Emotional labor is a big topic. Rose Hackman wrote an entire book about it: Emotional Labor: The Invisible Work Shaping Our Lives and How to Claim Our Power recently, blowing open a resonance from folks internationally.
Sometimes called “mental load,” the term emotional labor refers to the invisible effort required to maintain relationships, including initiating physical intimacy, leading difficult conversations, managing schedules, and making decisions which often leads to the person doing more emotional labor feeling emotionally exhausted.
Emotional labor disparity can occur in any type of relationship, including friendship, familial relationships, and professional relationships. But romantic relationships, in particular, can feel very imbalanced when there is a stark disparity in emotional labor, which is one of the themes this blog will focus on.
Identifying the Problem
In a previous newsletter, Modern Intimacy polled readers about how overwhelmed they feel by emotional labor. Interestingly, 21% percent said “not overwhelmed,” 16% percent said “sort of overwhelmed,” and 42% percent said they were at a breaking point. If you’re in the latter camp, please know that you don’t have to feel that way. When one person in a partnership is feeling overwhelmed by emotional labor, it’s time to make an adjustment and call out the burden of emotional labor on your (most likely) already full plate.
In heterosexual relationships, emotional labor disproportionately tends to fall on women (though not always). When one partner is doing more emotional labor, that person can start to feel angry and resentful, and as a result, intimacy can be negatively impacted by the piling amount of emotional labor.
If that dynamic sounds familiar, it could be beneficial to sit down, talk to your partner and, try to make the balance more equitable. For some couples, that might mean seeking help from a therapist. But the first step is speaking up and clearly expressing your needs.
Emotional Labor at Work
Any interpersonal relationship can include emotional labor and one’s place of work is no different. When working, you are often doing mental and/or physical labor, but emotional labor plays a large role as well throughout the day. Emotional labor is especially present in the service industry. Retail workers, food industry, flight attendants, those in the helping profession, and more are just a few examples of jobs where emotional labor is an (often unspoken) part of the job description.
Emotional labor in the workplace can be challenging to identify and also set boundaries around as there is typically a clear power dynamic between boss and employee or customer and server. It can be important to understand that you do not have to put up with unfair treatment in the workplace and can seek help from your loved ones or a licensed clinical mental health professional if you need support in coping with the emotional labor being placed on you at work.
Making a Concrete List
One issue with emotional labor is that it’s often dismissed as not “real” work, so the first step is ensuring that both people in the relationship acknowledge emotional labor tasks as real work that requires time, skill, and effort.
“One of the important parts of making this invisible form of work visible is that it can be part of a fair exchange,” says Rose Hackman. “It should be recognized as part of your couple dynamic.”
You and your partner might be able to turn emotional labor into something more concrete by making a list of the unpaid and often unacknowledged tasks that are required to keep your relationship and your household running. A healthy relationship involves empathy, understanding, and willingness to compromise and creating equity around emotional labor is one way a couple can hold space for each other’s mental and emotional needs.
Emotional labor tasks are incredibly diverse and might include things like:
- Managing schedules
- Remembering birthdays
- Paying bills
- Initiating difficult conversations
- Initiating physical intimacy
- Disciplining children
- Deciding what’s for dinner
- Planning social events
- Writing thank-you notes
- Making doctor’s appointments
- Handling children’s bedtime routines
- Cleaning the bathroom
From there, go through the list with your partner, talk about who usually handles these roles, and discuss how you might divide them more equally. The resulting balance doesn’t necessarily need to be 50/50, but one person shouldn’t feel overwhelmed.
Consider this similar to a household chore list; if you prefer, you can assign deadlines and a schedule. By assigning certain emotional-labor tasks to one partner, you also remove the need to constantly “nag” and follow-up, which is its own form of emotional labor.
Checking In and Seeking Help
Once you have created the “labor list,” consider scheduling weekly check-ins. In an article for the New York Times entitled How to Get Your Partner to Take on More Emotional Labor, Desirée Robinson, a Maryland-based psychotherapist and sex therapist, suggests starting with 20-minute check-ins once a week. Questions to ask include:
- Did we meet the desired goal?
- Did you feel overwhelmed?
- How can I better support you?
If you’ve tried conversations and a better division of labor but it’s still not working, it might be time to see a couples’ therapist. Many couples therapists can attest to the fact that emotional labor imbalances are a common relationship issue. Some couples may find it easier to rebalance their labor with the help of a neutral party.