Sharing Emotional Labor in My Relationship

The term “emotional labor” was created by sociologist Anne Hochschild in 1983 to describe the emotional work that is involved in certain professions, like therapists, pilots, customer service workers, and others whose jobs require them to manage or absorb some sort of heavy emotion.

Today, the term has  become a social catch-all for work done by one partner {usually a woman in a heterosexual relationship} that contributes to life management but largely goes unseen. This could be mental labor, like keeping Christmas lists in your head, actual emotional labor, like being the one constantly managing your mother in law’s feelings and keeping the peace, or just regular labor, like making doctor’s appointments, or household chores.

It could also be a combination of all three, like doing all of the mental and actual labor of planning your family vacation every year while managing the opinions and emotions of all of your children and partner surrounding the trip, at the end of which they just show up and enjoy while you scramble to take care of all of the details behind the scenes–including packing all of their suitcases for them…..sound familiar?

I became familiar with the concept of emotional labor a few years ago, and since have been working with my husband to talk through and share those tasks usually taken on by women.

Start the conversation

My husband and I often discuss articles we read or things we found interesting, so after reading an article on emotional labor one day, I asked if he had heard of it {Surprise! He hadn’t}. I did a recap of what I read, and then started bringing it up in conversations. Identifying opportunities for emotional or mental labor in our day to day led to changes in how we approach things.

Take stock

We do a weekly family meeting, and that is a built in time for us to discuss any leftover topics from the week, and talk about upcoming tasks. This is an opportunity for each of us to bring up things that need to be done, from household chores to birthdays to scheduling doctor’s appointments. Laying it all out, the seen and unseen, helps to divy things up more evenly.

Speak up

Recently I was having a more overwhelmed day in new parent world, and I found myself doing a mental inventory of baby care tasks that I do, my husband does, and that we both do. While the majority of tasks we both do, I realized that excluding breastfeeding, there were several baby care tasks that only I did, and there were not nearly as many that only my husband did. I broached the topic with my partner, and it was a bit of a messy discussion. I felt resentful after my stewing session, and my husband didn’t even know that this was an issue, so he felt a bit blindsided. We stumbled through the conversation, and in the end he took on some of those tasks that previously only I was doing. This helped me to feel more like we were parenting as the team we like to be, and virtually eliminated my feelings of resentment that would have continued to fester if I had said nothing.

Be flexible

If you decide you are giving something up, actually give it up. Don’t become a backseat driver while your partner cooks dinner. This one can be HARD, y’all. It helps me to pretend like I am at work delegating a task. I would never stand behind a co-worker and make suggestions of how they should do their work every step of the way. I either hand it off and let it go, or keep it if it is that important to me. When I am getting too involved, a sly “would you like to do this?” from my husband is a good reality check.

Prioritize

Decide what works for your family. I tend to take on most of the birthday and gift planning in our household. I love buying gifts, as it is my love language, so that works for me and for us. This may be the thing  you hate most and don’t care about, but do it because you feel like you should. Sometimes when a task arises, and it is automatically assumed I will do it, I ask “Is there a reason this is my responsibility?”. Sometimes the answer is yes, because of schedules or skills, and sometimes it is no, in which case it can be reassessed.

Share the emotional responsibility

As a woman in the United States, I have been socialized to take on more emotional work in relationships and to guide my male partner through this as well. I am also a mental health professional, so that makes it even more tempting for me to take this on. I have to work hard not to name my partner’s emotions for him, or put words in his mouth when we are talking about hard issues. Sometimes I have to sit and wait {torture!} while he thinks through a response or an answer to a question. At the same time, I have had to actually ask my partner to take on that emotional responsibility for himself. Acknowledging that I understand expressing and talking about emotions is hard, but that it is not my job to do that for him, and that it is important for him to take responsibility for his own emotions has allowed us to grow in this area. It’s still a work in progress for both of us, but starting the conversation has given us a baseline of communication for this area.

Seek help if needed

Conversations about labor in relationships can turn heated fast. We all bring our own experiences, relationship dynamics, and expectations with us into our partnerships. If you find yourself dealing with some really hard issues, or just want a third party to help guide your negotiations and conversations, some couples sessions with a therapist might be helpful for you and your partner. Sharing labor in your relationship is an ever-changing, dynamic topic, and sometimes you need backup to help you make progress.

Have you heard of emotional labor? How do you handle it in your relationship? What discussions do you have? Share with us!

 


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