In order to fully understand emotional labor we must first look at the history of gender roles. A relationship requires two people to put in the work and the effort. Historically, men are trained to be stoic and strong. They are expected to take on the role of a “fierce warrior” that is independent, competitive, strategic, and logical. There was no place for men to be weak or emotional because of the severe consequences they might experience. By the time boys reach ages of three to five, they have learned to push their feelings aside and hide their emotions so they aren’t ridiculed. They are forced to let go of their “feminine side” in order to fit in and be part of the masculine tribe. As a result, men tend to be responsible for the physical and financial parts of a romantic relationship.
On the flip side, women have always taken on the heavier role on performing the “emotional labor.” Socially and cross-culturally, women are expected to do more the of the emotional work. Women are trained and taught to be in service and put other people’s needs ahead of their own. It is simply an unspoken expectation that women need to exert more energy in taking care of people’s feelings, making them comfortable, and being the nurturer at the costs of losing their own identity and well – being. By the time girls reach ages of 11 to 13, they have learned to put their needs aside and lose their voices to keep connections with others.
We divide the gender roles and responsibilities, but socially we value men’s qualities and tasks more and devalue women’s responsibilities and emotional work. Human relationships have been operating like this cross culturally for thousands of years. This type of black and white dynamic used to work for our hunter gatherer ancestors due to their environment and circumstances.
An Unequal Share of Emotional Labor
The unequal share of roles and responsibilities no longer works for the modern world where women have gained a voice and empowerment, and couples are living under more stress and demands than ever. The binary and unequal lenses of looking at a man and woman’s job have created more issues in romantic relationships.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should not do “emotional labor” in our relationships. Emotional labor by itself is not a problem. It becomes a problem when it is not reciprocal. Women’s roles have transformed radically, especially in the last 50 years of American history. Men’s roles however, have not changed much.
21st century relationship rarely consists of “working husband” and “stay home wife” anymore. The new modern relationship has a “working man” and a “working woman.” Men must endure work stress and demands, but so do women. The woman is working, and then comes home to her partner to find she is the only person who’s providing the emotional support, validation, empathy, and curiosity. It begins to feel like she is doing a “second job.” She gets no break while her man continues to vent and depend on her as a support, but receives no support in return. Can you see how that can cause emotional exhaustion and ultimately, a very unhappy relationship? One sided emotional labor is very taxing and draining, and that often leads to resentment.
A Shift in Relationship Dynamics
New century relationships require a new dynamic shift, which means emotional labor needs to be shared equitably. When I said “equitably,” I don’t mean 50 – 50. As a couple, you need to figure out what that looks like in your dynamic, in your relationship contract. I always suggest the couples that I work with to have regular meetings or conversation to check in with themselves and then with each other about their relationship agreement. Put everything on the table, make everything as clear as possible, and be flexible about the agreement. You will never have a final draft as you are constantly changing as an individual, and the relationship is constantly changing as well.
With the new dynamic shift, and a new way of developing a relationship contract, means new relationship skills are required. Even though women have been empowered to speak up for themselves, they have not been taught how to speak up for themselves relationally, often times due to their own fears. Women tend to go from not saying anything, say something but not clearly and directly, and/or total self – expression that can look like screaming, yelling, complaining, threatening, or withdrawal.
For men, this means that they think they are listening but not in the way that a woman may need. They are listening with their “heads” - they provide solutions instead of listening with their hearts. Due to thousands of years of programming, men are also more uncomfortable with emotions. They are socialized to believe that emotions are threatening, overwhelming, and pointless. Men possess less capacity to tolerate the waves of emotions due to lack of permission, education, and practicing during their lifetime. Thus, they shut down – watching TV, working 60 hours a week, drinking, running away, physical and verbal outbursts, etc.
In the new relationship, women need to learn how to speak relationally and men need to learn how to listen relationally, and then go back and forth with the tasks.
Effective Ways to Share Emotional Labor
If you are unhappy with the current dynamic in your relationship and want to have a talk with your partner about it, here are some things that you can start trying.
