My husband remembers the foods I dislike better than I do. At restaurants I’ll point to the menu and ask, “Do I like this kind of fish?” He always leaves enough time to get places punctually (and has had to adjust to my chronic lateness). When I’m not feeling well, he reminds me to drink water, take ibuprofen, and eat because he knows I’m not good at doing those things when I’m sick.
I pointed these things out to him recently during our first-ever discussion about the concept of emotional labor, or the work required to manage your feelings and the way you express them in varying aspects of life. My husband initially thought doing emotional labor was a bad thing. He said it sounded like something you don’t want to go through, like childbirth or hard labor.
It’s only a bad thing when one person in the relationship is doing most or all of it, I explained.
And that can happen a lot, especially in cisgender heterosexual relationships, with women by default falling into the caregiving role. But this pattern isn’t unique to straight relationships — it happens in same sex relationships and transgender partnerships as well. In a 2010 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family on the division of household labor and emotion work in partnerships between cisgender women and transgender men, the distribution largely fell along traditional gender lines, with cisgender women taking on more emotional labor than transgender men.
My husband initially thought doing emotional labor was a bad thing.
The study found that the most gender-balanced category of household labor was cooking-related. Cisgender women were found to do the majority of the feminine-stereotyped housework, such as washing the dishes, dusting, and doing laundry, as well as telephone correspondence, childcare and pet care, and healthcare assistance (including making doctor appointments, following up, dealing with insurance, etc.). Eighty percent of the cisgender women reported assisting with transition-related care, which included anything from making and attending doctors’ appointments and monitoring surgical drainage tubes to negotiating with insurance providers and planning parties/ceremonies to mark their partner’s transition.
Carla A. Pfeffer, the study’s author and an associate professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at the University of South Carolina, said that people are often surprised to learn that the gendered division of emotional labor in heterosexual partnerships also occurs in many cisgender lesbian and gay relationships and transgender partnerships as well.
“In essence, people fail to consider that a same-sex relationship is not the same thing as a same-gender relationship,” Pfeffer wrote me in an email. “In other words, two partners of the same sex may enact their gender in very distinct ways from one another on a daily basis… In fact, a key component of being recognized in the world as a man or a woman relies on our conformity and performance of these types of gendered labor.”
My relationship with my husband tends to fall along similar lines. Although he performs important emotional labor, the bulk of it falls to me. I pick up and wash the dishes he leaves around the house. He gives input when making plans with friends, but I am in charge of the brainstorming and details. I initiate ways to address issues in our relationship and he actively participates in those conversations, but I can’t remember the last time he brought up anything on his own. If he starts getting impatient, I try to suss out how he’s feeling and what we can do about it so his frustration doesn’t turn into an argument. Whenever we return to the house from an errand or activity with our young kids, he goes to another room without saying anything, assuming I am okay with watching them.
I wondered what my relationship with my husband would be like if had I understood what emotional labor was when we first got together.
I was left feeling frustrated, but it was hard to define exactly what irked me beyond isolated arguments and having to do most of the household chores. I found myself fantasizing about only having to deal with myself — just my wants, needs, and emotions.
The concept of emotional labor didn’t really click for me until I read Gemma Hartley’s viral article “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up,” in Harper’s Bazaar last fall. This passage in particular resonated with me: “Even having a conversation about the imbalance of emotional labor becomes emotional labor. It gets to a point where I have to weigh the benefits of getting my husband to understand my frustration against the compounded emotional labor of doing so in a way that won’t end in us fighting.” Almost every time I had tried to identify the problem with my husband, it had become a source of conflict.
I wondered what my relationship with my husband would be like if had I understood what emotional labor was when we first got together. In my more exasperated moments, I questioned whether we’d even still be together if I had known I would be doing the bulk of the emotional labor in our relationship for at least 16 years.
Others I talked to agreed. Margo McCall, who lives in Long Beach, California and works in marketing communications, said she probably wouldn’t have knowingly agreed to do most of the emotional labor in her relationship with her ex-husband.
