How much are women paying for the survival of male abuse survivors?


“This is not about a man becoming out of touch with the times.

This is about a man having a reckoning with himself.”

-Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, in conversation with Terry Gross

            Don Draper of Mad Men survives his child abuse inspired PTSD through relationships with women: his daughter, Sally, wives Betty and Meghan, girlfriends (so many that TIME created a chart), and colleague Peggy. Don pivots from what psychologist John Briere calls the “intimacy dysfunction” of child abuse survivors (Briere, 1992), who are often “avoidant and distancing, the result of boundaries too tightly drawn [by parents]” or “intrusive, enmeshed, or controlling, resulting from a lack of clear boundaries between self and others” (Becker-Lausen & Mallon-Kraft, 52). Abuse survivors like Don have the potential to swing from states of numbness to intense affect because of a distorted ability to modulate emotion, stemming from an over-stimulation of the automatic nervous system in the earlier situations of violence (Frawley-O’Dea, 2016; Maté, 2008), which has the possibility to confuse romantic partners through the resulting “overreacting or under-reacting” to social situations, complicated by a tendency for survivors to be

often needy, but expecting rejection, neglect or worse from others, they may shift rapidly from dependent clinging to rage or cold aloofness. Often the adult survivor’s history is littered with unsuccessful friendships, work relationships, and romances that confuse and hurt both them and those around them. (Frawley-O’Dea)

While these behaviours make sense–a “logical extension of the coping behaviours learned in childhood to particularly traumatic experiences… inextricably linked to the individual’s survival instincts” (53)–both hold consequences. Don’s anti-social distancing costs him relationships. Other survivors instead exhibit ”smothering warmness” and tend to similarly sabotage relationships, revealing that neither style “allows for the healthy communication of positive and negative emotions… necessary for true intimacy” (ibid). 

            As a male child abuse survivor I am not interested so much in the idea that intimacy dysfunction tends to complicate our romantic relationships as much as the question of how much affective labour are our female romantic partners and friends doing to keep our relationships and our mental health in check? How much might our survival tactics further entrench the gendered realities of unpaid emotional labour? Who is paying for our survival, and at what cost?



“How will she [Peggy] ascend? Well, it has to be at Don’s bidding, and Don does give her a promotion at the end of the first season. But I always imagined her being discovered. She doesn’t have an Ivy League education, which is limiting to a lot of people going near advertising – forget about women in general. And women were utilized as a kind of idea factory. They were not paid for it. They would have these brainstorming sessions. And I knew that I wanted to do that the first season and that Peggy would shine and that they would recognize it – that it would be some sort of merit-based promotion or recognition. But it would still have what Freddy Rumsen says that it’s still like watching a dog play the piano. He was surprised that she had that kind of insight.”


            Romantic partners of child abuse survivors may be required to do the emotional ‘heavy lifting’ when it comes to maintaining an intimate relationship with a distant or boundary-oblivious  partner. This reality is complicated by a tendency of the survivor to attribute hostile intentions to others (Becker-Lausen & Mallon-Kraft, 50), as well as the reality that child abuse survivors have been shown to exhibit significantly higher levels of depression, delinquency, a repetition of physical abuse, aggression, and interpersonal issues (Becker-Lausen, 1990; Dodge, Bates, and Pettit, 1990; Vissing, Strauss, Gelles, & Harrop, 1991). This potentially labour-intensive responsibility is intensified by the socialized gender dynamics of affective labour in North America. As Jess Zimmerman explains in “Where’s My Cut?’ On Unpaid Emotional Labour,

It’s very easy for me, and maybe for you, to wind up in a friendship or relationship or passing acquaintanceship, especially one with a man, where our labor is never rewarded, never returned, never even acknowledged. We let this happen because patriarchy is so good at training women as its proxies; we’ve internalized the idea that our effort is men’s birthright.

The labour Zimmerman discusses concerns romance, as she fields questions from male friends such as “how do I make her fall back in love with me,” “how do I make her regret rejecting me,” or “how do I make her regret rejecting me,” (to which she responds “you can’t,” “you can’t,” and “you can’t,”) explaining

It’s something I’m happy to do for the people I care about, but it is not effortless. I’ve fielded hundreds of late-night texts, balanced reassurance with tough love, hammered away at stubborn beliefs, sometimes even taken (shudder) phone calls. I’ve actually been on agony aunt duty for male friends since high school, so if it’s true that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, counseling bereft dudes may in fact be my only expert skill.

This focus on compensation may be a good time to consider that the majority of the research I discovered on affective labour for this article was written by women; that my recent learning about affective spaces was assisted by the presentation of a female colleague; that I first learned about the concept of emotional labour from a female partner, or that I had my boundary-oblivious clingy communications recently called out by a woman. Calling the gender distribution of this labour a series of coincidences would seem to be avoiding the discomfort that tends to come up in our bodies when we realize that we may be unconsciously contributing to gross imbalances.  

