Emotional Labor: What It Is and How To Do It
Ages ago, I read a fantastic article about practical things men can do to support feminism. Almost every item on the list really resonated with my experience, and this was one of the most resonant:
2. Do 50% (or more) of emotional support work in your intimate relationships and friendships.
Recognize that women are disproportionately responsible for emotional labour and that being responsible for this takes away time and energy from things they find fulfilling.
Since this was just a list, that’s all it had to say about this very important topic. As I shared the article and discussed it with others, especially men, I realized that many men don’t actually know what “emotional labor” means. That, I think, is part of the problem.
I kept meaning to write a piece that explains the concept, but life happened, and I forgot. Then I read this:
We are told frequently that women are more intuitive, more empathetic, more innately willing and able to offer succor and advice. How convenient that this cultural construct gives men an excuse to be emotionally lazy. How convenient that it casts feelings-based work as “an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depths of our female character.”
This, in turn, spawned a great Metafilter thread in which people discuss their experiences with emotional labor.  And, that, finally, led to an Ask Metafilter thread, which addresses the very question I initially meant to address: what is emotional labor and how do you know if you’re doing your fair share of it?
If this topic interests you, I encourage you to read these resources, because they’re extremely useful and accessible. I wanted to highlight some of the contributions to the Ask Metafilter thread here.
The original Ask Metafilter post:
# Partnered Life
* Am I checking in with my partner to see if they had a rough day?
* If so, am I stepping up to make their life easier in other ways (cooking, cleaning, etc.)?
* Am I open and clear about my wants, and not forcing my partner to guess/drag it out of me?
* Am I contributing constructively to planning of meals, events, trips, etc?
* Am I actively trying to make my presence feel safe for my partner?
* Do I try to do nice things for my partner without being asked (flowers, treats, etc.)?
* Do I take care of my own administrative life (paperwork, bills) without needing to be repeatedly reminded?
* Am I supportive of my partner’s decisions, big and small?
* Am I respectful and validating of my partner’s emotions?
* Am I vocally grateful when my partner goes out of their way to do something nice for me?
* Am I nice to my partner’s family [if that’s a thing they want]?
# Friend Groups
* Do I work to coordinate peoples’ schedules so that we can have a nice picnic/party/board game night/etc.?
* When planning an event, am I conscious of possible interpersonal conflicts?
* When planning an event, do I take into account different peoples’ preferences for food, beverages, music, etc., so that no one feels excluded?
* Do I actually have everything prepared in advance for an event I’m hosting, or at least clearly and fairly delegated?
* If there is an imbalance of emotional or physical labor occurring, am I willing to risk social awkwardness to improve the lot of those negatively affected?
# Third Party Relationships (Familial & Otherwise)
* Do I remember to make phone calls and visits to people I care about and want to have relationships with?
* Do I remember to send cards to people I care about?
* Do I send thank you notes to people to acknowledge their emotional labor for me?
* Am I actively sensitive to and supportive of people who are experiencing a difficult time (death of spouse/child/pet, etc.)?
User phunniemie adds:
I’d add “am I going to the doctor regularly” to what you have.
I hear a lot of guys (I take it you are a dude) complain (complain, or even just mention offhand) all the time about x, y, or z weird body thing that they have going on, but 9 times out of 10 (actually more, but then we’re getting into fractions) when I ask if they’ve talked to a doctor about it their response is no, or it’s not that big a deal, or they can’t because they don’t have a doctor despite living in the same place for 5+ years. So now they’ve involved me in concern for their Problem Freckle but have no ability or intention to manage it themselves.
Make sure you’re taking care of yourself and being proactive about your healthcare (physical and mental) so that the women in your life don’t have to feel like your nurse.
Huge one for me, especially in reference to mental illness or trauma or disorders: are you doing your own emotional work?
This means asking for support and accommodation for your feelings and your illness if you need it, and negotiating with your partner about your needs, but also not making your problems their problems. If you have depression or past trauma, tell your partner– don’t make them guess. Ask them to make reasonable adjustments to their behavior and interactions if you can, or if you’re not sure what you need, just keep them in the loop as much as you can.
