Shouldering the Burden: Emotional Labor in Relationships

Happy Labor Day!

Anyone who reads my pieces has probably realized that I really like to write federal holiday-themed pieces, and today is no exception. The kind of labor that we’re celebrating today happens to be mostly of the physical kind, but there’s an equally important type that often goes unnoticed— emotional labor.

Emotional labor is defined as “the mental activity required to manage or perform the routine tasks necessary for maintaining relationships and ensuring smooth running of a household or process.

The term was originally used to describe emotional labor only in the workplace. However, it has since merged with the concept of personal emotional labor (also known as “emotion work”), so now the term encompasses all types and circumstances of emotional labor.

And this is a good thing, because our emotional lives aren’t usually delineated based on where we are or what we’re doing. True emotional labor can occur anywhere, and in any context. Today, however, we’ll talk about emotional labor in the context of romantic relationships (since that is our forte).

Emotional labor in romantic relationships can involve expectations of household management (including childcare), discussion initiation, conflict resolution, and more. Obviously, these are unavoidable aspects of healthy relationships that are ideally handled equally by everyone involved. 

Unfortunately, there are always circumstances where one partner ends up taking on way more emotional labor than the other (and at least in heteronormative relationships, the more “feminine” partner is more likely to be that one partner). Some signs that you’re burning out from heavy emotional labor expectations are constant worrying, pressure, resentment, exhaustion, anger, and/or unappreciated work. 

All relationships involve a lot of emotional labor, but it’s important that both partners feel they are contributing fair amounts. It’s easy to take emotional labor for granted, but it will hurt your relationship in the long run if you’re not careful. If you’re in a relationship yourself, take some time to assess your and your partners’ emotional labor levels and try to level the playing field if one of you has been consistently putting more work in than the other.