Emotional labor has become a hot-button issue at the moment—and for good reason. For decades, women have been doing the lion’s share of emotional and mental labor in heterosexual relationships. Women already do 2.8 times more unpaid labor than men, according to the United Nations, including chores, household management, childcare, and daily organization. Then, on top of it, there’s the emotional side of things—and it’s work.
Women are taught from a young age by society that dealing with other people’s emotions is their responsibility—we’re meant to be soft and empathetic, while men are allowed to focus on their own needs, rather than taking on the burden of others. In relationships, this can equate to your partner being uncommunicative or blunt so you have to help them navigate their emotions, all while remembering your sister-in-law’s birthday (because they'll likely forget, again) and pushing all of your emotions to one side to organize the food and seating plan for the upcoming family holiday. It’s exhausting.
The good news? It’s 2020, and we’re moving past this—or starting to—so don’t be afraid to talk to your partner. “I think that telling your partner that you need them to do more emotional labor should be approached in a direct, straightforward way,” relationship therapist, Aimee Hartstein, tells Brides. “You may be tempted to complain and air your grievances over how little they have been doing in the past, but that’s not likely to get you the results that you want.” Instead, it's all about being upfront about what you need. Communication is key—so here’s how to talk to your partner.
Explain What Emotional Labor Is
Start small. If your partner wasn’t raised to help handle the mental load, they may not even know what it is, so you may have to work from the ground up. “Basically you want to explain to them what emotional labor is, give some examples of how you are handling it within your relationship, and finish with some of the tasks you’d like him to take over,” Hartstein says. If they’re not familiar with the concept, they’ll have no idea how to go about doing more of it.
With conversations like this, it’s best to be direct, so focus on concrete examples. “For example, you can start by explaining that emotional labor consists of largely invisible tasks that keep the wheels of relationships and groups running smoothly,” Hartstein says. “It’s largely understood that it is mostly women who carry the burden of emotional labor. They tend to be more sensitive to social dynamics and are often driven to make sure that everyone around them feels comfortable.” Point to holidays when you’ve sat with the difficult relative nobody wants to talk to, times when you’ve had to remind your partner to take your feelings into consideration, or when you feel you’ve been left to deal with all of the organization for a big event. Try to be matter-of-fact rather than judgmental to keep them from feeling on the back foot.
Talk About How It Affects You
Even though you don’t want to sound judgy, you do want to get across how it makes you feel and the ways you think it’s holding back your relationship. “Then you can explain that some of the things you are doing that they might not even realize—making small talk with the neighbors, calling his mother, making coffee or serving drinks when friends stop by, sending gifts and cards to the nieces and nephews,” Hartstein explains. Talk about how that affects you—if you feel hurt, ignored, put upon, or just plain tired. Make sure they see that this is an ongoing issue and explain that you think it would be better if you approached these things as a team.
Ask, Rather Than Criticize
If you want help, being direct is often the best option, so be very clear about what you want. “Then give two or three of these tasks that you’d like to get off your plate and onto theirs,” Hartstein says. “You will be most effective with this if you simply ask your partner to take them on rather than complaining and criticizing that he’s not been doing them. There’s a good chance that they weren’t even aware of this invisible/emotional labor and will hopefully rise to the occasion now that it’s been spelled out to them.”
One important point is that partners will often say that if you want them to do more and to help more, then you should just ask. But explain to them that you’re asking for help now, in a larger sense, because you shouldn’t always have to ask for help. Managing your partner is its own form of mental and emotional labor; you should not have to be the manager of the household and responsible for always delegating tasks. Instead, it’s about your partner being aware, seeing what you’re doing and what needs to be done, and taking the initiative themselves. It shouldn't be your job to micromanage.
We’re still in the early stages of recognizing the importance of emotional labor, but it’s so important that it’s finally happening. Relationships are all about partnerships, and if only one of you is carrying the emotional and mental load, it’s not fair, sustainable, or healthy. Be direct, clear, and communicate your needs to your partner—they should want to share that burden.