The price of emotional labour

You will no doubt have noticed that an awful lot is being written at the moment about what is being termed “emotional labour”.

Now, I'm going to make a lot of generalisations here by referring to women with male husbands, so bear with me. I do appreciate that there are other family constellations.

What is emotional labour?

It has been referred to as all of the unpaid, unseen work women do in the home and outside the home to keep those around them comfortable and happy. It is the myriad of jobs to be done to micro-manage the smooth running of the home and the lives of not only those who live there but often extended family too so as to ensure all familial and social activities and responsibilities/duties are duly organised and carried out.

In short, it is everything that would not get done if the woman was not there, which is why of course many women feel unable to challenge the dynamic, claiming that if they don’t it won’t get done, and that cannot be allowed to happen.

Why is it such a big issue?

It has become a big issue because it appears that the only way a lot of women can cope is by micromanaging, so when their partner upsets the delicate balance, upsets finely tuned routines, complains the house isn’t tidy, burns the kids fish fingers, forgets to do the one job he was asked to do, or forgets to buy his Mum’s birthday card yet again, he doesn’t understand his partner's frustration. He is confused about why she storms around the house and complains that he can never be trusted to do anything right.

Add to this the fact that many women are also holding down jobs that are as equally demanding as their husbands, and are also high achievers and perfectionists, the impact of this additional second job being laid exclusively at their feet leads to many women feeling overwhelmed, close to breaking down and severely depressed.

He, in turn, feels hard done by, victimised, and complains that he is being nagged.

The most contentious word in all of this is “help”. Men appear to be under the impression that emotional labour is a woman’s job and that their responsibility only goes as far as offering to “help”.

So how did this very unequal division of emotional labour come about? This concept of men’s involvement amounting to “help” rather than equal responsibility, and as much their job as the woman’s?

We know the answer of course. We don’t need research to tell us that men and women have evolved differently because of social conditioning over millennia. Women’s expression has evolved through nurturing, whilst men’s roles were bound up with the survival of the species. Men, therefore, have not generally been acculturated to behave differently.

Now, therefore, is the time for a conversation between the partners to explore what each has experienced in the life that has led to them behaving in a way which gave rise to such an imbalance. It may be that the woman watched her mother single-handedly run the home, and her partner watched his mother meet all of his and his father’s needs. Each partner’s life experience gave rise to certain unquestioned expectations as to what was the norm.

It is time for women to learn to say no more often. No to taking responsibility for their partners washing, ironing and dry cleaning, their appointments at the doctors and dentists, buying cards and presents for their partner’s family - ditto thank you cards for them. They don’t have to run the diary and calendar for them as well as for themselves and the kids. These acts border on being a rescuer, and amount to perpetuating what is basically a dysfunction in the relationship. It is time to take a step back and re-evaluate.

It is time for the partners of these women to take responsibility for their lives, and that includes in the domestic realm, going way beyond the idea of “helping out”. It involves doing without being asked and noticing everything done in their name.

If the unequal division of emotional labour is causing problems in your relationship and you don’t feel equipped to tackle them yourselves, exploring the issues with a counsellor or psychotherapist can often be useful in helping you both find a positive way forward.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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