Emotional Labor Is An Ineffective Way To Say “Take Care Of Me”
I have repeatedly stated (like here and here) that I think the concept of “emotional labor” is currently too widely used, used for the wrong things, can be a way to complain about anything and everything, and therefore is basically meaningless as well as often harmful for marriages. If your husband “doesn’t understand emotional labor” as many women complain, perhaps there is a better way to explain it to him that doesn’t immediately sound like BS psychological jargon that gets his hackles up. It is called “take care of stuff,” or for those more comfortable with expressing vulnerability, “take care of me.”
In couples counseling, most of the couples I see are at an impasse. Nobody wants to be vulnerable. Men couch their need for physical intimacy in terms of addressing their biologically high sex drive, a phrasing which does not appeal to women on an emotional level or cultivate any sense of intimacy or closeness. This is unfortunate because men truly do express love via physical intimacy. Women counter with some sociologically-rooted rhetoric about emotional labor, which is an equivalently alienating concept to men. It does not speak to how women want to be taken care of, which would appeal to a man emotionally and help him empathize.
When both men and woman learn (in couples counseling, for example) to be more vulnerable and open with one another about their deepest needs, nobody has to resort to some distancing language of biology or sociology or even psychology to somehow back into expressing how they need to be loved (and this is coming from someone who loves all those fields). When you are asking your husband to engage in more of the emotional labor of household management, you are really telling him that you feel alone and not taken care of. For people who struggle with vulnerability, though, whether this is due to attachment issues or due to distrust within the marital dynamic (likely both), it is much easier to situate the problems within a sociological paradigm than to ask for your own personal needs to be addressed.
Here is a softball example to warm you up. Which guy is likelier to have sex tonight?
Man A: Men have biological needs to have sex. Women nowadays don’t understand there is a marital contract which includes sex. At minimum, I need you to have sex with me three times a week and if you do not, you need to understand why that makes me frustrated and angry.
Man B: I miss you. When we have sex, I feel so close to you and I love showing you how much I love you. I feel insecure about myself when it goes too long without it even though you don’t intend that. It makes me feel loved and cared for when you want to have sex with me, especially since I know your drive is lower than mine.
Ding ding ding, everyone knows that Man A is setting himself up for a world of hurt, or at least a week of celibacy, for being so “insensitive” aka rooting his need in biology versus focusing on his emotional needs, which would appeal a lot more to his wife’s loving side. He would be called a mansplainer or, colloquially, an ass$%^@.
But why should the below gender-switched example be any different?
Woman A: Men don’t split any emotional labor. I should not be the only one who remembers when soccer practice is. This is how men are, and this is why my friends and I all feel frustrated and angry. I refuse to manage this on my own and you need to be on top of it and that means leaving 15 minutes earlier and telling Aidan when to get his uniform on and also bringing snacks and I am making a list right now of all the stuff you need to do.
Woman B: I am so stressed with soccer and everything else. I feel very taken care of when I don’t have to worry about managing the schedule. I know you don’t care about being late to soccer like I do, but it would be really nice for me to just not even think about it at all. I would love you to tell me when to leave for soccer and really just take care of all the soccer stuff.
Which woman is going to get her husband to empathize and even to feel good about himself and the marriage overall if he takes this stuff over? Not Woman A, who is coming off cold and micromanaging, just like Man A in the sex example, but somehow it has become socially acceptable to call Man A a jerk and Woman A as a wife who is expressing her needs. Yet, neither one is expressing any needs, and both are being annoying, officious, and emotionally avoidant.
It is interesting to me how there is so much talk about all the things men do wrong in relationships and much less about the exact equivalent things that women do wrong on their end. Are women not as controlling, difficult, and emotionally avoidant as men? How could it make sense that one gender is somehow worse at relationships than the other? And if this truly is the case, isn’t it likely that the gender that appears always wrong is being set up to fail by some major shift in what it means to be “good” at relationships? (For more, read the book The All Or Nothing Marriage and this post.)
From what I see, gender plays no role in which partner is more comfortable rooting their personal issue in some larger biological/historical/sociological context. While there is certainly a place for this, and I love to educate people about the biological underpinnings of their marital difficulties (like here and here), when two partners are trying to connect with each other, discussing your own deeper needs is going to work a lot better than a PowerPoint about sociology or biology to instill closeness and cultivate your partner’s desire to care for you.
Everyone wants to be taken care of on some level, unless they are extremely emotionally avoidant, in which case, they are difficult to be with and it is no wonder that their partner doesn’t want to sleep with them or deal with soccer, whichever the case may be, because the marriage has grown cold and businesslike. If you think that you are struggling with emotional avoidance and a fear of vulnerability, it is likely rooted in your upbringing, and you could probably benefit from therapy. (I have seen many emotionally avoidant clients grow much more aware, via therapy, of their need for interdependent mutual caretaking in their marriage.)
When you lead with your secret desire to be taken care of instead of presenting an overview of patriarchal norms in marriage, you are not only being more open and honest with yourself and your partner, but also giving him a way to actually make you happy and feel loved. This is what men tell me they want: to make their wives actually happy and feel good, rather than just doing enough chores so that their wives do not actively seem to dislike and resent them. Just like how if you’re the lower libido wife, you would like your husband to be super happy with you in bed, rather than thinking your performance just barely squeaked you up to the baseline level of sexual performance that he expects.
Try to tell your husband, “My secret fantasy is that you take care of everything and tell me exactly where to show up and what to do.” At the very least, this could spark a more interesting conversation than telling him, “Men never figure out how many minutes it takes to get to soccer.” And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, This Post Pairs Nicely With This One.
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.