And then, do your own work and get to a doctor, a therapist, or another appropriate person who can help you in a solid professional context. It’s reasonable and sane and wonderful to ask for support and love and reassurance, but don’t make fixing your own internal workings your partner’s problem any more than you can help it.
Do I pause to observe the context (my partner’s body language or current activity, what’s been happening today, etc.) before I involve my partner in something me-focused? (Whether that’s a request or a touch or whatever.)
Am I answering my partner’s bids?
Am I taking responsibility for my own reminders by putting things in a calendar app or whatever reminds me to do things?
Am I aware of all the unseen work involved in things like meal preparation*, and am I educating myself so that I can share the work?
How often am I saying knee-jerk defensive things like “I forgot,” “I’m trying,” “I’m doing my best,” “It’s not a big deal,” vs “Oops, shit, I’m sorry, let me [take independent action and come up with my own fucking idea for how I can finally make this change that you’ve repeatedly told me is important to you and that I’ve said I would do but still haven’t].
Am I difficult as hell to work with and expect everyone to work around it because I present as male?
E. Whitehall adds:
Are you interrupting your partner unnecessarily? Is their busy-ness less valuable to you than a question you could likely just Google instead of interrupting them? Consider whether you really need to ask them, specifically, right now, about this particular thing. Consider whether you’ve actually looked for answers. Have you googled? Have you checked the most likely places? Several times? Have you actually reached in and looked with your hands for whatever you’ve lost?
There are a lot more great examples in the thread, but this should give you some sense of what emotional labor is.
You might notice that some things in the thread sound like the bare minimum for being a decent friend or partner, such as respecting and validating others’ emotions. Others sound like things that aren’t necessary (or even desirable) in every relationship. The important thing is that there’s a balance. If you and your friend or partner have the kind of relationship where you share household responsibilities and expenses, for instance, it’s unreasonable for your partner to always have to remind you to do your duties when they never need a reminder from you.
Of course, it’s easy for people to look at these lists and immediately start rationalizing: “Well, but, my partner’s so much better at planning things than I am, so of course they plan all of our social events as a couple” or “Well I have a mental illness and my friend doesn’t, so I can’t always be expected to remember to ask about their day the way they ask about mine.” Sure. This isn’t a be-all end-all list, and different people’s situations have their own particular needs and restraints. I encourage you not to get too hung up on any particular item on the list, and instead focus on the concept itself.
The point is that, for the most part, women are expected to do a lot of these sorts of things in relationships and friendships, and men are not. It may well be that men are on average objectively worse at them than women are, but that’s only because they’ve never been held responsible for these things and therefore haven’t developed the skill. Most men have gone their whole lives hearing that women are “naturally” suited for these things and men are “naturally” not, so why bother working on it? Gender essentialism doesn’t exactly foster a growth mindset, and many people don’t realize that things like communication skills and empathy can actually be improved.
After reading these articles and threads, I started to understand my frustrations with my male friends, roommates, and partners much better, because these imbalances have touched every single relationship I’ve ever had with a man. Male partners have consistently ignored glaring issues in the relationship so that I had to be the one to start the difficult conversation every single time, even though they supposedly had as much of a stake in the relationship as I did. Male roommates have made me beg and plead and send reminder texts to do even the most basic household management tasks. Male friends have tried to use me as a therapist, or drawn me into worrying about their physical health with them while refusing to see a doctor even though they had insurance.
Well-meaning men of varying roles in my life have consistently ignored my nonverbal cues, even very visible ones, forcing me to constantly have to articulate boundaries that ought to be obvious, over and over. (For instance, “Do you see how I’m intently reading a book right now? That means that I’m very interested in the book and am not interested in having a conversation right now.” “Did you notice how I’m hunched over with my arms folded over my stomach and a grimace on my face? This means that I’m in pain and probably not in the mood for cheery small-talk!” “Pay attention to how I’ve got huge headphones on and am staring at my computer screen and typing very quickly. This is why I didn’t hear a single word you just said and now is probably not a good time to chat about your day!”)
This is why being in relationship with men, even platonically, is often so exhausting for me. As much as I love them and care for them, it feels like work.
