Why Does Emotional Labor Matter to Your Relationship?

Understanding the concept of emotional labor has changed my life and my marriage for the better. In her viral piece for Harper’s Bazaar, Gemma Hartley describes emotional labor as the unpaid work women are doing every day — in their home, in their relationships, and even in their place of work. At face value, emotional labor isn’t a bad thing. Keeping track of appointments, knowing who needs clothing at the beginning of a new season, and paying attention to when the diaper box is nearly empty are all things that have to been done in a family.

The problem arises when the distribution of this unseen work is uneven in a relationship, and it often is. Women typically bear a heavier emotional load.

Hartley is a friend. I anxiously waited for “Fed Up,” her book on the same topic, to be released. As I’ve been making my way through the book, it has further informed my view of my relationship and how I approach the issue of emotional labor in my marriage. My husband and I have come a long way towards a more equitable division of responsibility and her writing has given me hope for more progress in our relationship.

One nagging question that keeps popping up for me, however, is about the past. I can’t help but wonder what would have been different if my partner and I had better understood emotional labor long before we tied the knot. I can’t help but believe it would have been an important and helpful concept during the beginning of our relationship.

Emotional labor and new relationships

In my own relationship and the relationships of many of my friends, the reality of emotional labor wasn’t obvious for a long time. Specifically, it didn’t really pop up as an issue until we were responsible for a home or children.

That doesn’t mean that emotional labor didn’t exist, it just wasn’t obvious. Had I been more aware, I likely would have noticed that, when it came to planning dates or talking about the future, the scales of emotional labor weren’t exactly even.

Understanding emotional labor is important to new relationships. Knowing that there are many responsibilities that tend to be left to the woman in a relationship allows new couples to observe their own patterns, make adjustments, and better communicate about how labor will be divided between them as their relationship progresses.

How does emotional labor show up in new relationships?

Thinking back to when my husband and I were first dating, I tried to think about ways emotional labor was showing up, even early on. Here are a few questions to help you assess how you and your significant other are splitting up the work of caring for your new relationship.

  • Who most often plans dates? Is there one person in the relationship who is typically responsible for deciding on date night activities, picking a restaurant, and making dates happen? If that person stops planning dates, will they still happen?
  • Who is most likely to notice and address the places in the relationship that need work? If that person stops pointing out areas of improvement, will honest conversations about opportunities for growth still happen?
  • Does one person often make compromises to keep the peace? If there is tension in a relationship or someone is in a bad mood, is there one person who tends to orient their decisions around avoiding conflict or cheering that person up?

Who does most of the emotional labor in your relationship?

Moving forward in fairness

Even if you don’t feel overwhelmed or taken advantage of in your new relationship, if you are bearing the majority of the emotional labor now, it is likely to become a problem later. These habits may very well be indications of how emotional labor will be divided as the relationship progresses and responsibilities increase. In my own relationship, things like planning dates morphed into planning family holidays and caring for the needs of our children as our relationship aged.

So what should you do if you discover that there’s a serious inequity in the division of emotional labor in your new relationship? Start by talking to your partner about it! This is an issue that is ingrained in our culture, tied heavily to gender norms and isn’t disappearing anytime soon. Prepare yourself to have repeated conversations about how both parties can work to more evenly divide the work.

Education is another great starting point. Both members of the relationship could benefit greatly from reading about emotional labor, understanding it, and talking about it.

The final options is to walk away. I know, that has to sound extreme to someone in a new relationship, but I absolutely believe there are times when the way emotional labor is divided in a new relationship is reason enough to end it. If your partner isn’t willing to check in, to bear the emotional load of managing your partnership, and do the hard work of learning about emotional labor and how it impacts you, it isn’t going to just get better. Be honest with yourself about what a life with this person could be like.

In the hustle and bustle of family life, taking the time to talk about emotional labor and my partner’s willingness to make big changes have been essential to a healthier and happier marriage.

Originally published on February 13, 2019.

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Mary is a writer living in the Midwest with her young children and husband. She enjoys writing about parenting, personal growth and food.