What Is Emotional Labor in Relationships?

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Romantic relationships don’t come with user guides. You meet someone and suddenly you find yourself thrown into domestic bliss together. Or, more likely, domestic unrest. Of course, the truth that nobody likes to admit is that one party tends to take on the majority of the emotional labor in relationships. 

What Is Emotional Labor?

Emotional labor was a term originally used to explain how workers needed to regulate their emotions when dealing with customers in the 1980s. Coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, Ph.D., the concept can now be applied to all types of relationships, not just professional ones.

But what does that mean and how can you tip the balance? To delve into this matter, we enlisted the help of expert Brooke Bralove, LCSW-C.

Meet the Expert

Brooke Bralove, LCSW-C is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and AASECT-certified sex therapist.

Ahead, learn more about emotional labor in relationships and how to work towards emotional equality.

Emotional Labor in Relationships

"Emotional labor can refer to the heavy feeling that ‘it’s all on me’ to keep things running smoothly," explains Bralove. "In straight couples, stereotypically women often feel that they shoulder more of the burden of running the household and keeping on top of chores.  Many women who feel they carry the emotional labor describe feeling pressure to plan, initiate, and execute all things related to the family."

"No relationship is equal or equitable all the time, but there can be more or less balance," continues Bralove. "Remember that life isn’t perfect, and rarely are things in perfect balance in our imperfect lives. It can be important to look at the overall balance between partners over a month or two rather than focusing on whether or not today was balanced."

Signs You’re Taking on Too Much Emotional Labor

Are you shouldering the burden of emotional labor? You may have slipped into an unhealthy balance over the years without even realizing it. If you’re not quite sure, we’ve got you covered with some handy red flags. Bralove shares 10 of the signs that you’re taking on too much in your relationship. 

You’re always worrying.

Does your troubled mind ever get a chance to rest? When you’re taking on the emotional labor, you may be a total stress-head. "You worry about the household running smoothly and you feel all alone in this worry," explains Bralove. 

You’re under constant pressure.

When something important comes up, who handles it? If the answer is automatically you, ask yourself why. "You feel burdened by the pressure to do it all yourself," shares Bralove. 

You resent your partner.

"You notice yourself feeling resentful toward your partner," explains Bralove. You may feel peeved at them for no reason or have a shorter fuse with them than other people. 

You’re the social secretary.

Are you in charge of planning events, dates, and parties? Does your partner ever take the reins and give you a break? When "you are solely responsible for the social calendar," Bralove says, chances are, you’re taking on the emotional labor.  

Your partner can be clueless.

"When you ask your partner to find something in your home or make a call regarding a bill, they say they have no idea how to find it," says Bralove. It may be that you’ve always taken care of the red tape in your relationship, leaving them clueless as to how it works. 

They expect you to handle things.

Along those lines, what’s the default in your relationship? If you’re taking on the emotional labor, "you feel like your partner simply expects you to handle everything related to the daily functioning of the household," explains Bralove.

You’re absolutely exhausted.

Are you feeling sleepy, agitated, and anxious? There could be a sneaky reason for that. "It’s when you feel emotionally and physically exhausted by the 'invisible work' you do every day," says Bralove.

You never get a 'thank you.'

When you’re taking on too much, "your partner doesn’t acknowledge all the small and big things you do to keep things running smoothly," says Bralove. If you can’t remember the last time your partner appreciated all you do, that could be a major problem. 

You look after your partner.

Looking after your partner is normal in a relationship, but it’s a two-way street. Could they cope if you just up and left? "You feel like without you, your partner couldn’t even find his or her own nose," says Bralove. 

You’re angry.

Have you noticed a disparity here? "You feel angry most of the time as you’re caring for the household," adds Bralove. If you can see that your partner isn’t pulling their weight, it’s no wonder that you may be harboring a tad more than mild annoyance. 

How to Ask Your Partner for More Help with Emotional Labor

So, it turns out you’re the CEO of the emotional labor in your home. What now? It should come as no surprise that you need to speak to your partner about the problem. Of course, if you don’t want to spark the argument from hell, you need some tactics. Bralove offers the following steps to broaching this challenging subject matter. 

Step 1: Acknowledge your emotions.

"The first step is recognizing your feelings and labeling them as it relates to the imbalance you experience in the relationship," says Bralove. "Are you angry, resentful, sad? Do you feel helpless and exhausted?" You might want to note down your emotions for reference.

Step 2: Have an honest conversation.

"Invite your partner into a discussion about your feelings and experiences in the relationship," suggests Bralove. Rather than having a kitchen-table chat, you may want to head out for this conversation. Choosing a neutral place may keep the situation chilled. 

Step 2: Don’t jump the gun.

Leave all of your assumptions at the door. "It’s important to remember that your partner is not a mind reader and may have zero idea how you feel," reminds Bralove. "Don’t assume they have been doing this on purpose. Try not to blame your partner for the imbalance." 

Step 3: Gently spell it out.

"Simply suggest that you’d like to talk about all the tasks you do for the home and how those might be more evenly distributed," encourages Bralove. "Even if you’ve been feeling resentful for many years about the imbalance, they may never have considered all the invisible tasks you do. It can be helpful to point them out."

Step 4: Focus on how you feel.

Instead of talking about how your partner has wronged you, speak about your feelings. "It’s important to focus on how carrying this burden makes you feel," says Bralove. Speak from your heart and be honest. "Do you feel unappreciated, unseen, taken for granted, ignored, used? You may also want to point out that if some of the emotional labor is lifted, you imagine you would have more energy and goodwill to bring into your relationship."

Ways to Balance the Emotional Labor in the Relationship

Keep in mind that this talk is not merely about airing your grievances. No, you’re looking for positive change. Look at the ways that you can balance the emotional labor in your relationship. Bralove suggests the following approaches. 

Divide up the tasks.

"All couples should identify and list the tasks, chores, and responsibilities they foresee in their life together," offers Bralove. Be as specific as you can here. "You need to add the less concrete tasks such as planning vacations, initiating social plans, buying holiday gifts, scheduling appointments, writing thank you notes, visiting family, or setting up playdates."

Got your list? It’s time to divide them up. "Each of you can start by volunteering for the tasks you actually enjoy," says Bralove. "Then you can negotiate the less desirable tasks from there. This must be written down in some sort of spreadsheet that you can hold each other accountable and renegotiate at any time. I would suggest dividing up the tasks and then meeting again in a month to discuss how it’s been going."

CC your partner in emails and texts.

Are you always taking care of the admin? Don’t be afraid to cc your partner on important correspondence. "Do not be the sole person who receives emails about the basketball schedule, the office holiday party, or the plans to visit your in-laws," says Bralove. "Make sure they are in the loop of all plans and activities. When they say they didn’t know you had plans with the Millers tonight, you can reference the email."

Don’t give up on this task.

The process will take time, but you need to trust it. "If you get pushback from your partner when you ask to balance the emotional labor, do not give up," says Bralove. "When you ask for help, you need to allow the help to occur. The more you enable your partner to under-function, the more you will continue to over-function, and that part is on you."

The Takeaway

Does your relationship need an overhaul? If you’ve been carrying the emotional labor for years, it’s never too late to speak up and do something about it. Taking the time to work with your partner on creating a better sense of balance will always be worth your efforts.

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