Like all gendered dynamics, of course, this isn’t exclusive to male-female interactions and the imbalance doesn’t always go in the same direction. It can happen in any relationship, romantic or platonic, serious or less so. I’m pointing out the gendered dynamic here because it’s so extremely prevalent and so very harmful. But if, for instance, you’re a man realizing that you’re doing the bulk of the emotional labor in your relationship with someone of whichever gender, you still have a right to try to sort that out.
I strongly suspect that the emotional labor imbalance underlies part of the problem men often say they have with forming and maintaining friendships with other men. When neither of them is able to rely on the other person to do the emotional labor, relationships fall apart. In friendships and relationships with women, men are able to trust that we’ll handle all that messy feelings stuff.
I also suspect that this underlies the fear and anger with which some men respond to women’s emotional unavailability. That’s not to excuse the behavior–just to explain it. I empathize with this because it must be terrifying to feel like you can’t deal with your own stuff and the person you thought was going to help you is refusing to. It must be especially terrifying when you don’t even know where the feelings are coming from, when you can’t even tell yourself, Okay, this is scary because I’ve never had to do this for myself and now it’s time to learn how.
It would be like if you’ve gone your whole life having fully prepared meals just suddenly appear in front of you whenever you’re hungry, and suddenly you’re being told that not only will the prepared meals not be provided anymore, but now you have to go out and hunt and gather for yourself. Whaaaat.
Emotional labor is often invisible to men because a lot of it happens out of their sight. Emotional labor is when my friends and I carefully coordinate to make sure that nobody who’s invited to the party has drama with anyone else at the party, and then everyone comes and has a great time and has no idea how much thought went into it.
Emotional labor is when I have to cope, again, with the distress I feel at having to clean myself in a dirty bathroom or cook my food in a dirty kitchen because my male roommate didn’t think it was important to clean up his messes.
Emotional labor is having to start the 100th conversation with my male roommate about how I need my living space to be cleaner. Emotional labor is reminding my male roommate the next day that he agreed to clean up his mess but still hasn’t. Emotional labor is reassuring him that it’s okay, I’m not mad, I understand that he’s had a very busy stressful week. Emotional labor is not telling him that I’ve had a very busy stressful week, too, and his mess made it even worse.
Emotional labor is reassuring my partner over and over that yes, I love him, yes, I find him attractive, yes, I truly want to be with him, because he will not do the work of developing his self-esteem and relies on me to bandage those constantly-reopening wounds. Emotional labor is letting my partner know that I didn’t like what he did during sex last night, because he never asked me first if I wanted to do that. Emotional labor is reassuring him that, no, it’s okay, I’m not mad, I just wanted him to know for next time, yes, of course I love him, no, this doesn’t mean I’m not attracted to him, I’m just not interested in that sort of sex. Emotional labor is not being able to rely on him to reassure me that it’s not my fault that I didn’t like what happened, because this conversation has turned into my reassuring him, again.
Emotional labor is when my friend messages me once every few weeks with multiple paragraphs about his life, which I listen to and empathize with. Afterward, he thanks me for being “such a good listener.” He asks how my life has been, and I say, “Well, not bad, but school has been so stressful lately…” He says, “Oh, that sucks! Well, anyway, I’d better get to bed, but thanks again for listening!”
Emotional labor is when my friend messages me and, with no trigger warning and barely any greeting, launches into a story involving self-harm or suicide because “you know about this stuff.”
Emotional labor was almost all of my male friends in high school IMing me to talk about how the girls all go for the assholes.
Emotional labor is when my partners decide they don’t want to be in a relationship with me anymore, but rather than directly communicating this to me, they start ignoring me or being mean for weeks until I have to ask what’s going on, hear that “I guess I’m just not into you anymore,” and then have to be the one to suggest breaking up. For extra points, then I have to comfort them about the breakup.
Emotional labor is setting the same boundary over and over, and every time he says, “I’m sorry, I know you already told me this, I guess I’d just forgotten.”
Emotional labor is being asked to completely explain and justify my boundaries. “I mean, that’s totally valid and I will obviously respect that, I just really want to understand, you know?”
