There are a million obvious things that will damage or kill a relationship – problems with money, not seeing eye to eye on how to raise children, differences in religion. However, there is one huge, yet subtle, mistake many people are making every day in their relationship: not picking up enough of the emotional labor.
This is one of more insidious relationship-killers out there, because generally one partner will think everything’s fine and the other will struggle to explain what exactly isn’t fine about everything. This continues until the second partner has had enough and leaves or blows up at the first partner, leaving no one happy and both confused.
Read on to make sure your relationship doesn’t face this fate.
What is Emotional Labor?
Let’s go ahead and define the term. There are a few ways to define emotional labor (and a few contexts it can be defined in), but I think the easiest is by examples. Ask yourself:
- Who in our household notices that the trash needs to be emptied, the laundry needs to be folded, or the dog needs to be fed?
- Which one of us remembers to get presents or cards ahead of special events?
- Does only one of us have a “calendar” in their head of all of our upcoming obligations, or is only one of us responsible for making fun plans or planning vacations?
- Is one of us better at recognizing when the other is having a bad day and go above and beyond when necessary?
It is common, when reading about emotional labor, to hear about scenarios where women are shouldering the majority of the burden. However, there are plenty of relationships where men are shouldering it instead.
Why is any of that stuff important anyway?
If you read the above list and wondered “Well, sure, my partner notices all that stuff, but I don’t understand why – it’s not that important,” then you may not be taking on an equal share of the emotional labor in the relationship.
The truth is, someone has to take care of many of those things or something suffers – maybe an appointment gets missed or a relative feels hurt or forgotten. Maybe you get bugs in the house. Whatever the consequence is – it will happen. And, in scenarios where one partner carries the majority of the emotional labor, they will likely be the one cleaning up the mess after the consequence hits (because, of course, the other partner won’t understand why the consequence is such a big deal), and the cycle will continue.
How do I get better at this?
Okay, so now you suspect that you may not be pulling your emotional labor weight in your relationship. What do you do now? First of all, you should start by trying to think of times you felt like your partner was “nagging” you or getting worked up over something you thought was silly. You will likely find one or two things that you can improve.
Can’t think of anything? The next best step is to talk to your partner. It can be as simple as “I want to help out around the house more, can we talk about what chores need to be done?” Here’s the most important part though – once a chore is deemed “yours” you need to do it at whatever schedule you committed to. If it’s something that can’t be done at specific intervals (taking out the trash, maybe), set a reminder on your phone to check on it at least once or twice a day. If it needs to get done, get it done.
If you want to surprise your partner or just make some quick improvements, try:
- Making sure you’re prepared for any birthdays, anniversaries, etc coming up in the next 1-2 months. Many presents can be bought far in advance, so there’s no harm in buying early and hiding it in the house. We have some great gift guides available if you need ideas!
- Before you go to work or after you get home, try checking on the following: counters (are they dirty?), dishes (do they need to be put in or taken out of the dishwasher?), and trash/recycling (is it full?). Generally, these are all fairly easy tasks to complete and it can really brighten someone’s day to find out they’re done!
- Plan a special date night for your partner. Need ideas? Not a great planner? Worried you’ll be stuck in the dinner and movie rut? We’re here for you!
Here are some more articles about emotional labor. Remember that, though many of these articles refer to women as being the sole bearers of emotional labor, that may not be true in all cases.
- Why Woman Are Tired, The Unpaid Price of Emotional Labor – Huffington Post article about the experience of a therapist discussing emotional labor with their clients.
- She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink – blog post by someone who wasn’t pulling their emotional labor weight, and realized a little too late.
- A Guy’s Guide to Emotional Labor – an article with more information about emotional labor and why it’s important