For the speaker,
1. First things first – regulate your own emotions first so your emotions are not taking over you. Start tracking your own experience and feeling the emotions in you. Feel your emotions and be curious about what they are trying to tell you about your missing experience in the relationship. Have a balance of feeling the emotions and then logically use them as a roadmap to your deepest needs and wants. Both sides of your brain are working so you can carry yourself as an adult with respect and dignity for yourself, your partner, and your relationship.
2. Before you approach your partner, make sure you are clear about what you want to talk about. It helps for some people to make a list and put some words together. Do what you need to do so you can get your point across instead of letting your anger or frustration be the forefront representative.
3. Approach your partner, let your partner know that you would like to speak to him, and ask if it is a good time for the two of you to talk. Keep in mind, just because we are ready to talk, that does not always mean our partners are too.
- You can say, “Hon, I’ve been thinking about our relationship, and there are some concerns I would like to talk to you about. Is this a good time to talk?”
4. If you partner says “No,” don’t just say “Yes” or walk away. Hold on to yourself and stay in it. Acknowledge your partner’s position and politely ask for an alternative time.
- You can say, “thank you for letting me know. When would be a good time for us to talk then? This is important to me and to our relationship.”
5. When you and your partner are talking, continue to monitor your own internal state and regulate yourself. Remember, anger only brings anger. Withdrawal only brings withdrawal. You are doing this for yourself not for your partner. Keep that in mind.
- Remind yourself, “I’m doing this for myself to let my voice be heard.”
6. Speak from your reality and focus. Use statements like words that you heard and actions that you saw.
- You can say, “I saw you doing… I heard you saying…”
7. Share how YOU perceive his actions and words. You and your partner are two different people so you both won’t share the same reality. Explain what you have made up about it.
- You can say, “When I saw you doing… when I heard you saying… I took it as…”
8. Take accountability for your own feelings. Don’t use words like “You made me feel…” No one can make anyone feel anything. How we perceive a situation and the meaning that we make up about a situation determines how we feel about it. Plus, it is taking ourselves from the victim role when we take responsibility for our own emotional experience instead of blaming other people.
- You can say, “I made myself feel…” or simply “I feel…”
9. Make your request with respect and clarity. Remember, this is your partner that you are talking to. You want to be treated with respect, so you have to present yourself with respect.
- You can say, “What I need is more listening. I want you to hold me when I am talking about work. I need you to sit next to me.”
10. This might be the most important step – Do all the above steps with NO ATTACHMENT to the outcome because that is not within your control. You are simply doing all the steps so your voice does not get suppressed. Your wishes do not get silenced. It may be disappointing and hurtful when your partner does not give you what you want. The reality is that our partners cannot meet all our needs and wants, especially if the relationship has been in a rough spot.
11. Regulate yourself, soothe yourself, and validate yourself if your partner is not ready to meet your request. Also validate yourself and praise yourself for doing the right thing, using the steps to speak up for yourself with respect and firm boundaries.
As for the listening partner:
1. Monitor your own internal state, regulate your emotions, and listen without an agenda to fix the issues and/or make the discomfort go away ASAP.
2. Be empathetic – Put yourself in your partner’s shoes and understand your partner’s perception and experience. Being understanding does not mean agreeing.
3. Let your partner know your genuine understanding and empathy of her experience. Don’t try to point out right vs. wrong because her experience is her reality just like your experience is your reality.
4. Ask yourself if there is validity in your partner’s words about your actions and words. Hold yourself accountable and offer an apology if you agree. If not, you don’t have to own it.
5. Be honest with yourself about what you can offer.
Finally, as a couple, cherish each other’s effort and work in the process even if you guys don’t come to an agreement. No couples are even on the same page all the time. That is why it is important to know how to comfort yourself and speak up for yourself relationally so your voices are heard.
Our world has changed so much. The old way of managing a relationship does not work for the new generation with different needs, wants, demands, and responsibilities. Start sharing more of the emotional labor in the relationship to have a healthier, more balanced relationship.
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