Picture your dream girlfriend. Apart from being drop-dead gorgeous and having a small fortune of her own, you probably imagine her having some strong caring qualities. You want someone who will get along well with all your friends and family, remember anniversaries and birthdays, and soothe you when you’re feeling frazzled after a long day at work.
You want someone who will support your dreams and help you through the rough patches on your way to achieving them. You want someone kind, thoughtful and selfless.
What you may not have considered, though, is that there is a lot of invisible work that goes into being this kind of caring woman. It’s called emotional labour, and it’s being disproportionately performed by women.
That’s a problem.
To bring you up to speed on what emotional labour is, why it matters and what it means for your relationship, we’ve compiled a comprehensive guide to the issue. Read on to understand why women are talking more and more about emotional labour, and why you should care about it too.
What Is Emotional labour?
Emotional labour is the often what’s referred to as the invisible work of caring.
It is the effort that goes into noticing that people are not feeling well; asking questions and listening to the answers; anticipating needs; reminding them that they are loved and cared for; providing company; apologising; remembering birthdays and conceiving of gift ideas; complimenting them and boosting their self-esteem; allowing them to vent and listening patiently; checking in on how they’re feeling regularly; visiting them when they are sick or lonely; and detecting changes in their mood.
Social settings also involve subtle forms of emotional labour, such as changing the subject if someone is uncomfortable with the topic (and noticing this in the first place); laughing politely at jokes even if they aren’t particularly funny; and focusing on anyone who hasn’t had the floor in a while and asking them questions.
Emotional labour is not the same thing as domestic labour, although the two are often conflated because both are gendered work.
Tasks like housework and cooking are more accurately classified as domestic labour — scrubbing, peeling, ironing, sorting, discarding and lifting are all physical work — but they involve a caring component, too: noticing that the kids are hungry; realising that the cabinet in the bathroom is too cluttered to be useful to other people; anticipating that a loved one could trip on the exercise ball lying about.
Emotional labour is the caring part.
How Is Emotional labour “Gendered Work”?
Although anyone is capable of performing emotional labour, in reality this work overwhelmingly taken on by women. Often, men don’t even realise that it’s happening or that it takes deliberate effort — effort that has become second nature after years of conditioning, that is.
While men can (and do) perform emotional labour, women often feel men aren’t great at it.
“[My partner] is deeply and willfully blind in this area,” says one of the women quoted in this excellent resource on emotional labour. “He, like many men, is convinced that engaging in an emotional economy is voluntary, because for him it always has been.”
While we tend to think of emotional labour in the context of romantic relationships, women are performing the lion’s share in all sorts of relationships, including at the office.
“I actually notice the emotional labour disparity the most at work, mainly when it comes to birthdays and other celebrations,” says Ellen, 30.
“Men never, ever take the initiative to organise cakes, cards, presents or a night out. But they’ll be like, ‘Who’s doing the birthday stuff for whatshisface?’ on the actual day.”
Why Is That Gender Division A Problem?
Emotional labour isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, and in fact the opposite is true: It’s the glue that holds relationships together, whether that’s a romantic relationship, a professional one, or one with a friend, a relative or simply an acquaintance.
However, it becomes a problem when women are shouldering more than their fair share of the load. It’s exhausting for women to have to pick up the slack for men who assume that this stuff is “women’s work,” and it’s also demoralising when emotional labour goes unnoticed and unappreciated, which it so often does.
When women discuss this imbalance, a common refrain is that they should ‘just stop doing this stuff if they hate it so much’. This line of argument misses the point.
Relationships in which no one does the work of caring for the other are in no way aspirational, and caring work is good and necessary — we need more of it, not less! The point is simply that it should be borne by all parties equally and always go acknowledged and appreciated.
Why Should I Care?
Understanding and performing emotional labour is vital to the health of any long-term relationship. If you take on a fair amount of the caring work in your relationship, you’ll benefit from the increased closeness between you and your partner and won’t have to worry that she’s silently resenting you, which does occur when the load has become imbalanced.
Men can perform emotional labour, and it’s a myth that they’re inherently less adept at it than women. As MetaFilter (a Reddit style platform) user @afiendishthingy points out, men often demonstrate their capacity for caring when a relationship first starts.
“[P]art of the reason a great number of women have so much buried resentment about these issues is because men actually do perform emotional labour so willingly at the beginning of a relationship,” she says. “[This] shows that they can do it and are aware that it exists, right up until the relationship is secure enough that they can designate it ‘not my job anymore’ and tap out.”
She mentions examples like setting up special dates based on your partner’s preferences, wanting to talk about her feelings, calling her just to hear her voice, finding out the little things she likes and surprising her with them, being kind to her friends and family and letting her pick her favourite TV show to watch.
“But, for a lot of men, these are the means to an end, where the end is a relationship where they never have to do any of these things again.”
The kind of caring that men typically perform at the beginning of relationships should be continued throughout its duration to ensure a healthy, secure, lasting partnership. Relationships depend on this kind of reciprocity. Without it, resentment breeds — and this can ultimately lead to a breakup.
What Can I Do?
To redress the imbalance, a twofold approach works best: You can help both by making an effort to perform more caring work yourself and also by remembering to show appreciation when it’s performed for you.
“Maybe try and identify how you’ve benefited from someone else’s emotional labour in the past seven days,” Ellen suggests, “and then think about which of those tasks you could begin to assume yourself.” Also, a simple “thank you” when you realise that someone’s gone out of their way for you goes a long way.
Emotional labour itself is not difficult, and the benefits of making a little more effort are enormous, both to yourself and others. Not only will you benefit from closer, more lasting personal relationships, but this stuff actually feels really good to do.
So, for your sake and theirs, think about whether there’s something small you could do for the women in your life today.
All illustrations courtesy of Graeme Adams.