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  • Writer's pictureElfreda Manahan-Vaughan

Taking a Break from Emotional Labour


At the end of April I celebrated a milestone birthday. On these occasions its not unusual to plan something special. When I was asked what I wanted to do for my birthday, my answer was, 'not to have to plan or organise anything'. My husband's response was 'you'll have to give me a little more than just that'. And so I told him, yes, I would like o do something special, a day out preferably to somewhere I'd like to go. No booking tickets or planning that day, no cooking, and no decisions about where to eat. To simplify things a little, as I knew my husband was worried he would do the 'wrong' thing, I gave him a list of places I'd like to go, that I hadn't been to before, and that was that.


From an early age I have carried an overwhelming sense of responsibility. I can trace it back to my relationship with my mother, as she was overly dependent on me when I was a child. I can remember her asking me to pick out her clothes for night's out, because she said I had good taste, and confiding in me about her problems and sharing with me her worries about friendships and her relationship with my father. As I got older, it wasn't lost on me that I was fulfilling some kind of parental or partner role for her, and I often buckled under the weight of this burden. In my twenties I rebelled and broke the rules, drank too much and did things that no one would expect a good girl, like me, to do. My mother's dependency on me was compounded by the fact that my father left when I was 18 and died when I was 23.


The bizarre thing was, my mother was incredibly capable in so many areas of her life and could often blow me away at the things she achieved, especially as someone who never finished school and believed she was dependent on other people for so many aspects of her life. She was smart, funny, and when she needed to be, was strong and independent. What I know now is, she had an anxious attachment pattern, and it was that pattern of behaviour that surfaced in her relationship with me because I, happily, unknowingly slipped into an avoidant pattern with her to balance out this insecure dynamic.


Anxious and avoidant attachment patterns fit together like a jigsaw. The feed into each other's insecurities and through their push-pull for security create a relationship that functions within dysfunction, until it doesn't anymore. When my mother developed a brain-tumour it was my avoidant attachment that helped me battle through all the mature decisions I had to make at 26. When things are insecure or dysfunctional we need the patterns of anxious and avoidant, because they help us to cope, keep us safe, and protect us from danger. When things settle down, and many of the threats disappear, it is not uncommon for someone to start to question how healthy their relationship is or for conflict to repeatedly rear it's ugly head. I am sure you can guess by now that I have been carrying a lot of emotional labour for a very long time.


For those of you who don't know, emotional labour is the unpaid and unrecognised support and care we give others, often at the expense of our own comfort. It is knowing all the birthdays of your family members and those of you partner and reminding them of when those birthdays are due. Its knowing that your child has a match on Saturday, your mother in-law has a doctor's appointment next week and that your husband needs his suit dry-cleaned before his conference next week. It's knowing that your daughter wants to be a vegan at 7 when booking a restaurant and that your son won't eat a roast dinner. Its having to tell your partner to take out the trash and giving him a list of things to do when the visitors are due and the house looks like it exploded.


My emotional labour was not just looking after my mother but also looking after myself from a young age. I started working at 12, babysitting and distributing flyers. I saved every penny and for most of my teens bought all my own clothes. When my father left, my mother used to borrow money from me for Christmas and household expenses. I used to give her money to buy Christmas presents for the family, as well as buy in luxuries so we could have a 'good' Christmas. I painted and wallpapered most of the rooms in the house. I gardened, I cleaned, and when I learned to drive I drove my mother everywhere she needed to go. I bought her flowers on Valentine's day because she would cry that she had no one and I bought her gifts and cards regularly and wrote heart-felt messages because I felt responsible for her happiness. I was the poster child for avoidant attachment and I didn't know. I often wished I would get sick, and I often did, as it was in those moments that my mother put all her own needs aside and did everything she could to help me feel better and recover.


When my mother died I found myself alone. My siblings all lived overseas and I had inadvertently saddled myself with an anxious partner which caused me to lie awake at night terrified that I would get sick and there would be no one to look after me. I longed for someone to look after me. I repeatedly said I would take a break when everything was done, but I never did as there was always something else to handle. Eventually, I recognised I needed to end that relationship and through my daily meditation practice understood that if I didn't start to rest, I would pay the price. Sadly, I was right.


