Unless you’ve been offline for the last decade (if so, welcome back!) you’ve probably encountered one of the hundreds of articles, books, and even comics discussing the concept of emotional labor in relationships. But actually talking about emotional labor with your partner in a way that doesn’t devolve into blame and defensiveness — and, most importantly, actually creates change in the balance of emotional labor in your relationship — can be a lot trickier. Maybe you’ve tried to raise it or maybe you’ve just been slowly simmering with ever-growing annoyance about the imbalance. So how do you talk about emotional labor with your partner?
It could be easy to get lost in the mountain of information about emotional labor. Just in the past five years, there has been Emma’s The Mental Load: A Feminist Comic (2018), Gemma Hartley’s Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward (2018), Eve Rodsky’s Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live) (2019), and Darcy Lockman’s All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of the Equal Partnership. Articles have examined the disproportionate amount of emotional labor expected during pregnancy, from stay-at-home moms, and during the quarantine period brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. You could read hundreds of pages about the problem, but, let’s face it, you might not have time, particularly if you’re doing all the emotional labor for your family. This article boils down a lot of this information to give you some straightforward tools to approach a conversation about emotional labor with your partner.
What is emotional labor?
“Emotional labor” is a term originally coined by Arlie Russell Hochschild in the book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Hocshchild used the term to refer to, among other things, the smile that a flight attendant pastes on when you’re boarding the plane, or the way a restaurant hostess acts excited to see you when you walk in. But the term has morphed somewhat into the way it’s commonly used: Today, when discussing “emotional labor” in the home, it’s referring to a concept that’s also referred to as the “invisible workload” or “the mental load;” in short, the endless work that keeps children cared for and households running smoothly. In Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, Gemma Hartley writes that emotional labor is “emotion management and life management combined... it’s the unpaid, invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy.”
In the field, there’s some disagreement about the right phrase for the phenomenon. Kate Mangino, an expert on gender dynamics and author of Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality in the Home, discusses the concept of emotional labor using a different phrase. “Emotional is a word coded for women, and it has a negative connotation. I don’t think it actually describes what you’re doing,” Mangino tells Romper. “It’s really project management... and you’ve got a hundred projects going on at any given time. It’s not always doing laundry or cooking dinner — it’s anticipating, it’s thinking, it’s evaluating, it’s researching — it really is a cognitive process.” Mangino uses the phrase "cognitive labor," coined by the sociologist Allison Daminger, to describe this kind of work.
Disproportionately, in opposite sex couples, this work falls to women. And yet, Mangino notes, it’s not that same-sex or queer couples don’t have imbalances in this arena: “We have data to tell us that same-sex couples tend to be more equal than different-sex couples. But even in same-sex or queer couples, one person tends to have expertise in working and earning, and one person has expertise in a domestic space. These historical gender roles are impacting our life, regardless of how you identify.”
What are some examples of emotional labor?
In every book or article on the topic, there’s never just one example of emotional labor. One central truth about emotional labor is that it is not just one thing, it is all the things. For instance:
- The cover of Darcy Lockman’s book is itself a list of the kinds of tasks that constitute emotional labor: “money for field trip, make doctor’s appointment, schedule playdate.”
- Eve Rodsky writes in Fair Play that this kind of labor included “emailing Zach’s teacher about an upcoming field trip, lining up weekend playdates, scheduling the babysitter, registering for mommy-and-me swim classes, and negotiating the cell phone bill.”
- Mangino shares a similar list: “It’s being acutely aware of ‘oh, my kid’s pants are little bit too short, I need to start ordering new pants or these aren’t going to fit in a month’ or ‘he’s not eating rice anymore, so maybe we should try to switch to pasta’ or ‘I know that there’s a day off from school at the end of the month — how am I going to handle that? Am I going to ask friends to watch him, and I going to take the day off work?’”
