You’re a woman and you’ve made dinner and now you’re in the kitchen doing the dishes. Your partner has dutifully cleared the table and is now standing in the kitchen chatting with you. While it’s very nice that they’re bonding with you, you’re biting your tongue because you don’t understand why they’re not sweeping the floor, wiping off the counter or drying some dishes while they chat.
You’re a man and you’ve just dutifully cleared the table and you’re now in the kitchen chatting with your wife and having a great conversation. You’re thinking, hey, we’re bonding! I’m being awesome and keeping her company and we’re having those talks she loves. But, you notice that she’s getting short with you and that the energy has become chilly. You’re thinking, “What the heck did I do wrong now?!”
If you’ve been in this situation, today’s episode is for you.
Before we get going I’m going to say one thing: Straight men reading this are likely going to hate it and feel defensive. I’m going to ask now that you listen like you’re wrong. Meaning, that I’m going to be putting a TON of research out there to drive my points home and I’d like you to think of what your world would look like if all I’m about to say is true. What I can tell you for sure is that your relationship will absolutely improve if you can take action on even a small portion of what I say.
Straight women reading are going to erect a statue in my honor. Please make sure my ass looks good (even if that means you have to take a little creative license).
I’m also going to be hitting you with my top 5 tips for making sure the emotional labor is shared, so stick around until the end if you’re ready to really change your relationship.
And a quick side note: I’m going to be talking about heterosexual relationships mainly as I often do, but this will also ring true to gay and lesbian couples because this emotional labor thing we’re about to talk about happens in all relationships.
When I was researching this topic, I came across an awesome article in Harper’s Bazaar and I have to share it because it’ll ring true to every woman out there and will, hopefully, give an “aha” moment to every man.
So, the author of this article called, “We’re not Nags: We’re Just Fed Up,” had asked her husband to hire a cleaning service as a Mother’s Day gift. He called one service the day before Mother’s Day and thought they were too expensive. So, he cleaned the house himself: top to bottom. He thought he was doing what she asked, but he wasn’t. She wrote:
“In his mind, he was doing the thing I had most wanted — giving me sparkling bathrooms without having to do it myself. Which is why he was frustrated when I ungratefully passed by, not looking at his handiwork as I put away his shoes, shirt and socks that had been left on the floor. I stumbled over the box of gift wrap he had pulled off a high shelf two days earlier and left in the center of our closet. In order to put it back, I had to get a kitchen chair and drag it into our closet so I could reach the shelf where it belonged.
“All you have to do is ask me to put it back,” he said, watching me struggle.
It was obvious that the box was in the way, that it needed to be put back. It would have been easy for him to just reach up and put it away, but instead he had stepped around it, willfully ignoring it for two days. It was up to me to tell him that he should put away something he got out in the first place.
“That’s the point,” I said, now in tears, “I don’t want to have to ask.”
I would say this is the lament of just about every heterosexual woman (and many a gay man or woman) in a committed relationship: I shouldn’t have to ask. You should just know.
In the movie, The Break Up, Jennifer Aniston’s character is upset when her boyfriend (played by Vince Vaughn) doesn’t put away the dishes. When he says, “You can just ask me.” She replies, “I want you to want to put away the dishes!” He looks at her like she’s sprouted three heads. He replies, “No one wants to put away the dishes!”
This isn’t about wanting to put away the dishes per se. It’s about what’s behind it. This isn’t about not being able to read your partner’s mind or the fact that your partner should just ask for what they want. This is about who’s carrying the emotional labor in a relationship.
Women don’t want to have to ask. We get tired of it. It makes us grumpy, frustrated and sad all at once. And it definitely does NOT make us want to give you a blow job later. Not. At. All.
I remember the first time I went on vacation with my husband without the kids. Setting up who was going to stay with them while we were gone, doing all the grocery shopping and cooking so they’d have food they’d eat, getting the laundry done, the house cleaned and ready, making emergency lists with doctor names and numbers, medications, making a schedule of their activities that weekend and what they’d need to have with them for each thing….. AAAAHHHHHH!!! I was exhausted before we stepped a foot out the door and I hadn’t even packed for myself yet!
Then I’m supposed to go on vacation for 2 days, relax and feel like a sexy wife? Really!?!?
