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What Is Emotional Labor, and How Does it Affect Your Marriage?

Wives and mothers often handle most, if not all, of the invisible work in their relationships. Here's how to help carry the load.

You might think that your wife has an innate ability to remember your mother’s birthday or which Friday it is that your son is performing in his school play. And you probably know plenty of other dads who have women in their lives who appear to possess some sort of organizational genius when it comes to family scheduling and household tasks. That’s because even enlightened, helpful, and considerate men have blind spots when it comes to what they think men and women are responsible for in family life.

Once, as an experiment, I stopped cleaning the bathroom sink. Eventually, I asked my partner if he’d noticed how disgusting it had gotten. He hadn’t. I also often marvel that I’m somehow the only one of us who can remember which cupboard the glass baking dishes belong in. He cooks dinner maybe once a week, but I need to give him several hours to emotionally prepare for the task and also offer suggestions of what he could cook that I would like and would not be too difficult for him.

I may sound like I’m venting. And I am a little. And everyone is different. But these little elements of managing a household, however, are kind of like tentacles on the monster of society’s broad and often unspoken expectations of nurturance from women. But here’s the thing: According to researchers, this idea that women are naturally more nurturing than men just isn’t true. It’s merely an outdated notion that society has adopted.

Many women bear the weight of not only managing their feelings but also their partners’ in order to accomplish the daily tasks. This is often referred to as “emotional labor,” or the invisible work necessary to manage households, often in spite of working outside the home as much as their partners. It’s described as the mental load of “always having to remember” in a comic about emotional work among new parents that went viral last year. Constant management of their entire families’ needs takes a toll on women and especially wives and mothers, who often grow exhausted and resentful if their partners ignore the invisible burden. If a husband finds himself asking his beleaguered wife “what can I do to help?” chances are the question came too late.

Many women bear the weight of not only managing their feelings but also their partners in order to accomplish the daily tasks that need to be accomplished. This is often referred to as “emotional labor,” or the invisible work done to manage households,

The idea that all women are born nurturers is likely a holdover from the Industrial Age, when work and home lives became separated for the first time, says Rebecca J. Erickson, Ph.D., professor of sociology at Akron University in Ohio. As work moved away from the homestead, women became the executives of sorts of the family sphere.

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“The problem is that those expectations haven’t changed since women entered the workforce,” she says. “The belief that women primarily are in charge of and accountable for the emotional climate in the home is still part of the invisible work that women do. And part of the issue about that is that it’s seen as something natural in women as opposed to something that takes time, energy, and skill.”

According to a paper published last year in the journal Sex Roles, more than 60 percent of both men and women reported that women tend to remind their partners more often about things that need to be done. Men also don’t experience the societal pressure to take charge of the family to-do list like women do, the researchers at William Paterson University and Columbia Business School also concluded. In addition, the Paterson-Columbia researchers found that men were much more likely to issue reminders about things from which they’d personally benefit, such as making sure their wives remembered their promise to buy him a new suit jacket for a work party, whereas women’s reminders were typically more selfless.

“The belief that women primarily are in charge of and accountable for the emotional climate in the home is still part of the invisible work that women do. And part of the issue about that is that it’s seen as something natural in women as opposed to something that takes time, energy, and skill.”

“It’s not that women are innately better able to remember and multitask — we were socialized this way,” says study co-author Janet Ahn, Ph.D., professor of psychology at William Paterson University. “It arose out of need. Society socializes women that we’re the ones to fulfill other people’s needs and that good girls help other people out.”

That these ideas are so deeply ingrained is precisely why many men might be surprised to hear that their partners feel they bear an unfairly heavy emotional workload in the marriage. Ahn says she hasn’t met a single woman who has told her that this dynamic doesn’t exist in her home, yet many men she meets seem defensive about her research and insist that they take on just as much organizational work in their relationships.

Men, per Ahn, often say they’re perfectly willing to help when women tell them what they need to do, for example, but don’t understand that expecting women to delegate every conceivable task is a big part of the emotional labor women are sick of typically having to do. For example, if a husband is going to the grocery store but asks his wife about what he should buy or for meal-planning, well, that’s not really helping with the emotional workload.

“The emotional tasks of running a family don’t always get defined because they’re so typically absorbed by women, and men often don’t see them as actual labor like they do with instrumental tasks, such as taking out the garbage or doing the dishes,” says Jennifer Lois, Ph.D., sociology professor at Western Washington University and author of Home is Where the School Is: The Logic of Homeschooling and the Emotional Labor of Mothering. “Women, on the other hand, are socialized throughout their lives to pay attention to relationships and the emotions of other people.”

“Men know they need to contribute with housework and childcare but often don’t understand how to have a conversation about the emotional work that needs to be done in a relationship,” 

Modern gender relationships, thankfully, are getting better. And the line between what moms and dads are responsible for is blurred. Parents can help erode gender-based stereotypes that foster unfair expectations in the next generation by being good role models, Ahn says. Kids who grow up seeing Super Mom do everything and Dad on the couch with a beer are more likely to recreate those scenarios when they grow up. So, it’s essential to not only manage the emotional workload, but also show kids that their parents truly share the work of the household and daddy doesn’t just “help out” occasionally to be nice.

One can also try to express more gratitude when their partner reminds them of tasks that need to be done and acknowledge that the completion of those tasks benefits the family. Part of that is being more mindful in your relationship, which, can be helpful in lessening your partner’s emotional load and therefore improve your marriage.

If it’s not something one normally does, they could, at some point in the evening, put their phone down and ask their partner to tell them about their day, and make an effort to really be present and listen, suggests Erickson. Such conversations aren’t about fixing problems, but letting her vent and being present, she says.

Another trick: establish a family Google calendar that both partners update – and share equal responsibility over. It can be helpful for men to see a visual representation of everything their partners have been keeping track of because it’s likely more than they realized, Ahn says. And by jotting something on a calendar, even though adding stuff does take a bit of work, outsourcing it, in a sense, removes the cognitive load of having to remember it and remind each other about it.

Ultimately, making emotional work more equitable isn’t just about making sure children are fed and toilets are clean, Erickson says. It’s about how one conveys caring for each other. 

If frustration sets in about emotional labor within a marriage, it’s because one isn’t paying attention to their partner’s needs — and this is also a better time to ask than when she’s struggling to heft a heavy box of winter clothes on a closet shelf that you’ve been stepping around for a week. You can say something like, “I want to be a more equal partner to you but don’t always know what you need from me, so I’d appreciate your help to figure out what those things are, and I’ll try to anticipate them on my own as we go on,” suggests Lois.

Ultimately, making emotional work more equitable isn’t just about making sure children are fed and toilets are clean, Erickson says. It’s about how you convey caring for each other. Ask yourself what kind of relationship you want, she suggests. Is it a partner who’s exhausted and feeling unsupported and bitter?

“Men know they need to contribute with housework and childcare but often don’t understand how to have a conversation about the emotional work that needs to be done in a relationship,” she says. “Love is supposed to come naturally, but it takes work getting outside of yourself to show care and concern for another person by being attentive.”

“Love isn’t a feeling,” she adds. “It’s a behavior.”