A few springs ago I was making sex for numerous months with a wondrous gentleman who would later reveal himself to be a lying miscreant. He had many a character flaw, including poor communication skills, exclusively prioritizing his needs, and expressing romantic feelings that he didn’t feel. We had several serious talks about said character flaws and he promised he would work towards altering himself positively. Alas, he didn’t genuinely put in the effort to begin the journey of beneficial growth. He didn’t share my desire for ongoing self-improvement and his pride often prevented him from acknowledging certain issues within himself.

Regardless of his reluctance to reform, he was eager to hear what I thought of him. He sought it out and was thankful when I took the time to explain him to him. One night at a bar he even said, “You know, you’re making me a better person.” I was so flattered to hear this and impressed by my powers of transformation. I was mutating him into a more extraordinary specimen and I thought that meant that I had a great influence over him. “He must respect me,” I concluded. “If my words are shaping his core personality, that’s something else, isn’t it? I’m honoured to perform this duty that I didn’t ask for and don’t really want.”

Now when I think back on him superficially whispering, “You know, you’re making me a better person,” I want to vomit on the suit he wore unnecessarily at casual events. I do not possess the same perspective. When I remember this conversation I yell out loud, “Ah! Fuck you!” I shake my head when I recall smiling, holding his hand, and replying, “That’s nice to…hear.” NICE TO HEAR? Seriously, past Jess? WHY was this NICE TO HEAR? I mean, I know why: I wanted to affect him in any capacity whatsoever and if that meant my feedback about his idiocy was being absorbed into his psyche, then good. Even though it was so incredibly draining for me to constantly explain and elaborate and engage in frustrating serious talks, I assumed this meant he considered me to be a wise, observant person, someone he takes seriously and listens to because he’s falling in mad love with my brain.

But in actuality, he just saw me as his development tool. The human bystander that he used, hurt, crushed and exhausted on his way to glorious improvement, or at least on his way to maybe possible glorious improvement. Of course he adored hearing my important thoughts about his existence because if I analyzed him critically and told him exactly what he needed to do to fix himself then he wouldn’t have to lift a finger. Having me around made things easy. I was his living, breathing, talking, walking moral barometer that explained right from wrong and hit a buzzer when he was being vile and gave him detailed advice on how to prevent his shittiness. When he behaved badly, I was there to slap him on the wrist and say, “Naughty boy!” and point out his mistakes. He wanted me around simply because he wanted free emotional labour that he didn’t return but was happy to take.

He wasn’t the first straight man to brandish me the official development tool. I’ve had several guys arrive with the expectation that I would regard their behaviour, determine their faults, and list them off to their fragile egos. These individuals lacked self-awareness; if they were going to shed their asshole skin for their friends/colleagues/the next woman they pursued, they required a pro bono therapist who they also had sex with to listen, take notes, and lay out a solid path of progress. And when they veered from this path, they needed this empathetic fairy godmother/mistress to inform them of this divergence and give tips for how to get back on track. They may not admit that they hired me for this position, or even be conscious of it, but our interactions indicate that I was their patron saint of complementary guidance/blow jobs.

Instead of these dudes attempting to accomplish personal advancement on their own via therapy, self-help books, dialogue with friends, meditation, or deep self-reflection, they handed off the responsibility of bettering their person to me. When I would tell them that they had upset me for whatever reason, they’d request that I clarify how their repeated actions were still not good. I would spend five hours doing so, and once again they’d declare that I was their guardian angel. Thank goodness I was around to inform them of when they were being rude to anyone and everyone. They were learning a lesson about themselves every single day and were grateful for the education. But that education meant my feelings would be brutally injured by their inconsideration and selfishness. Somebody was gonna get hurt en route to progress, and they were glad it wasn’t them.

Although straight men are defined as “all powerful” by the patriarchy, it seems a good portion of them are incapable of independent self-improvement. There is this awful, sexist, pervasive idea in society that women exist to fix men. That we are their conscience. Their soul. Their softer side. We bring out the best in them in every situation, be it professionally, socially or romantically. We’re told that men can be themselves around us more than they can be around other men. Thus, we are meant to examine them and put lots of time, energy, and emotion into repairing their broken parts. A volunteer female life coach must be present in order for them to learn from their foibles. We have to listen, nod and react empathetically, even when they don’t inquire about our regrets, sadness, anger or heartbreak. The free labour is often not equal in heterosexual relationships. There would be a wage gap if anybody were actually getting a wage.

I have noticed that the number of straight men I know who are in therapy is small. Meanwhile, the majority of women in my life are currently seeing a therapist, have seen one in the past, or are open to the idea of it. Pride is a big contributor to resisting help of any kind and unfortunately men are socialized to believe that vulnerability is synonymous with weakness. Many men I speak to can’t recognize the benefits of shifting the emotional weight from their tired partners onto an actual expert.

Just the other month I was chatting with a man I was casually seeing in bed about how he was feeling down and achieving tasks was a struggle because of his mental health. I’ve had depression and anxiety for years so I understood exactly where he was coming from. I started to suggest that he talk to a professional but he instantly interrupted me to say, “No way. Fuck that. I don’t need therapy.” I attempted to enlighten him about the benefits of it. How he’d likely enjoy the process and find it fascinating and he’d learn a lot about himself that he couldn’t fathom before.

“It couldn’t hurt,” I persisted. You might as well give it a try.”

“Nope,” he replied. “I don’t need that shit. I’m doing just fine.” He then proceeded to spill his insides to me for another hour and ask for advice and request my analysis until I literally fell asleep as he spoke.

Although I am typically gentle with fellow mental health suffers, I found myself getting more agitated and upset by his close-minded attitude. I’m aware that it can take a while to come around to the concept of speaking to a stranger about your problems, but this is such a popular knee-jerk response from the straight men I know. They’re fully on board with handing a woman a thousand-page novel on their inner demons, but they’re not okay with talking to an expert in the field? They’re not okay with picking up a self-book at the library or listening to a TED Talk about anger or reading an article about anxiety? They’re not okay with crying about it to their male roommate or writing in a journal or spreading that emotional weight around? Well, they’re gonna have to get okay with it, because it’s not a woman’s job to provide emotional labour and I am done staying up until 4 am having a one-sided conversation about how I can help fix their issues.

Of course there’s going to be mutual growth in any relationship and that’s what makes human interaction so beautiful and magical and advantageous for all parties involved. We learn from each other and it’s gorgeous to witness. But there’s a difference between healthy mutual growth and toxic unilateral development where the scale is significantly tipped. Then it’s less of a partnership and more of a boss-employee dynamic: One partner consistently works hard at improving themselves and looking inward and striving to blossom into a stable flower and the other partner relies on external effort from girlfriend-teachers and unpaid emotion interns to light the flame of potential change.

Everyone should attempt to improve themselves regardless of outside influence. I’m too busy working on me to also 100% lead the charge on my partner’s advancement. I don’t have the energy to simultaneously fix multiple humans, especially if my emotions are being bruised in the process. And I definitely don’t have the time to do it if I’m not getting paid an hourly wage.