“My marriage wasn’t the first or last relationship where I took on most of the emotional labor. Eventually, his emotional well-being became my complete responsibility. And carrying that weight was more work than cooking, cleaning, and shopping combined,” she told me.
Sometimes a relationship may start out fairly equitable and then change when kids are added into the mix. For Li Yun Alvarado, 37-year-old writer in Long Beach, California, it was an overwhelming shift.
“I didn’t expect how acutely I would feel the burden of emotional labor and the mental load before we had our son. At first I could not put my finger on what kind of support I wanted or needed from my partner. Eventually I realized I wanted a break from the mental load, not just the daily tasks themselves,” she wrote in an email. “Once I had the language for it, it made it easier to negotiate a situation that worked better for us… Having the language before we had the baby might have helped us implement distributions of mental labor earlier and helped ease some of the challenges in our transition into parenthood.”
The importance of having a term that identifies this kind of labor resonated with me. Before I knew how to talk about it, I felt helpless to address the situation effectively. Once I had the language, it was easier to confront.
It’s important to recognize that emotional labor is not just restricted to romantic relationships. Some people participate in more emotional labor on a daily basis than others. People of color and transgender people perform an inordinate amount of emotional labor navigating the world in general, having to deal with both racism and concealing their feelings of anger and frustration in order to fit into workplace norms and maintain social relationships. This extra work can lead to stress and isolation.
Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has found that for black workers, emotional labor takes on a different tenor than it does for white workers.
She said that for black professionals, “emotional labor can contribute to a sense of alienation and isolation in predominantly white settings.” She speculates that the adverse consequences emotional labor places on black people — heightened stress, isolation — could spill over into and impact their personal relationships. “Alternatively, non-work relationships could be a source of emotional authenticity, providing black workers with a ‘safe space’ where they can express genuine feelings without the need to sanction or conceal them for the sake of occupational advancement,” she said.
For others, however, emotional labor is purely exhausting.
“The amount of emotional labor I have left for the relationship really depends on how accepting and supportive my partner is of my trans identity,” said Chloe Goldbach, a 28-year-old lesbian transgender woman and biomedical engineer in Gainesville, Florida, in an email interview. “It’s very important to me that they are able to have these conversations with me, and bonus points if I’m not the one always starting these conversations. I expect there to be a balance of emotional labor, and that’s why I try to be very open about this from the get go. I would not enter a relationship if the labor would be mostly or entirely on my end.”
Once I had the language to talk about emotional labor, it was easier to confront.
Beginning with conversations about what emotional labor is and how it affects both of you is a good place to start when it comes to creating a fair distribution of emotional labor in a relationship. Hartley said that it’s best to approach conversations about emotional labor from a cultural standpoint.
“Talk about the way you were each raised, the cultural expectations you each absorbed, the subtle societal messages you didn't realize were working against you until now,” she said. “Don’t immediately make it about how this hurts you, and how your partner can do better. Taking in the big picture and asking how we could do better to balance this in our relationship makes it less of an attack and more of a joint effort.”
If your partner doesn’t want to acknowledge that emotional labor affects your relationship, citing concrete examples — especially ones that recognize your partner participating in emotional labor — can help. But it’s also important to determine how much emotional labor you are willing to put into such a discussion and, by extension, your relationship.
Dr. Juli Fraga, a San Francisco psychologist, recommends talking with your partner and dividing emotional labor in the same way you would divide other household responsibilities. “Discuss who prefers to do what and when, and what tasks each person will take charge of. For example, if you have kids, perhaps one person takes charge of school communication and/or responding to playdate/birthday party invites. After a holiday or celebration, divide the task of writing thank-you notes, etc.,” she said.
I did something similar with my husband, first writing down all the tasks I do that I’d like to share with him, and then talking out what he could take over or we could take turns doing. He’s begun doing the things we discussed without me having to ask, and I’m trying to do a little less so I don’t feel so burnt out.
Since we began tackling emotional labor together, I’ve stopped wondering how our relationship would be different if we had both known what emotional labor was from the beginning. I know it would have been like what it is today, a work in progress with ongoing negotiations that require a lot of patience. And that’s exactly how it should be.