Emotional labor is hiding the symptoms of mental illness, pretending my tears are from allergies, laughing too loudly at his jokes, not because I’m just in principle unwilling to open up about it, but because I know that he can’t deal with my mental illness and that I’ll just end up having to comfort him because my pain is too much for him to bear.
Emotional labor is managing my male partners’ feelings around how often we have sex, and soothing their disappointment when they expected to have sex (even though I never said we would) and then didn’t, and explaining why I didn’t want to have sex this time, and making sure we “at least cuddle a little before bed” even though after all of this, to be quite honest, the last thing I fucking want is to touch him.
Although discussions like this one give emotional labor a negative connotation, it’s not inherently bad. All relationships run on emotional labor. In any healthy, balanced relationship, romantic or otherwise, the participants are all doing some amount of it, though the total amount varies based on the type of relationship and the needs of those involved. Emotional labor becomes toxic when certain people are expected by default to be responsible for the bulk of it. It becomes toxic when it’s invisible, when it’s treated as an assumption rather than as something that the participants of a relationship intentionally discuss and negotiate together.
What might that look like in practice? Here are a few examples:
“I’m struggling with depression right now and am also extremely busy with my dissertation, so I’m not going to be able to do X, Y, or Z in this relationship. Instead, I’m going to make an extra effort to do A and B. Is that okay for you?”
“If we’re going to be living together, I need to make sure that we both do an equal share of X. Does that work for you?”
“I know you’ve had to give me a lot of reminders lately to do basic things for myself and for our household. I’m working on getting better at remembering on my own by [setting reminders on my phone/bringing this up in therapy/starting medication/cutting back on some stressful things]. While I work on this, are you okay with continuing to remind me? If you don’t feel that things have gotten any better in [timeframe], will you let me know?”
“I’ve noticed that you manage a lot of our interactions with my family. I feel like you get along a lot better with them than I do, so maybe it makes sense that you’re the one who plans our get-togethers, but is this okay with you? Do you need me to take more of an active role in this?”
“I’ve been the one who initiates the majority of our plans together, and while I always enjoy seeing you, I need some clarity about this. If you’re not that interested in spending time with me, I need to know. If you are, I’d really appreciate it if you sometimes invited me to do things, too.”
Remember that one way in which imbalances in emotional labor manifest themselves is that it always ends up being the job of the person who does the bulk of it to start these conversations and to let you know that they’re overwhelmed by the amount of emotional labor they have to do. End that cycle. Be the person who brings it up and ask your partner if this is okay for them. Remember that a lot of people who are doing the bulk of the emotional labor, especially women, might initially try to claim that it’s okay when deep down they feel that it isn’t. Leave room for them to change their minds as they feel more comfortable with you, and don’t pull the “But you said before that it was fine” thing.
I absolutely recognize that this work is not easy. If what I’ve described sounds exhausting and overwhelming and maaaybe you’ll just let your girlfriend/friend/etc deal with it instead, I get it. It is hard. But it would be a lot easier if that labor were distributed more fairly. Emotional labor isn’t a silly fluffy girl skill. It’s a life skill.
It’s hard, too, because most men have been intentionally deprived of the language and tools to even think about these sorts of issues, let alone work on them. That’s why so many men don’t even know what emotional labor is, and why they have no idea what to do when they feel really bad except find a woman and outsource the labor to her–often without even realizing why they’re doing what they’re doing. As I said before, this sounds absolutely terrifying and I do not envy men in this regard.
But you can’t get better at what you don’t practice. Start the tough conversations. Pause before speaking and intentionally observe your partner’s body language. Ask yourself, “What could I do to make life easier for them? What things are they doing to make life easier for me, without even being asked?” Spend some time listening to your own emotions and learning to name them before rushing to either unload them on someone else or drown them out with something that feels better.
I do not exaggerate one little bit when I say that if more and more men learn to do these things, we can change the world.
Although I chose to examine gender dynamics here because that's what I feel most qualified to talk about, it's very, very important to note that imbalances in emotional labor also happen along other axes. In particular, people of color often do emotional labor for white people, especially in conversations about race. This poem illustrates this dynamic well.
Originally published by The Orbit.