            If we accept that certain male abuse survivors may exemplify aspects of intimacy dysfunction and leave the bulk of labour to maintain a romantic relationship on their female partners (if heterosexual) or female friends, or if these survivors use their female partners or friends in their methods of overcoming moments of trauma without compensating these women, how might it factor into the already-existing gendered imbalances of affective labour?


Roger:          I bet daily friendship with that bottle attracts more people to advertising than any salary you could imagine.

Don:              That’s why I got in.

Roger:            [. . .] You don’t know how to drink. You drink for all the wrong reasons. My generation? We drink because it’s good. Because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar. Because we deserve it. We drink because it’s what men do.

Don:              What about shaky hands? I see a lot of that too with you boys.

Roger:           No joke. Your kind with your gloomy thoughts and your worries. You’re all busy licking some imaginary wound.

Season 1, Episode 4—“New Amsterdam” (cited in Baglia & Foster)

            Like Roger, we might dismiss these claims of gendered emotional labour as an ‘oversensitivity.’ This might however prove the point of its lack of acknowledgment and research as a form of ‘legitimate’ (and therefore ‘billable’) labour.

          Instead, let’s suggest that we acknowledge the potential that these labour dynamics exist in our own relationships with women. If we however stop at that acknowledgment, we may risk falling in a place of “double comfort: the comfort of demonstrating that one is critically aware, and the comfort of not needing to act to undo privilege” (Mahrouse, 344; Heron, 2005), as “the declarative mode involves a fantasy of transcendence… privilege can be reproduced through its very articulation because such acknowledgments can serve as evidence of a commitment to social justice” (Ibid; Ahmed, 2004). Living in this space of ‘double comfort’ as male abuse survivors may risk the chance of becoming the abusers we survived. This may occur by using our histories of trauma as rationales for the emotional manipulations of our female partners and friends to become what Liz Kinnamon has coined “The Male Sentimental:” a man who attempts to divert from accountability through a sentimentality that “attempts to provoke feeling that is not merited by what is happening…. the enemy of emotional complexity.” Kinnamon suggests that, through tactics such as feigned innocence and gaslighting, the Male Sentimental lives within a new form of more insidious patriarchy as he “can be a man with feelings, pass the feminist test, and still keep power.” If we as male abuse survivors are serious about the well-being of the women around us, it seems necessary that we choose to do more than acknowledge and take concrete actions about how exactly to reciprocate and compensate for affective labour.



[Spoiler alert]

            Don’s story concludes in California, smiling after a group therapy session where he acknowledged the abandonment of another man. But what of the women who brought him here? Betty, his first wife, is set to die from cancer. Sally, Don’s daughter who has arguably done the most to keep him alive, is left to continue supporting him. Meghan, Don’s second wife, is left presumed working in LA with the million dollars that Don gave to account for his problematic behaviours, an exchange we might consider an acknowledgment for an affective imbalance. While ‘affective reparations’ are honourable, it seems instead more valuable to preempt imbalances through a conscious reciprocation of emotional support. We need to ask the women who support us what they need and how they would like it provided.

            There is a danger in following Don. Apologies or late reparations are part of a positive process yet they do not change history for the women who worked to support us. Male abuse survivors need to instead be prepared to make sacrifices in order to be consistent with our convictions concerning the well-being of women-especially if we are at all vocal about equity, love, or respect for women. There’s also a defensive urge to dismiss the possibility of our complicity, that it is our “birthright” or “natural due” to utilize the labour of women around us without compensation (Zimmerman). Instead of avoiding complexity through fury at the reality of our imperfection, we need to engage in processes of accountability or preemptive understandings of labour in order to balance the scales for the women around us.

         While our inconsistences as male survivors are human (all humans are imperfect), it seems imperative that we move past acknowledgments and toward a reciprocal framework of labour exchange if we do not want to live in the privileged space of ‘double comfort.’ In particular, as the people who know what abuse feels like, we must avoid becoming the Male Sentimental or any other variation where our histories of trauma are used as rationales to traumatize new people, no matter the connection to our survival.  

            A move from theory to practice is crucial if we as male abuse survivors are interested in changing the conditions that have complicated our own lives and bodies with legacies of violence. Proactive ways of dismantling patriarchy are necessary if we wish to counter the abusive methods of relating that we are particularly well situated to know to be ineffective and costly. Passing through a mild discomfort to take action on gender equity is imperative if we agree that women matter. If we instead identify with the ‘intimacy dysfunction’ of abuse survivors and choose to avoid taking action, we must be prepared to accept that our often defensive-inspired laziness may in fact be a requirement for the oppression of women to exist at all.  

Works Cited

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Author: Word and Colour

words inspired by colour

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