A core part of the definition of emotional labor is that it’s disparate tasks and that it’s never finished — as soon as you’re done scheduling the visit to the pediatrician, it’s time to figure out when the kids need to see the dentist and who’s going to take them. One-by-one, the tasks aren’t a huge deal: put together, they’re an exhausting drain that steals time, peace, income, and happiness.
How can you talk to your partner about emotional labor?
Step one: Recognize the problem as systemic
First, blame the patriarchy. (Really!) It’s easy to get caught up in anger and resentment at your particular partner, and at the unfairness in your particular household. But if you’re a woman partnered with a man — and even if you’re not — this pattern is too pervasive to be completely the fault of the individual. Women are socialized from a very young age to perform emotional labor, and men aren’t. Fighting to change that pattern is fighting against a lot of very baked-in systems, that even today haven’t changed all that much (how many schools only send emails about bake sales to the mom rather than to both parents?).
Which doesn’t mean you can’t be mad. It is infuriating, and exhausting, to live in a country that values domestic work so little. One of Eve Rodsky’s most famous lines notes the difference in how our society treats men’s and women’s time: “Society views women’s time as infinite, like sand, and and it views men’s time as finite, like diamonds.” It’s hard not to read a line like that, recognize its truth, and not feel rage. And yet, starting a conversation when you’re so angry that you can’t speak (or can only scream “You never do anything!”) rarely makes for a productive talk.
Mangino suggests that couples try to “[t]ake it away from the personal — it’s not about what ‘you’re doing wrong, and here's what I’m expecting' — it’s looking at patterns.”
Step two: Set a time to have an ongoing conversation
A problem this pervasive is also not going to be fixed with just one conversation. “I think you have to have a series — and when I say a series, I pretty much mean for the rest of your life. You say ‘this is something we both value, and we’re going to commit to working at it for the life of our relationship,’” Mangino explains. “Some couples like to have a Sunday night check-in, a monthly check-in... some use car rides, or walks. You have to decide together, ‘when are we most comfortable talking about this stuff, and when are we at our most resilient and our most relaxed so we can talk about this without getting defensive.' And agree on when you’re going to talk about it, and stick to it.”
Step three: Agree upon what needs to happen and what can fall off the list
Part of what needs to happen in those conversations is a discussion of values — both your own individual ones, and the ones you want to hold as a family. There are, Mangino observes, an endless number of things modern parenting culture (an our social media feeds) suggests we need to value: “perfect Halloween costume, great Valentines for the exchange, an outfit for Wacky Wednesday.” Step back and think about what you actually value versus what you’re being told to value.
There’s no right answer to what you do and don’t value. And, as with all things in a relationship, there’s necessarily going to be some compromise. Mangino suggests that couples “agree to some sort of quality: one person has to give a little, one person has to step up a little. If someone cooks the dinner, can it always be buttered pasta or does there need to be a vegetable?” Getting on the same page with both what labor needs to be done, and what it would look like to truly share that labor, is a crucial part of the conversation.
Does emotional labor look different in marriages?
In the forty couples Mangino studied, she did not find a meaningful difference in couples that were married and those that weren’t. What she did find, however, was that emotional labor is the hardest to balance for couples who have young kids. When there aren’t young kids at home, there’s simply less to do: Young children exponentially add to the mountainous to-do lists, and make free time a scarcer commodity for both partners.
Modern family life is too much for one person to take on. The good news is that equal partnerships do exist — Mangino’s book includes 40 of them — and though she knows that equal partnerships may currently be an exception "it is important to elevate and share these stories and normalize this behavior." Talking with your partner about emotional labor isn’t easy, but then again, neither is doing all the emotional or cognitive labor. Recognizing the systemic nature of the problem, committing to an ongoing conversation, and figuring out your family’s values can all help create a better balance for you and your family.
Kate Mangino, Ph.D., MPA, lead facilitator for Counterpart’s Global Women in Management program and expert on gender dynamics, author of Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality in the Home,