It’s important to understand the impact of emotional labor, and how it affects your relationships. Oftentimes one person takes on the brunt of the emotions – especially the negative or stressful emotions – that are produced in their relationships. This collective emotional give-and-take is called emotional labor; it’s the work and effort put into making sure the relationship doesn’t fall apart. And, spoiler alert: women are the ones taking on the brunt of emotional labor in relationships.
Think about your ideal relationship. Along with wanting your dream physical partner (hey, we all have our types!) and them already having a small fortune of their own, you probably want them to have some strong caring qualities as well. You want someone who will get along with your friends and family, remember anniversaries and birthdays, soothe you after a long day at work. You want someone to support your dreams and help you through the rough patches. You want someone kind, thoughtful, and selfless.
What you may not have considered, though, is that there is a lot of invisible work that goes into being this kind of partner. It’s called emotional labor. And it’s being disproportionally performed by women. And that’s a major problem.
Emotional labor is the unpaid job men still don’t understand.
Emotional labor is the invisible work of caring. It takes effort to notice when someone isn’t feeling well; it takes effort to ask questions and listen to the answers; it takes effort to anticipate needs; it takes effort to remember birthdays and anniversaries and get presents and plan special occasions; it takes effort to compliment and boost self esteem and provide company and remind someone that they are loved and cared for.
The difficulty men have with emotional labor in their relationships means that women are forced to take on more of the burden. That means that not only do women have to process their own thoughts and feelings as they apply to the relationship, they are also having to accept any issues within the relationship as their responsibility. There are many reasons why men might not feel capable or responsible for accepting this responsibility, although most of it revolves around men being socialized to believe emotions are women’s work; believing it un-masculine or “weak” to be in touch with your emotions.
Whether men like to admit it or not, it is inherently important for any person in any relationship to understand the give-and-take of emotional labor and why it needs to be equal between partners. If the emotional labor of a relationship is not equal, the relationship is not a partnership.
Relationships also involve a lot of domestic labor: housework, cooking, budgeting. But there is a caring component to all of this domestic labor: housework also needs organizing, attention, decluttering, anticipating; cooking requires meal planning, shopping, and prepping; budgeting requires planning, goals, tracking, and management. Emotional labor is the caring part of domestic labor. Putting in the effort to plan ahead on a regular basis, to make sure things flow smoothly rather than waiting until something is out of control or out of stock. Emotional labor is taking pride in the responsibility of caring for your home life and your quality of living.
Although anyone is capable of performing emotional labor, in reality this work overwhelmingly falls on women. Often, men don’t even realize that it’s happening and that it takes deliberate effort – effort that has become second nature to women after years of conditioning.
Gender stereotypes in the context of dividing emotional labor are so pervasive that even the most well-intentioned people have difficulty escaping them. Most couples still divide housework based on gender. This means that no matter how self-aware or feminist our male partners are (or that we are), men are not inclined to volunteer for what is typical considered “women’s work”. So the sexist cycle perpetuates itself, and the women keep getting better at chores while guys continue to fall behind.
While men can (and do) perform emotional labor, men have the luxury of conceiving of it as optional work that can be left to women. Men get to be willfully blind, believing that engaging in the emotional economy of a relationship is voluntary, because for most men it always has been.
Women are socialized to be “better” at certain daily tasks (grocery shopping, meal planning, organizing nights out) but these tasks also take up more time, and thus the emotional labor starts to add up quickly. On average, women spend twice as much time doing housework than men. Every single week.
That gender division is a problem.
Emotional labor is the glue that holds relationships together. However, it becomes a problem when women are shouldering more than their fair share of the load. It’s exhausting for women to have to pick up the slack for men who assume that this stuff is “women’s work” and it’s also demoralizing when emotional labor goes unnoticed and unappreciated, which it often does.
Often when the imbalance of emotional labor is brought up it is met with lines like “just stop doing this stuff if you hate it so much”, or “I’m not the one that cares if this gets done, you are”, or better yet “but you like doing this stuff”, and finally “I’m not as good at this as you are”. These lines and arguments completely miss the point.
Relationships in which no one does the work of caring for each other and caring for your livelihood are in no way aspirational. Caring work is good, important, and necessary. All relationships need more emotional labor, not less. But there should not be a disparity of the burden.
Another point that misses the issue: “if you need help just ask”.
Emotional labor isn’t like other work. It literally never ends. And it has a way of slowly scraping you from the inside out. When one person has to micro-manage all of the emotional labor in a relationship, they literally never get a break from work. Being responsible for delegating all the work is exhausting. The point isn’t that we should have to micro-manage the emotional labor, the point is that both partners should be taking initiative and being proactive about their roles and keeping things balanced. Don’t wait to be told what to do, find ways to take action without being told. If you have to be told to do the work, you aren’t taking on the emotional labor of the responsibility, you are forcing your partner to do it.
Men can perform emotional labor, and it’s a myth that they are inherently less adept at it than women. But for a lot of men, emotional labor is a means to an end, where the end is a relationship where they never have to do any of these things again. Without intentional focus on emotional labor balance, resentment builds. And this can lead to the end of the relationship altogether.
On the whole, women are more skillful at emotional labor because they have had their entire lives to practice. But, men also have the rest of their lives to hone those emotional labor skills. They just have to be willing to learn.