Does Invisible Labor Apply to Friendships, Too? We Say Yes.

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Cognitive labor, the mental load—no matter how you describe it, invisible labor is the unpaid (and unseen) project management role no one signed up for. In most cases, it applies to the household. Women tend to be the ones who keep up on the details such as school-related correspondence, making their family’s doctor’s appointments and mapping out the meal plans. But does invisible labor extend beyond our marriage and into our friendships? We asked an expert.

About the Expert

Danielle Bayard Jackson is a female friendship coach and co-host of the podcast Friend Forward, which provides research, strategies and tough-love truth to answer your biggest friendship quandaries. Jackson also has a book due out this spring called, Fighting for Our Friendships: The Science and Art of Conflict and Connection in Women’s Relationships.

1. First and Foremost, Friendship Requires Effort

Just like there’s a mental load with marriage, there’s a mental load with friendship. Initiating is probably the biggest point of contention in terms of the invisible labor attached to keeping up with our pals, says Jackson. “I often hear from people that they feel like they’re the ones reaching out and having the courage to come up with the idea of the thing to do on a Friday night and that was work for them,” she says. When that effort is one-sided, it can feel frustrating, but it’s important to remember that balance doesn’t always mean that you’re mirroring each other’s effort, Jackson adds. For example, maybe you’re the person who pitches dates to hang as well as what to do, but perhaps she offers to drive. Another example: Whenever you pick up the phone to call her (an act of initiating) for a spontaneous vent session, she always makes herself available to listen. “It’s about identifying the various ways, big and small, you both contribute and find ways to make the friendship feel reciprocal,” Jackson says.

2. It’s OK to Ask for What You Need

OK, so after a soft analysis of your friendship, you have reached the conclusion: You’re putting in 90 percent of the effort (i.e. the invisible labor required to stay in touch). It’s totally appropriate to find a thoughtful way to speak up. “This is about asking for what you need and inviting them to share the effort with you,” Jackson says. “I cannot stress enough that when it comes to hard conversations, an invitation is always more effective than an accusation.” In other words, this isn’t the moment to bark: “But I’m always doing the heavy lifting.” Instead, try something like, “I know I came up with the idea of where we could go to brunch this week, but next week, you tell me where you want to go. I’m sure you have a place on your list!” Yes, on some level, you’re delegating, but you’re also tagging them in—and quite possibly illuminating to them an unseen workload that they didn’t know you were looking for someone else to help take on.

3. How to Proceed If the Invisible Labor Becomes Too Much

There comes a point with any relationship where you have to evaluate if the juice is worth the squeeze, so to speak. “If the friendship is offering value to your life, the good outweighs the bad,” Jackson says. But if the invisible workload is creating too much of an imbalance and breeding resentment as you work overtime to put in effort to keep the friendship going, it may be worth surfacing a deeper conversation. “Some people expect a more active friendship in order to maintain ties and others are cool with checking in once a month,” Jackson says. “Before you jump to ‘Should I end this?’, it could be helpful to evaluate how each of you define friendship.”

4. One Final Point: Stay Mindful of the ‘Responsibility Bias’

It’s true: Invisible labor happens, and it doesn’t always feel fair if you are one half of a friendship managing all the logistics required to keep in touch. Speaking from my own experience, I tend to be reservation booker, the Google mapper, the timekeeper, like when we have somewhere else to be—the list goes on. But there’s also something called the ‘responsibility bias’ where we can occasionally only see the things that we do. “It’s possible to be thinking along the lines of, ‘I’m always picking her up. She never offers to pick me up,’” Jackson says. But this is where getting curious about how you each participate to make the relationship whole is imperative. In other words, the responsibility bias can lead us to look at our contributions more favorably than others and forget the alternative ways our friend is helping to keep the relationship afloat. “If a friendship is worth it, staying flexible on what effort looks like can be incredibly helpful.”

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