When I met my husband, I was acutely aware that my pattern of behaving was also showing up in my relationship with him and as is the case, his response was to fall into an anxious attachment pattern with me, because that's how attachment works. I was determined this time it would be different and set about learning everything I could to make our relationship secure and safe for both of us. We spent hours discussing our needs, how we could repair ruptures, what we expected from each other and most importantly what both of us needed to feel loved. It wasn't too long before I finally started to relax and feel safe and also to believe that I was finally with someone who would never willingly hurt me, and who could look after me if I needed it. Be careful what you wish for, they say. It was also around that time that I developed three chronic illnesses and my wonderful husband stepped up to the plate to look after the things I was no longer able to do. How does all this fit with your birthday celebration? I hear you ask. Turning fifty and having three chronic illnesses got me thinking about what would be a real break for me. When I was 40 we went away for a few days, I booked it all. I didn't want to go away this time but what I did want was a couple of days free of responsibility, something I haven't felt I've had since before I was 8 years old. That age is specific to me, but that's a story for another day.


Before my birthday I shared with a group of colleagues that I had asked for this for my birthday and not surprisingly many of the women said they couldn't trust their partner to do that because he would definitely get it wrong. They shared stories of past birthday's that were disasters. It made me sad to think that so many people have relationships where they can't trust their partner to meet their needs and, like my relationships in the past, were clearly taking on emotional labour and using avoidant attachment to escape disappointment. It is not unusual for someone with anxious attachment to mess up, mostly because they don't trust themselves and often believe you don't trust them either. They also use weaponised incompetence to get their own emotional needs met, except in attachment theory its called feigned helplessness. Weaponised incompetence is a form of passive-aggressive behaviour where an individual deliberately performs tasks poorly or pretends to be incapable of completing certain tasks. This manipulation tactic is often used to avoid responsibility, forcing others to take over and perform the task instead. Many people are not even aware they are doing it because their feigned helplessness actually makes them feel like they are incapable. As a side-note, it is also important to recognise that this occurs in pathological behaviour, such as narcissism, where the person is using this a method of control. This is not the same as anxious attachment.


My day out was planned for the day before my birthday, because my birthday was on a Monday. A couple of days before my husband gave me instructions as to what to wear and the time we would be leaving. He also said we would be having breakfast out and to not eat breakfast if I was up early. On the day, we ate breakfast out and drove to the Marble Arch Caves in Fermanagh, my super sleuth hypervigilance meant I had figured it out before we went, but I was delighted. It was a sunny day and the drive there was perfect. I love spending time with my husband in the car as it is a time for us to connect with each other as we explore the landscape. The caves were amazing, I highly recommend them. My husband had booked the tickets in advance and timed everything perfectly. On the way home we stopped for dinner in a hotel close to home and because we were too full for dessert my husband stopped again so we could get cupcakes for later, as a birthday treat. The day was perfect, exactly what I wanted. What was even better, I knew he'd get it right.


The reason I knew my husband would get it right was because we have spent years working on understanding each other, our values, our needs, and how to show up for each other in a way that is loving and supportive. What most people get wrong in their relationships is they focus on solving problems, they discuss the context of the issues, paying bills, who does what, how each of you is behaving. What supports you to understand your partner, and to be understood, is focusing on the relationship, how you communicate, what you need from each other, why things matter and how to have difficult conversations in a away that feels safe. You can't do this if you are arguing over whose responsibility it is to empty the dishwasher or why you don't like their tone. Explaining why these bother us is a blog post for another day, however, if you can mindfully spot your triggers from the past, you can stay present long enough to be curious about what is happening in your relationship and how to work towards greater connection.


For me, my emotional labour has diminished considerably. I trust my husband to look after me, and in the way that I need. We know that we can work through conflict if we focus on how each of us needs to hear a message and by recognising when our attachment needs, and attachment patterns, show up in our behaviour. The women I work with in coaching come to me to work on this too. When you understand yourself and take the time to understand the behaviour and reactions of the people around you, then you will not only be able to drop your load of responsibility but will also be able to trust your loved ones to meet your needs, and for you to be able to meet theirs. Communication is key but more importantly, knowing what to talk about. That's the part most of us get wrong.


Thanks for reading, if you are interested in coaching then book a 30 minute Zoom call and we can figure out what is best for you and your relationships. In the meantime sign up to my mailing list and get a free PDF on attachment theory and the Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation.


With love,

Elfreda

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