Relationship maintenance is an important skill, and I don’t want you to assume it’s ‘my’ job, just because you’ve seen other women doing it for their partners. So no, I won’t remember that you have to get up earlier than usual next Thursday for a meeting. I won’t book you in for a haircut, or ring your Mum every Sunday to let her know how you’re getting on. And I will not buy birthday presents for your family, wrap them carefully then sign your name on the accompanying card.
A while ago I told a story on Twitter about an ex-boyfriend of mine who had massive balls. Bear with me, there’s a point to this. The guy with massive (and ever-growing) balls didn’t think to ask the doctor if there might be anything worrying about that. Eventually, after a period of substantial and rapid bollock-growth, I persuaded him to visit a doctor and it turned out that there was definitely a problem, and they needed to operate to make it go away. All was well in the end, and as far as I know he is now skipping through the world with perfectly healthy bollocks, thanks to that intervention when we were young.
Years later, when I told this story on Twitter, I explained that the moral of it was to know your own body – understand what’s normal for you, and speak to a doctor if anything changes. That’s what I took from it, and I hope that’s what my then-boyfriend learned from this episode too. But a helpful guy commented on my Twitter thread to suggest that there might be another moral to the story: ‘have a smart girlfriend!’
Your girlfriend is not your PA
If I am going to work for someone, I want to get paid for that work. Call me ‘fussy’ if you like, but I’d also like that work to be something that I’ve actually agreed to do. I don’t want to find out, partway into a relationship, that a guy has been neglecting his life admin just because he’d expected me to take it over. I certainly don’t want him to outsource his health to me, because I am not a doctor. That doesn’t mean I won’t point out if something might need addressing, it just means that I – your girlfriend – am not your PA.
Having a ‘smart girlfriend’ isn’t a cheat code for life. It doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for looking after yourself. Yet I’ve met many straight men who think that in relationships certain things just happen to be ‘her’ job.
Not just men, by the way: women often assume this as well. Even female friends fall into the trap of emailing me to arrange to see us:
From: [email protected]
Haven’t seen you two in ages! Fancy a catch-up sometime in March?
So this is the reply that I usually send…
March sounds great! We’re free X, Y, Z weekend. CC:ing him here so he can check his calendar too.
It’s a tiny thing, and it doesn’t always make a difference, but it matters to me. While it’s nice to hear from my partner that I am ‘good at organising’, I will only accept the compliment if he acknowledges that the reason I am good at organising is because I have always been expected to do it. In past relationships, and through watching other straight relationships modelled by friends and family, I’ve been shown how relationship maintenance is done, and more importantly who tends to do it.
Mums/stepmums/grans/aunties usually buy birthday cards, and have a special book or calendar listing out all the birthday dates so they don’t forget – Dads/grandads/stepdads/uncles sign their name or sometimes not even that. Women arrange birthday surprises, shop for most of the Christmas presents, wrangle calendars and dates to make sure people get to stay in touch. Even guys who aren’t in relationships can fall into this trap: I’ve lost count of the number of times male friends have messaged me to say ‘let’s go for drinks! It’s been ages!’ then as soon as I’ve said ‘yes’, they have immediately dumped all the planning and date-wrangling on to me…
“Where shall we meet? What day? Oh, sorry I’m busy then. Ooh can you invite So-And-So too? Yeah I’ll send you his email address. Maybe do a doodle poll? Looking forward to seeing you!”
I make a point of mentioning my friends in this by the way – while I have some male friends (one in particular, who always sends me intriguing suggestions for nerdy museums we should visit when he’s in town, and takes responsibility for his own calendar, or my best friend who is always happy to do the admin as well as the fun) who are great at this stuff, it’s noticeable how many are not. I mention my friends because I want to highlight that doing this doesn’t mean they’re terrible arseholes who deserve to be whipped through the streets – they are lovely, decent, kind people… who just happen to have grown up in a society that teaches them to be unthinkingly lazy about this shit.
Because of this tendency of straight men to assume their girlfriend will be their PA, I am very sensitive to any attempts to shovel life admin in my direction. While you might be too busy one day to pick up a card for your sister’s birthday, and think it completely fine to ask me to do it for you, I am concerned about the slippery slope. ‘Tis but a short hop from ‘buy her a card’ to ‘can you pick up a present too?’ to ‘what do you think she might like?’ then ‘you’re just better at this than I am!’
One-sided relationship maintenance
The first time I’m asked (or expected) to perform tasks like this, I will give this answer: “They are your family, my love. And your friends. They don’t want an empty gesture from me, the in-law-slash-acquaintance they barely know: it’s much more personal if you do it.”
