Couples: Why You Need to Start Talking About Emotional Labor and How it Affects Your Relationship.

I had no clue that there was even a term for it until last year when I started doing more research about it for one of my clients and came across this cartoon on mental load called  “You Should Have Asked” 

It really struck a chord deep inside.

After further investigation I came across the term “emotional labor” which referred to the invisible unpaid caring, that goes largely unnoticed, but is vital for relationships to function and others well-being.   My colleagues and peers that I have discussed this with largely agree, that understanding and tackling emotional labor in couples sessions and in life is necessary to increasing relationship satisfaction.

If you are the one person doing the bulk of emotional labor it can affect your relationship negatively, fuel the harboring of deep resentments, make you feel crazy, suck the life out of you, make you feel helpless, and steal your relationship joy.  I’m going to even dare to dub it the ‘silent relationship killer’. It is the reason many women live most of their lives (even whilst having loving spouses) feeling tired, drained, aggravated, annoyed, and unsatisfied. Emotional labor and mental load is largely described as “women’s work” & sounds a LOT like parenting.  It’s something worth knowing about and talking about for all around healthier relationships, and c’mon that’s everybody’s goal really.

I will let fellow therapist Christine Hutchinson speak for me when she says in her article Why Women Are Tired: The Price of Unpaid Emotional Labor :

As a feminist who strives towards intersectionality, I try not to split everything into female = oppressed and male = oppressor categories. The white female university professor is usually better off than the Latino migrant farm worker, and the clothes she purchases at Banana Republic impact the quality of life of men (and women) across the globe. The cisgender woman is almost always safer and taken more seriously than the transgender one. We don’t live in a binary world, and feminism must always look for the shades of gray.

But some patterns between men and women are hard to ignore, especially when they play out in your office (and in your own life) day after day.

And I do hear it, literally every day, both on the therapy couch and in coffee shops and parks where I sit with my own friends on weekends.

“I’m trying not to be that girl who wonders why he’s not texting back, but WHY IS HE NOT TEXTING BACK?”

“He’s a good partner, we share housework and childcare, but it’s still me who’s doing the scheduling and planning. And if I tell him I’m tired of it he just says, ‘Well then don’t do it, we’ll figure it out.’ But we won’t figure it out unless someone figures it out! So I end up figuring it out again.”

In chatting with my own friends about it similar echos rang true with all of them.  Amongst them, highly educated, high-powered career women, business owners, artist/creative entrepeneurs, dancers, full-time students, Stay at home Moms, Self proclaimed “Desperate Housewives”, restaurant manager, and feminists.  These women are smart, classy, fun, beautiful and have their shit together. Yet I heard “Sometimes I come home from work, start dinner, and I just want to cry.”  “I’m so overwhelmed sometimes it’s paralyzing and I just breakdown”.  “I go for the wine bottle and it scares me how often it happens”.  “I can tell my husband feels terrible when he sees me breaking down and he’ll just say “I didn’t know, you didn’t say anything”.

Many of them feel some sense of shame about it because admitting out loud would finally mean that alas they actually don’t have their shit together.  Take *Charlotte a business owner she just cannot understand why her and her live in man get into such dumb interactions seemingly about housework but it’s confusingly much deeper than chores. “He’s a great guy, a feminist ally even, I know he means well but I cannot help but cut eyes at him when I am struggling carrying in all the groceries, running around trying to make a delicious healthy dinner, and he’s on the couch leisurely playing video games. Then I have to remind him, ‘hey did you call Bill and Sue to touch base about this weekend?’, “can you email me so I don’t forget?” is his reply.  Then in the midst of making dinner I remember “did we make any plans for Valentines Day weekend?” (HINT) to his reply being “no, not yet let me see if I have a game”.  Also “don’t forget to thank your mom for the package she sent us” to his reply “oh, ok” all the while never looking up from his video game. When he finally comes over to grab my waist and give me a kiss, I go cold.  It happens every time.  Eventually we get into a whole argument about “whats wrong?”,  I say “nothing …blah blah blah”….and it comes out that I really would have appreciated his help and more acknowledgement to where his reply is almost always, “you should have asked”….it makes me mental.”

