Emotional Labor and its Cost to Intimate Relationships

In early February, I got married. A few days later, my new husband and I were re-playing the events of the day and talking about all the little details that made our wedding special. We applauded ourselves for sharing the physical, tangible tasks of wedding planning, like picking the menu, calling the florist, and booking transportation. But, we noticed that I carried the heavy burden of all the behind-the-scenes tasks, like making sure all the to-do items were handled in a timely manner, so other, subsequent tasks weren’t affected. In a nutshell, this is emotional labor: the unseen and unrecognized acts that keep a household running, like buying toilet paper before it runs out or mailing birthday cards so they arrive on time.

As a Silver Spring couples counseling advisor, I’ve had many clients, particularly women, say that they feel burdened and stressed by the mental gymnastics of running a household. And, at the same time, they’re confused: “Why do I feel like this? My husband does a lot around the house: he puts the kids to bed, goes grocery shopping, cleans the bathroom. Maybe I’m just not handling this as well as I should.” And, just like that, these women start to feel a little crazy. That’s the thing about emotional labor: you’re doing all this extra work, and society (and sometimes, even you and your spouse) don’t see it. After some time as a Silver Spring couples therapy provider, I can say that unbalanced emotional labor is a recipe for resentment and disconnection.  If this resonates with you, how might you start to address this issue in your relationship? Here are some tips:

Acknowledge emotional labor. Take notice of all the behind-the-scenes tasks you do for your partner and your family, and applaud yourself for this work. In addition, ask your partner to recognize these tasks. In a long-term relationship, a few words of thanks and acknowledgement go a long way.   Just as you might thank your spouse for going grocery shopping and cooking, s/he should thank you for making the grocery list and doing the menu planning for the week. Both tasks are equally important, but usually only one gets acknowledged.

Discuss expectations. Not every couple desires a completely equal relationship in regards to the division of household chores, nor is this feasible for all families, depending on the age of children, work demands, etc. Resentment grows because there is an expectation (that most likely was not discussed) that one partner would do the behind-the-scenes tasks, and not necessarily because emotional labor is divided unfairly. Sit down with your partner one weekend and talk about the tasks of emotional labor. How do you want to divide them? What makes sense for your family today? Expect to adjust your expectations monthly, or daily, depending on what life throws your way.  If you need tools to help facilitate this discussion, consider the couples counseling Silver Spring, MD trusts.

Identify domains of responsibility. There are many ways to solve the problem of unbalanced emotional labor. One strategy that I have found effective is that each partner is the CEO of a particular task. For example, I am the CEO of laundry, and my husband is the CEO of dishes. I do laundry on my own timeline, and he does the dishes on his timeline. No one is managing the other, and both jobs are getting done. If your partner does his/her task differently than you would, let it go.   Practice managing the anxiety that comes when things aren’t done a certain way and remember what you are gaining in the process: freedom from the burden of emotional labor.

Come see us for couples therapy in Bethesda, MD if the resentment keeps growing, you feel disconnected from your partner, or you just can’t find a way to talk about the difficult things in your relationship.

Phone: MD: 240-752-7650

Phone: VA: 703-372-9448

4905 Del Ray Avenue, Suite 301
Bethesda, MD 20814