Because it’s not about that gift wrapping box you took down and left in the middle of the closet or helping out and doing the grocery shopping but then texting three times to ask what kind of butter you should buy, what kind of milk do we drink or to ask if it’s OK to get sweet potatoes instead of the yams that are on the list.
Men are often left feeling grumpy and frustrated themselves as they feel like the target keeps moving or like they do what’s asked, only to find out that there’s some trick here and all is not as it seems.
What the Heck is Emotional Labor Anyway?
In 1983, Arlie Hochschild, professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, coined the phrase “emotional labor” in her book The Managed Heart. It was initially used as a workplace term and referred to the need to keep your personal life at home when you got to work. So, any private worries, issues or concerns shouldn’t interfere with your ability to fulfill the emotional requirements of your job. This term has since come to more commonly refer to all the pieces we need to think about in running a family, such as making meals, cleaning, shopping, childcare, and overall love and support. For hundreds of years, the emotional labor of the American family rested almost solely with the wife/mother’s role.
As anyone who’s reading this knows, family roles have changed dramatically in the United States as women have increasingly entered the workforce. In 2018, about 70% of all women with children under 18-years-old were working or looking for work. Currently, both parents work full time in just over 60% of households in the US.
The problem is that, although women have taken on being co-breadwinners, men haven’t stepped up at the same pace in the home. In fact, married women end up with seven more hours of housework per week while married men end up with one less hour of housework per week! Caring for children and spending time with children is also disproportionately higher for women.
So, emotional labor (and who’s doing it) has become a critical factor in successful and happy relationships.
In her book, Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women and the Way Forward, author Gemma Hartley defines emotional labor as the “unpaid invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy.” This type of “labor” has mostly been considered women’s work and many women have now come to resent it.
When we talk about men taking on more emotional labor in the home, we’re not just talking about doing the dishes more often. It really means tending to (and hopefully supporting and enhancing) the emotional lives of everyone in the household.
When children are sick in the middle of the night, who gets up and takes care of them? Who then coordinates follow-up doctor appointments, making calls to the school attendance line, checks with teachers to see what work was missed, cancels carpools to swimming and makes sure that there was a thermometer and Tylenol in the house in the first place?
In the past, when their husbands had trouble at work, it was the wives who consoled and encouraged their men while also taking care of the kids and “holding down the fort.” It’s been a 24-hour job for a very long time for women, a fact largely overlooked or dismissed.
In most relationships, especially those with children, one person tends to do the majority of the emotional labor. In heterosexual relationships, women are still disproportionately responsible for the emotional labor of the family. This means that there’s often not enough available bandwidth leftover for women to take care of themselves or do the things they find important or fulfilling. This leads to dissatisfaction, which leads to resentment, not wanting to have sex, depression, anxiety and mental and physical exhaustion.
When we talk about men carrying more emotional labor it also means that they make efforts to be amenable and to support their partners. University of Chicago researchers have found that “A husband’s agreeable personality and good health appear crucial to preventing conflict among older couples who have been together a long time.”
In his book, The Man’s Guide to Women, marriage guru Dr. John Gottman writes: “What men do in a relationship is, by a large margin, the crucial factor that separates a great relationship from a failed one…This doesn’t mean that a woman doesn’t need to do her part, but the data proves that a man’s actions are the key variable that determines whether a relationship succeeds or fails.”
Women aren’t just getting mad because their partners aren’t taking joint responsibility with all the tasks involved in running a household. They’re actually feeling anxious, desperate and downright frantic when their men don’t do their part in taking care of the emotional bond that makes them a couple!
With all this going on, what’s there to do?
I’ve got a five-step process to help you get the emotional labor on more level ground.
Step 1: You’ve got to talk about it.
In 12-step programs part of the first step is admitting that your life has become unmanageable. It’s the same here. The first step is realizing that this is an ongoing problem and looking for solutions.
When I meet with couples, men often complain about this issue of feeling like they do something, but it’s not good enough and so they start thinking, “Why bother? I can never get it right?”
I then ask them, “Do you think this is a problem only in your relationship or do you think many men suffer with this?”
Their immediate answer is something like, “Oh yeah! All my married friends complain about the same thing!”
Right here is when we should step back and think that there’s something you’re missing! If so many people are feeling the same thing, then it’s not something just in your relationship but a broader issue you haven’t yet been able to understand. Shedding light on this and talking about this issue then is key. It’s important to approach it with curiosity and not with an attitude of defending yourself.
