Emotional Labor Is Not The Problem

It is trendy to blame a lot of relationship issues on the construct of emotional labor.  The story is that a woman is expected to do the “emotional labor” within the relationship (planning birthday parties, remembering when the household is out of papertowels, making holidays cards; this idea is summed up by this article) and the man just sits around and doesn’t worry about it. Emotional labor was originally a sociological term that referred to managing your emotions as a job requirement, like how an airline attendant is expected to act cheerful.  The creator of the term herself has stated that it was not meant to refer to household tasks, and that there is a lot of “blurry thinking” around the current use of the term.

I have worked with couples for over a decade, and the division of emotional labor is never the primary issue in a relationship. It is a proxy variable, and I have seen the use of this term obscure the deeper, more important issues at play. Instead of using this idea as a jumping-off place to get to other, more individual-level marital issues, many people just end the discussion here, and make compromises involving the man doing more stuff.  This, in my experience, doesn’t address the deeper, attachment-level issues that most struggling couples face.

An important point to mention is that, in my personal/friend and clinical experience, men actually do plenty of emotional labor.  In gender-stereotypical situations, in happy marriages, men generally do most of the emotional labor surrounding:

  • how money gets made, saved, spent
  • bill paying
  • worrying about mortgages, insurance,
  • taking care of vehicles
  • coaching sports
  • management of outdoor work like mowing, yardwork
  • worrying about how to make their wife happy and do the things she asks for in her domain (without bothering the wife about any of the above areas)

In happy marriages with more egalitarian frameworks, I see men who are involved in the following areas of emotional labor:

  • cleaning
  • childcare
  • long term child planning (what schools and activities they should attend)
  • socializing as a family
  • date night and vacation planning
  • anything else you can think of that ostensibly only women do

I believe there are many more important variables in terms of understanding a given couple’s division of labor and why a given woman would use the term “emotional labor” in describing her unhappiness.  Here are some examples of deeper issues that can be understood superficially as “emotional labor” issues:

  1. The man has ADHD.  The woman is anxious.  This is such a common pairing that you probably know some couples like this just off the top of your head.  Usually they are in a dynamic like this.  When they are unhappy they look like this.  Basically this woman lives for emotional labor and creates about 47 times more of it than is necessary by any estimate.  The man has tried to become involved at her behest but can never do anything well enough for her standards.  Also, objectively, he often forgets and/or does poorly what she asks.  But he is like this at everything, including messing up at work, because of ADHD, not because of a sociological gender construct.  And she is a perfectionist and overworks in all arenas, not just household matters.  Both need to work on understanding themselves and one another and figure out solutions (like here).
  2. The woman feels unprioritized by the man and like he never takes her seriously.  They may be in a dynamic like this.  Since she has read about emotional labor, this seems to describe the issue, and she tells the husband this. He responds that he manages 100% of the finances and does all the housework she asks, so she is just complaining about nothing like usual.  In point of fact, this relationship is not at risk because he doesn’t want to plan their 2 year old’s birthday party.  (She actually wants to be in charge of this party and has thought about it in depth for a month.) It is because he has an avoidant attachment style while she is preoccupied attachment, and neither is able to delve deeper on this because they are discussing emotional labor.
  3. The woman’s mother did Everything with a capital E when she was growing up and now she does the same.  (The capital E stands for Enabler, too.)  The couple needs to address why she does all the household work and complains about it and why he does nothing (hint: it’s likely that he saw the same parent dynamic).
  4. The woman throws herself into parenting as an escape from an unfulfilling marriage.  The man feels lonely and bitter and dissociates from the situation entirely.
  5. The man does a lot of household management but the narrative of the marriage is that he does nothing (this often occurs when the man is enabling a woman with untreated depression, personality disorder, anger issues, addiction, etc).

There is so much to unpack when a woman says she is upset that she does all the emotional labor.  This term has become a catch-all and obscures much more interesting and complex interpersonal dynamics, usually relating back to the partners’ families of origin, individual psychological issues, and emotional closeness.

I am not saying that sociological context is not important in understanding individuals’ or couples’ issues.  For instance, one example of a helpful sociological construct in couples counseling is understanding our child-centered social climate. I believe that this milieu creates a lot of stress for marriages and for parents in general.  My issue with emotional labor is it is very anti-male and stereotypes men pejoratively in ways that do not apply to many men.  Additionally, overusing this term prevents many couples from a deeper and richer understanding of the unique variables at play in their given dynamic, like in this example.

If you have thought of emotional labor as a major issue within your marriage, try and introspect deeply about what your husband’s lack of emotional labor represents to you on a deeper level.  Reading about imago theory (read the book Getting The Love You Want) and attachment styles (read Hold Me Tight) can often help clarify why you feel so lonely, angry, sad, or hurt. Couples counseling is a wonderful resource for couples who fight about household division of labor, because it can help with this issue but also address underlying issues.

If you are unhappy, don’t take any shortcuts in figuring out why. There are always social AND individual contexts for every situation.  And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, FWIW, I Was A Sociology Minor.

Order Dr. Rodman Whiten’s books, 52 Emails to Transform Your Marriage and How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family, and listen to The Dr. Psych Mom Show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts. If you need therapy, check out her online group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.

This blog is not intended as medical advice or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a medical professional. If you try this advice and it does not work for you, you cannot sue me. This is only my opinion, based on my background, training, and experience as a therapist and person.

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