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Understanding Emotional Labor Is Key to a Happy Marriage

In every relationship, there's a lot of invisible work that goes unnoticed. Recognizing it and working to avoid any imbalances that might arise is essential to a healthy marriage.

In 2017, Gemma Hartley wrote an article for Vanity Fair titled “Women Aren’t Nags— We’re Just Fed Up.”  It detailed her deep frustration about how she had to handle the bulk of the mental and emotional management required to keep her household, her marriage, and her family’s lives running smoothly. She kept track of calendars. She thought about what to make for dinner and what to buy at the grocery store. She took charge of mostly everything. Her husband only helped with that work when she asked him to. On Mother’s Day, her frustration culminated in a tear-filled argument with her husband that involved a roll of wrapping paper and a reluctance to hire a bathroom cleaning service. At its core, Hartley realized, the fight was about the invisible labor that takes place in a relationship and how the pressure from it builds and builds until arguments ensue.

Hartley’s article went viral. Many women nodded in agreement. Many men rolled their eyes. And it helped bring the concept of “emotional labor”, the invisible work necessary to manage households, into the public eye. Her book Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, released last fall, expands on this premise, taking a deeper look into the concept of emotional labor and how ingrained societal expectations contribute to the issue. It also offers help for couples who find themselves bickering over the small and large workload imbalances that can lead to so many major arguments in a relationship.

Fatherly spoke to Hartley about emotional labor, finding a better way to balance the invisible work, what men and women both need to do to address the problem, and why awareness is key to confronting and resolving issues that often arise.

To begin, what’s your go-to definition of emotional labor?

So my definition is emotional labor is the unpaid, usually unnoticed work, that women do to keep those around them comfortable and happy. That includes both the mental load work and the emotional management work that it takes to keep everything running smoothly.

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Usually it’s being the one that has all the mental to-do list that involves everything with the family to keep it running smoothly. When you’re the one delegating out anything that needs to be done. Usually this means that your partner is kind of on a different level than you when it comes to running a household.

So, say, one parent is in charge of scheduling playdates, maintaining calendars, signing permission slips, and so on and so forth.

Yes. All of those things and more. When I was writing this book or before I was writing it, it was that I was the one in charge of knowing where everyone’s things were, what forms needed to be signed, what was on the calendar, what we were having for dinner. And whenever my husband would call me or text me and ask where something was, I would be the one to know — and I was expected to be the one to know.

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On a given day, how many things do you think you were keeping in your head at one time? Would you even be able to put a number to it?

[laughs] No. It’s an impossible thing. It sometimes seems that there’s this endless well of information that I’m able to draw up at any given time. But it’s really overwhelming at times to keep all of those balls at the time. It’s not always the case, but it often falls to women.

Why do you think that is?

In my research, I found that these were really cultural expectations that we learn early on. Little girls will see all of the women in their lives doing this work and, as they grow older, there are all these social expectations — you’re supposed to be the one to keep everyone comfortable, you’re supposed to be the one that knows how to manage your emotions, to keep everyone calm, to always be organized. And so we sort of learn these things throughout our lives and by the time we start to partner and have children we’re really good at it already. And that expectation is still there. When kids are added into the mix, the idea of who is the one to take care of everything regarding emotional labor is really pronounced.

When these issues arise couples start to argue. How do these emotional labor disagreements manifest?

Most often, the arguments kind of look like they’re about something really small. For example, I would be at the end of my rope and get mad about a pair of socks left on the floor or a pair of shoes left on the floor. And it looks like I’m mad at this one little thing when it’s really about all of the things that aren’t being noticed, all of the things that seem to fall under my responsibility.

When these things are left unspoken, the other partner might not understand that these imbalances exists. What signs should they look out for?

One sign is if your partner is coming to you and telling you this is overwhelming and you don’t seem to realize it. I think one thing that’s really helpful to put it in perspective is to imagine that your partner doesn’t do anything unless you ask them to. They won’t get the kids ready to school. They won’t give them a bath. They won’t give them dinner. They won’t get the forms signed. Nothing happens unless you are constantly asking. And that is really a dynamic that happens in a lot of couples. They just don’t realize it. Well, one person realizes it and the other doesn’t. And so that I think is a really helpful thing to think about: Who is the one who’s noticing everything? Who’s the one who’s keeping everything on track and what can you actively do to make that easier without creating more work for your partner?

In my head, I’m imagining how this argument plays out. In such a discussion, one partner inevitably says, “Well I do my share of work. I go to work and I do this.” It’s an inevitable confrontation.