Or take *Melissa.  She is housewife extraordinaire.  She keeps a squeaky clean Pottery Barn decorated home, makes pinterest crafts with her kids, children always dressed fashionably, gourmet meals prepared from scratch for dinner, loving married relationship, Masters Degree, funny, sexy,  I mean what can’t this woman do or be? She does EVERYTHING, she also foresee’s every possible future outcome for every situation and plans accordingly for every family member including her husband and  she makes it look easy.   However, inside she is withdrawn and doubtful she can go on like this for much longer.  She tearfully confesses that the past “2 years have been really rough” for her, and they started couples therapy a few months ago. Why? Mostly because her mental load is maxed out and she isn’t sure what to do about it, and her emotional load is over capacity. In an effort to delegate and disperse chores to her husband who willingly asks “what can I do to help?” She will send him to the grocery store- “I’ll make him a list in the exact order of the food store aisles, with the exact name on the label, and he still will call me seven times to double-check on something, which I can’t understand because after 12 years together we have been eating the same damn things, and then still come home with the wrong shit. Then he’ll say it wasn’t written exactly like the label so wants to double check again so after the 15th phone call I stop answering because I’m annoyed, then he comes home mad that I didn’t answer, it turns into a big fight….and after all of that… it’s easier if I just do it myself”.

These are only a few of the many examples.  And nobody is immune to the slow growing fungus that is emotional labor and mental load as it infilitrates your relationships, as it has definitely played out in my own marriage as well. An excellent article that I feel every woman and men that love them need to read illustrates this perfectly is by Gemma Hartley, called “Women Aren’t Nags-We’re Just Fed Up”.

All of this researching got me thinking WHY does this happen? WHY so many similar stories amongst women?  Even those who are in loving relationships with men who are supportive, and supposedly on board with helping? What about the “feminine” and “masculine” roles we play? What about relationships where traditional gender roles don’t define their relationship?

Are women just naturally better at chores and emotions? Are our brains “wired” differently to manage emotional laboring?  Is our social conditioning that strong?

I’m actually not so sure, and the verdict is not as black and white as you would think. Stated in the scientific findings in Girl Brain, Boy Brain .

Yes, men and women are psychologically different and yes, neuroscientists are uncovering many differences in brain anatomy and physiology which seem to explain our behavioral differences. But just because a difference is biological doesn’t mean it is “hard-wired.”

You see, I think a lot of it is practice.  Practice is what helps hard wire the brain.

Women and girls have SO MUCH MORE practice than men at this. As a matter of fact it is found that girls spend 160 million more hours on chores than boys across the globe.  Chores have a lot to do with anticipating the needs of others. The need for clean clothes, food to eat, an organized home etc. Anticipating the needs of others has a high emotional intelligence aspect to it.  You are in tune with what others need to feel happy, move forward, and function well. That’s a lot of unpaid, undervalued time doing things that take away from actual paid labor! Like the seven and a half hours I spent researching a new Dr.’s for my daughter…I did not get paid for that, and I still had to work to make money.

I’ve heard it from almost all of the frustrated women I spoke to, and thought about it myself, So what now? How do we change this? What do we do? Are we just stuck here?

Many times we are so fed up with the fact that no one is acknowledging the work we are doing and there feels like there is no way to change it so a fight begins.  It could also be said that it’s difficult for men to admit that they have been more on the “probem” side than the “solution” side and that is not easy to come to grips with.  Confronting emotional labor as a topic for discussion can dredged up feelings of guilt and inadequacy causing defensiveness.  Just be aware, ego’s are a real thing, and egos can get hurt.  However, as many therapists will tell you therein lies the breakthrough.  It worth the pain.

So when we ask someone unpracticed (men) to “help” they are like 3rd graders trying to do skills of PhD level lifetime professional with over 20-30 years of experience…it’s undoubtedly going to be awkward.

4 Ways Men Can Take on More Emotional Labor

Oh, and I’m sure there will be kickback, there always is. Some replies I have heard from clients and friends male counterparts:

“Just stop doing that stuff if you hate it so much”…the problem is that it is necessary for the relationship to survive.

“You (meaning women) are just so much better at it.”….true, but you obviously could use much more practice.

“I wasn’t raised that way” also known as the “my mom did everything for me” – again a perfect place to inject a little practice.

“My brain just doesn’t work that way” – sounds so sophisticated, may be slighty true,  however science has proven that experiences can change the brain so let’s have you actually experience what it’s like to set your own Iphone reminder to check on your sick brother.  See how that works?

So ladies it may be time to relinquish the reigns, a bit.  These guys are fully capable, smart, caring humans, many of them summa cum laude of their Universities, great involved fathers, beautiful, able minded men.  I see them excelling at their careers. They can.do. it.  Personally, I am guilty myself of sometimes “Babying” men, and while cute and culturally learned/appropriate at times, it is not helping the health and satisfaction in our relationships, and it’s hurting in the longrun. I don’t want my daughter to do the same so I’m saying that the buck stops here.

I will follow up blog on my couples I’m checking in with on how their discussions of mental load and emotional laboring go, and I have some great checklists for you all, so check back.

Please share this with the men in your life and start the conversation if you feel called to, and if you are a man reading this because a woman shared it with you, don’t take it as an affront to you as a person.  We are all in this together, seeking solutions.  Have any bright ideas on where to go from here or how to take more accountability, please share!  I’d love to hear from you.

*names have been changed

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