What Is Emotional Labor in Relationships (and How Can You Balance All Those Little Tasks to Avoid Built-Up Resentment)?

emotional labor in relationships

Being in a relationship can be amazing: You and your partner love each other, you support each other and you’re on the same page about the major issues. But what about the little, everyday disagreements about who’s going to empty the dishwasher, who’s going to get the kids from school to band practice and dance rehearsal, et cetera. Those tussles often come down to an imbalance in emotional labor. Read on for more on what emotional labor in relationships looks like, plus six effective ways to balance it out.

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What Is Emotional Labor?

The term emotional labor was first coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book on the topic, The Managed HeartHochschild’s initial definition referred to the work of managing one’s own emotions that was required by certain professions. Flight attendants, for example, are expected to smile and be friendly even in stressful situations. That’s emotional labor. But the term has come to apply to matters outside of the workplace. In contemporary usage, emotional labor is more often used to describe labor that takes place in the domestic sphere, and which is needed to keep a household running smoothly. When one partner is doing more of this work—cleaning the house, managing children’s schedules, sending holiday cards to relatives, bringing groceries to an elderly parent, and more—than the other, it can easily lead to resentment and discord.

That’s not to say it applies to all household chores. Asked by The Atlantic whether it’s emotional labor to be the person in a couple who always RSVPs to party invites, and makes sure you call your family members often enough, and remembering birthdays, she noted, “Not inherently. It can be, if you’re feeling that burdened and resentful and you’re managing your resentment.”

How to Balance Emotional Labor in a Relationship

1. Understand You and Your Partner’s Dynamic

The first step in solving a problem, regardless of the type of problem, is defining it. In heterosexual partnerships, the emotional labor often falls to women, who have generally been conditioned and socialized to take on the emotional lives of others. But what about same-sex couples or heterosexual couples in which the lion share of emotional labor falls onto the man? An imbalance of emotional labor doesn’t always fall along gendered lines, but defining you and your partner’s dynamic is crucial nonetheless. Think critically about who’s doing the majority of work around the house. Acknowledging an imbalance is necessary to fixing it.

2. Talk About It

For any change to be made, you and your partner have to be on the same page. But how do you go about having this potentially tough conversation? Per Erin Wiley, a marriage counselor and executive director of The Willow Center, this is where a “soft startup” should come into play. Coined by the Gottman Institute, it’s the idea that an argument ends the same way it begins, so if you enter into it full of accusations and negativity, it won’t end well. “Basically, you want to complain without any blame,” she says. “Focus on the facts.” For the dishwasher example, you could say: ‘I feel overwhelmed when you look at me while I’m doing this because it makes me feel like I’m being judged.’ This is much more productive than saying, ‘If you look over at me one more time, I will never load this dishwasher again.’ Your goal should be to lodge a complaint but remove any overt criticism or negative tone. 

You also need to realize that this isn’t a one-time conversation, which is where periodic check-ins come in handy. Once you’ve come up with a more equitable approach to labor, set up a quick check-in (this can be, like, ten minutes a week or every other week) to talk about whether or not you’re both feeling good about the division of work. Taking your emotional labor temperature on the regular is a great way to spot and remedy small issues before they have the chance to become bigger problems.

3. Make Invisible Labor Visible

Coined in a 1987 article by sociologist Arlene Daniels, invisible labor refers to unpaid work that goes unnoticed, unacknowledged and thus, unregulated. In heterosexual partnerships, women are often tasked with these unnoticed tasks, meaning that the sheer amount of work being done might not even be realized by the man in the relationship. If you feel like your partner doesn’t even realize how much you’re doing, consider sitting down and listing all the things that need to be done for your household to run smoothly, and take note of which partner is responsible for each task. Seeing a physical list can be eye-opening for both of you: You might be so used to doing everything that you don’t actually realize how much of the work is falling on your shoulders, and your partner might not understand just how much it takes to organize your home and lives.

4. Focus on Changing Yourself

In an ideal world, when your partner realizes the imbalance in emotional labor, they’ll be receptive to that information and make an effort to balance things out. But here’s the thing: even if your partner is unable or unwilling to compromise on these tasks, you can still change. Dr. Candice Hargons, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky and a licensed psychologist, told The New York Times, “The beauty of couple dynamics is that if one person changes, the couple has changed. If the person taking on the emotional labor attends individual therapy and learns to relinquish some of the responsibility for emotional labor, the other partner has the choice to move on to another partner or begin attending to their emotional needs and the needs of the family differently.”

5. Remember That Your Partner Isn’t a Mind Reader

Especially when it comes to invisible labor, it’s important to recognize that your partner might be completely oblivious to the amount of work you’re doing, meaning their apparent refusal to help is rooted in cluelessness rather than malice. Per neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez, "We tend to send signals to our partner that their actions are not making us happy, but the signals are vague, passive-aggressive and do not account for the fact that your partner’s radar might not even be reading into your signals.” So chances are those subtle sighs, eye-rolls and mutterings under your breath are either confusing your partner or going completely unnoticed.

Instead, Hafeez suggests taking one of these phrases out for a spin the next time your S.O. neglects to help out:

  1. “It makes me feel like I don’t have someone to count on for the little things.”
  2. “I want you to keep your word when you say you’ll do something. It is overwhelming when I have to do more things than I should.”

Here’s why these phrases work: You’re openly expressing your expectations and how it makes you feel when they aren’t met. “It is completely valid for your partner to not prioritize the same things you do, especially details and chores,” Hafeez explains. “But the point of being in a relationship is learning to compromise, validate and contribute to improving the things that concern your partner.”

6. Provide Positive Feedback for Positive Change

Let’s say your partner was open to taking on more emotional labor. Even if you feel like your partnership should’ve been more equal a long time ago, it’s important to recognize the positive changes your partner has made. Everyone likes to feel appreciated, but being in a long-term relationship can mean you start taking each other for granted. A study published in the journal Personal Relationships found that gratitude is key to a healthy and successful marriage. In fact, researchers found that the simple act of saying “thank you” to your partner regularly can be powerful enough to protect a couple’s divorce proneness.

The Bottom Line

For many folks, taking on the bulk of the emotional labor at home can be exhausting both physically and mentally. But luckily, changing the dynamic between the work you and your partner do isn’t all that hard. From acknowledging the inequality to setting up occasional check-ins to make sure you’re maintaining an equitable share of chores, balancing emotional labor in your relationship is a necessary step to ensuring both your and your partner’s happiness.

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sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...