground. Having been in that situation several times I found myself anticipating that the film character (wife) was getting upset at the outset of reading the letter. I found myself gently mouthing what I’ve said and done to assuage her and was amazed to see the actor (husband) saying and doing exactly what I did—and that includes him redirecting her on the street so she wouldn’t see the babies.

It made me realize something I’ve only talked to a rare few about: the emotional work men do in relationships that NO ONE admits occurs. Popular culture tells us only women do emotional work in relationships, but I’ve found this to be untrue. The pre-emptive yet proactive work of protecting loved ones by both solving and preventing potential problems—especially in situations where the emotional toll of it could last years. Of guiding, advising, strategically joking or teasing, changing tv shows or movies (or avoiding them altogether), and sometimes engaging in strategic silence when most useful…TO HER. To initiate a conversation or sex, remedy a practical need, provide a nominal distraction, tell a story (sometimes related, sometimes purposefully not), or give a gift at precisely the most impactful moment is emotional work. It’s inevitable in today’s climate that some will call this controlling or patriarchal (here I find that certain patriarchal gestures are welcomed by women when it serves them, be it personal or political), but it didn’t develop in a vacuum. I notice that it was actually requested by my wife without words (at first with a longing tear-soaked stare), and came to be something she relied on. We never spoke it aloud. It just was needed and performed and thus came into existence. This is marriage after all, and such happens organically. It became like a dance we did that she trusted me to lead so she didn’t have to keep putting herself back together again from scratch. Still, few speak of it, even amongst men. (She’s been gone for 13 years and I’m just now acknowledging that I used to do this because of a damn movie. HELL, COME TO THINK OF IT, I NOW REMEMBER HOLDING HER HAND DURING THESE SCENES (THERE’RE TWO) WHEN SHE AND I WATCHED THIS VERY FILM, AND DISTRACTING HER WITH A RANDOM OBSERVATION FOR AS LONG AS THE SCENE LASTED!)

Fellas, we must learn to overcome this silence. If we’re valued and judged by invisible emotional labor performed in service to our lovers/wives, then we should speak it aloud and clarify it’s nature…because it’s damn sure critiqued when not provided or performed perfectly despite that we’ve never been formally taught to do it, and women will expect it, never ask for it, but blame you if you don’t performed it with flawless precision.

Do any of you have any examples of such emotional work you’ve performed?

2 thoughts on ““Black Men and Their Ignored Emotional Labor In Relationships” by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

  1. Thank you for writing this. This point has never been articulated but is ENTIRELY true.

    My husband does this (anticipates and solves problems beforehand) for me AND our 2 daughters so much that we have a saying in our house, “You know your girls.” I value and honor my husband immensely and this post has been eye-opening.

    Looking forward to reading Norte of your perspectives.

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