Women, when you talk about it you need to be open and curious. If you’re judgmental, sanctimonious or openly impatient, this conversation is going nowhere fast. Don’t come from the angle of “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Come from the angle of, “We’re a team and we have to come up with good solutions together.” Remember, your partner’s problem is a shared issue – not his alone to fix.
Step 2: Truly listen and ask good questions.
In your discussions, make sure you continue to ask questions as if you’re wrong. That’s the stance I need you to have. Men, in this, you’re fish who don’t know that they’re wet. It’s hard to uncover blind spots especially if you think it means you might have to do more of something when you’re already feeling maxed out!
Talk about the situation as non-judgmentally and openly as possible!
You’ll be elated to hear that understanding all this might mean that you ultimately do less and that, right now, you might be doing too much of the wrong thing (like the guy earlier who cleaned the house top to bottom).
Men, start stepping up, leaning in and asking questions. Here are some to get you started:
- Are you checking in to see if she’s had a rough day?
- Are you actively doing things with the intention of service and a feeling of safety for your partner?
- Do you do nice things without being asked?
- Are you keeping your side of the street clean?
- Do you need reminders to take care of your life? (i.e., are you making your own doctor’s appointments or is your wife reminding you?)
- Are you telling your partner sincerely and consistently how appreciative and grateful you are?
- Do you validate your partner’s emotions?
- Are you answering your partner’s bids most of the time
- Do you contribute in a constructive way to planning, rides, meals and logistics?
Step 3: Men, take over the emotional bond
Men, the next thing you want to do is to take whatever action is necessary to be the chief caretaker (or chief operating officer if you like that terminology better) of the emotional connection between you and your partner.
Read everything you can about emotional labor. Treat it as you would an assignment at work that you absolutely need to crush to get that promotion and secure a place in your company.
Gottman’s, The Man’s Guide to Women, is a great place to start studying.
Step 4: Women, Look at Yourselves
You can’t control your partner’s emotional labor, but you can control your own! It’s not ever OK to feel like a victim in your relationship (I can’t do anything because he refuses to change). This is the blame game and it serves no one.
Here’s the truth: If one person changes, the couple has changed. Let me repeat that. If you change, your relationship is changed. That’s what being a couple is. You affect one another and understanding this is a big part of the equation.
Start with your own self-awareness and increasing that so you can act, not react, when faced with issues with your partner.
Step 5: Women – Be Open to a New Standard
Women, if you’re the one coming up with the list of what needs to get done and setting the bar on how it needs to get done, then you’re not sharing the emotional labor, you’re just hiring your partner as an employee. This won’t work in the long run.
I get it, the forks should go in the dishwasher with the tines up so they can be cleaned properly. The towels need to be folded this way or they won’t all fit into the closet. Junior cannot go to school in his pajamas! When you wipe down the kitchen counters, you need to take everything off them first.
Yes, I get it. There’s a right way to do everything and a wrong way to do everything in your eyes. However, you can’t expect your man to step up to bat if you won’t get off home plate! You need to step back and decide together what’s important and what’s not. If you can only tolerate something being done a certain way, then you need to be the one to do it, but I don’t recommend this. I mean, when did this stuff get so important anyway? Why is it worth these huge fights and battles?
It’s because, when your man doesn’t do things the way you like you take that to mean that he doesn’t love you. He’s not supporting you. He’s not listening to you. He doesn’t care about what’s important to you.
Yeah, none of that’s true. You’re making a leap in logic that’s unfair and untrue. Your partner’s standards and wants need to be as valid as your own. You’ve got to accept that he’ll do things differently and not find the same things important or critical.
In the end, what I’m talking about here is a paradigm shift. Men often think they’re doing it right because they grocery shop, pick up the kids from practice or get themselves to the dentist. While this is helpful, it’s not emotional labor.
Emotional labor would mean that he wrote the grocery list himself, set up the kids’ soccer practices and schedules and knows them without being told and knew it was time to go to the dentist and didn’t need a reminder to make the appointment for himself. There’s a difference in ownership. You need to ask yourself, “Am I an owner or an employee?”
Men and women can also “own” the emotional labor between the two of you as a couple. Much of this is just thinking about what’s important to the other person to feel safe and needed. Then work on doing those things.