What is Emotional Labour?
From the small things (thinking about what to have for dinner tonight), to the urgent things (paying the gas bill), to the downright ridiculous things (sending a birthday card to your partner’s grandmother’s neighbour), many of us are au fait with emotional labour
It can mean many things to different people but, for me, emotional labour sums up all of the ‘weight’ in a relationship; things that need to be done, things we need to remember. Things that, if we don’t do them, who will?
While emotional labour can affect anyone, it’s typically thought of as a women’s issue, and has become a popular way of talking about housework and life admin. Certainly, even in this modern age, it seems that women take on much of the necessary work in running a household. In fact, a 2016 study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), found that, when it comes to cooking, childcare and housework, women in the UK are responsible for 60% more unpaid work than men. That isn’t just the odd chore here or there.
But, that isn’t the full story of emotional labour. The term was first used in 1983, by American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in her book, The Managed Heart. Hochschild described emotional labour as having to “induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others”. In other words, emotional labour is when we pretend to be happy when we’re not.
So, which of these descriptions is right? Or do they both have an element of truth?
We can all handle varying amounts of stress and responsibility as individuals. The problem with emotional labour is that it comes not from the amount of responsibility that one person takes on within the relationship, but from the perceived burden this causes them to feel. So, it’s not necessarily about having responsibilities shared equally between those in the relationship – there’s more to it than that.
Yes, it’s incredibly stressful to take responsibility for someone else. To remember everything that needs to be done, never mind actually doing it, can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.
Relationship counsellor Laurele Mitchell says: “A perceived difference in the division of emotional labour within a relationship, romantic or otherwise, can have a negative impact both on the relationship and on our mental health. It can be a one-way ticket to passive aggression and resentment, and, frankly, it’s exhausting and unnecessary to subjugate our own needs in order to take responsibility for someone else’s.”
Have you ever felt unappreciated for the things you do in your relationship? Or maybe you wish your partner noticed some of the jobs that need doing around the house? Or are you fed up of being the one to come up with ideas for date nights?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, I bet you know all too well the toll emotional labour can take.
How can we avoid emotional labour?
The important thing to remember is that, although it might seem it, emotional labour isn’t one-sided – and it’s got nothing to do with the amount of love or trust in your relationship. But, the same thing that causes it can also help you to overcome it: communication.
So, no, not even a shared to-do list really appeases the fundamental problem with emotional labour. If one person is ‘in charge’ of writing things on the list, it assumes that they are the ‘manager of the chores’. Trust me, I’ve tried it. And, although striking up a conversation about housework or chores can often be the catalyst for an argument, talking to your partner really is the only way to appease emotional labour for good.
How do you address emotional labour with your partner?
The key is to do this sensitively and respectfully. If a perceived lack of support is taken too personally, and is not clearly communicated, it runs the risk of damaging the relationship – especially if your partner is unaware that there is a problem.
When opening up the conversation, avoid using blaming, accusatory language if you can – I know the housework can be a bone of contention, but you’ll do yourself a favour by remaining calm. Instead, focus on communicating your thoughts and feelings.
“Own what you say with ‘I feel’ rather than ‘you are’ statements,” Laurele says. “You’re less likely to make someone defensive, and more likely to hear the other person’s point of view.”
To help illustrate your points, try to identify and discuss the current division of emotional labour in your relationship. By collaborating and trying to make compromises, you can decide who does what – ensuring that you’re both happy with your collective responsibilities.
Laurele explains: “Shared responsibility for everything may be the way forward. Or you may agree that one takes responsibility for the housework, and the other the finances. Either way, play to your strengths and check in with one another regularly.”
We all know communication is key in any relationship, but life can get in the way sometimes. However you do it, the key is to talk through the changes that will help both of you. So pick an appropriate time, and share how you’re really feeling with your loved one – your relationship and emotional wellbeing will be better for it.