Yes, especially if one parent stays at home and one parent goes to work that is a point that comes up often and that really gets to the heart of the problem, which is we’re not valuing the domestic work and emotional labor that are being done throughout the day. Especially if you’re home with young children that are in the house all day there’s never a break. I used to envy my husband’s commute to work. I was like oh what I would give to sit in the car and listen to a podcast that isn’t child-appropriate. You kind of forget you have these little breaks even though you are in that job all day that often a stay-at-home parent does not get.

One thing that’s also likely to happen during these conversations and confrontations is the person who is accused says “Well, I do X and Y that is also unaccounted for.” Is there a way to dole out the labor? Should couples list out the things they do? Draw out both regular chore lists and mental chore lists so everything is on the table?

I think that can work for some couples. One of the authors I quote in my book sort of did that thing with her husband. They divided it out and did it once and that was it.

That would drive me insane.

Me too. I found that really difficult because I think there’s an ebb and flow that goes with our life that makes things really difficult. It’s not a day to day thing. That’s a really difficult thing for me to wrap my head around. I think splitting things 50-50 is a pipe dream. You’re never going to get that balance. It’s really natural for couples to do this where they both undervalue each other’s work or don’t see each other’s work. So, there are these instances where the other partner can say, “Well, I do this and this and you never notice this.” But we’re getting back into that bickering stage where we’re not really making progress with the issue and just trying to win the battle.

I also don’t think this is something where you shouldn’t be keeping score. It really involves both partners being really aware with what it takes to make everything work to keep everything running and happy and I think it’s a harder job for men because they aren’t raised in a way that really supports deeply noticing things that needs to go on in their lives. Because they’ve been taught that that’s not their job and women have been conditioned to keep everyone comfortable and keep them happy. And so you know there’s a learning curve there and I think that, so long as both partners recognize that and adjust their expectations accordingly and then we can start to move forward.

One thing that I think is common in relationships is this feeling of “Oh I know this and I do it right so I might as well just get it done. It’s easier that way.”

Yes, that’s often very true. There’s often this sort of bulldozing that goes on where one says we’re better at this so we’re going to do it that way. And this is a really big thing. A lot of women who came into my work after reading that essay they were like “This is a problem we have to fix with our husbands. They need to be fixed. We need to do everything.” And I’m like Well, we need to do some inner work also. Because women do have a tendency to say that they’re really good at this work and not let anyone else touch it. And that’s a real problem.

I was really micro managing my husband. Even when I was writing this book I was figuring out how to strike this balance. So, I was standing over his shoulder trying to tell him how to do everything as he’s taking it on. And it didn’t work at all. Looking back, it’s obvious why it didn’t because he felt like he was never going to be able to live up to my standards. And once I sort of backed off and let him gain that confidence on his own, it was just shocking to me that I had held him back for so long from being a really fully involved member of our family, and for being a really involved parent.

And without both partners recognizing what contributes to these feelings, it creates this perfect atmosphere for arguments. 

I do think everything stems from this and it stems from what we learn from our social conditioning throughout our lives. The thinking is: I’m supposed to be good at this and you’re not supposed to be good at this and we’re going to divide this up in a way that works for no one.

When do you think the conversation take place? If someone doesn’t recognize this and isn’t alerted to it, that’s a problem.

I think that’s a really easy trap to fall into. The thing I tell people the most about opening up this conversation is try not to do it when you are in that state of being really overwhelmed and resentful. That’s obviously the route I went when I first wrote about it. I was crying in the closet and having a meltdown on Mother’s Day. That conversation did not go great.

I think one of the best things I’ve done is that when I’ve listened to a podcast that really gets it or I read an article that I think encompasses anything that I want to discuss with my husband, I’ll say “Hey, can you read this?” or “Can we discuss this together?” That way, we’re discussing it from a cultural perspective that is doesn’t feel as personal. And then we can bring in This is how this affects me in our relationship and in our life and we’re doing it from a place of calm and we’re evaluating it from afar. It’s much easier to do than when you’re in the middle of a heated moment.

Looking at all of this, what do you think all couples needs to acknowledge?

Emotional labor will always be relevant because even when it’s not going to be tied to gender and that gender division, it’s still going to be a problem where we have to balance it out and make it work. I think it’s a relationship problem more than anything.

Awareness is the biggest thing that we’re trying to overcome right now. We’re just starting to have language to talk about emotional labor and this invisible mental load work and this management of that work that we’re doing. I think that having these conversations is really important. And that’s what’s going to move us all forward. We really have to be aware of what culture is teaching us and be aware of how we don’t need to buy into all of that. We don’t need to buy into the idea that men don’t know how to do this work or that women are doing absolutely everything all the time. We can find that middle ground and start to work from there.