The second time I’m asked – and there is always a second time – I will point out that men tend to suffer more problems with depression after the death of a spouse, and they are more than twice as likely to become depressed after divorce (or other significant break up). It’s possible that part of the reason for this is women tend to be the ‘keepers of the calendar’ – the ones who arrange social events, keep in touch with friends/family, and maintain the social network. When those women are no longer around, men suffer, because they haven’t maintained those relationships and they have no idea how to keep them going: their support network disappears when their wife does, and they are left far more alone than they might have expected to be. The only way to mitigate this is to keep your own social calendar. Make sure that you practice the vital skills (because they are skills, not innate talents – you can work to get better at them if you want to) of friendship-maintenance and social-life-wrangling.
Do it yourself, my love, because one day I might not be around to do it for you.
Believe it or not, even this has not always been enough to convince men in my life that they should maintain their own relationships, so if I’m asked a third time I will simply say “No.” No more explanations or justifications: it is simply not my job.
If you’d asked me five years ago to write this post, here is where I’d have ended it. But nowadays I’m a little more aware of the bargains I make in order to have an easy life, and the ways in which I contribute to this irritating status quo…
What do we expect of women?
The problem with me saying it’s not my job to maintain my boyfriend’s relationships is that not everyone sees things that way. There will be relatives, particularly in older generations, who see ‘our’ lack of thank-you cards or birthday wishes as my failure, and mine alone. I don’t think that’s true of my current partner’s family, but I can never really be sure, and the issue is always clouded by the guilt I feel myself. Even though I know that this is not my job, I have clearly internalised some of society’s message that I, as the woman in a straight relationship, should be doing the social maintenance. As I feel guilty if family come to visit and ‘I’ haven’t cleaned the house, or ‘I’ haven’t RSVPd to that wedding invite.
It’s a minefield, and it’s annoying. Just as my partner desperately wants to do this right, but fails, so I want to do this right, and I fail. I sometimes pick up extra stuff just because I can’t bear experiencing that guilt again, and it’s just ‘easier’ if I get on with it, then I hate myself two weeks later when a similar situation comes up, and he slides back into assuming it’s my job, because I did it the last time, so why not?
Throughout our relationship, we’ve talked about this a lot. He knows how I feel, and he tries harder because he knows this stuff is important to me. At the same time, I know that he worries he’s always failing on this, and his fear of failing makes it harder for him to just get on and make an effort. When he does it, he’s great at it, and he easily disproves the idea that ‘women are just naturally better at this stuff’, because he’s a warm and caring person who socials really well when he tries. A few years ago, when I was struggling really hard with anxiety (trying to deliver a book on a deadline while also juggling my fragile freelance contracts and blog schedule for GOTN) I explicitly asked him to take over the ‘life admin.’ For a couple of months he did all the calendar-juggling, friend-emailing and general organisation that was required to keep our social life afloat. It was GREAT. It felt like a little holiday for my brain, as whichever internal programme was running ‘friendship maintenance’ could just be shut off for a while as I focused on delivering my work and getting myself better. Then, inevitably, we eventually slipped back into old habits and I had to reassert the boundaries I’d laid down before.
These days I try to be a bit more flexible than I have been in the past, because I don’t want the gender thing to get in the way of genuine teamwork: he does stuff for me that’s technically ‘my job’, and I’m happy to do stuff for him if we note the explicit exchange. I’ll arrange an MOT on the car if you put together the mortgage interest rate spreadsheet, I’ll do the laundry if you do the washing up, I’ll dig a massive hole in the garden if you replace the light fitting in the kitchen – that kind of thing. But just as I’m wary of builders asking me ‘is your husband home?’ so I’m also wary of slipping into gendered roles with life admin. Even here I’m debating what does and doesn’t count as ‘relationship maintenance’ – which bits might more reasonably fall under the category of emotional labour, and which bits legitimately need to be divided based on our individual skill sets.
There’s no easy way to solve this. Much as I’d like the answer to just be ‘Straight men: sort yourselves out’, there’s a lot of societal conditioning to unpick here, and you can’t just flip a switch and change your thinking overnight. We are not MRAs swallowing a ‘red pill’, we are humans who take time to unlearn damaging stuff. So we try, and we fail, and we remind ourselves that I’m not his PA, and then we fail again and start all over. We won’t get it right tomorrow, and probably not by this time next year either. We may still be struggling with this in 10 years’ time when the wedding invites have dried up and we’re RSVPing to divorce parties instead. But with each year that goes by we tweak and refine our system – working out which roles are ‘his’, which are ‘mine’, and which ones we feel comfortable swapping or sharing or ignoring altogether.
Perhaps when we finally nail it, we’ll throw a big party to celebrate. I’ll let him email the invites.