I deeply believe that there can be equality between genders. Let me just put that here like that. Hopefully I’ll be able to remind myself of it in dark times when I give up hope. But yes, I believe that we can achieve equality. I didn’t say equality has arrived yet. I deeply believe that for that to happen we need to have more of a conversation around what equality really means, and it all starts at home. There is no way we can be treated equally at work if our husbands or boyfriends at home still haven’t bough in, both in talk and in actions.
Gemma Hartley does an incredible job in her recent book Fed Up, explaining in depth why women carry most of the emotional labor and how that is preventing us all from achieving actual equality. Emotional labors is defined as the work associated to managing feelings and fulfilling emotional requirements of a job. Women carry emotional labor in relationships to a way bigger extent than men. We are not only expected to plan out and think through all kinds of tasks and projects, partly or entirely execute them, but we are also expected to do all of this without complaining and expressing frustration. Many service jobs also have high emotional labor associated to them along with disproportionately high percentage of women.
If you are a woman, you are probably nodding your head right now. If you are a man, you are probably a bit confused, ready to defend yourself and chat about everything you do at home/how willing you are to help out your wife or girlfriend if she asks. Well, let me tell you how to address these issues in a constructive way so that both of you can find a way to share the burden of emotional labor:
Talk about this topic openly.
My husband and I got married very young (totally not what I had planned to do initially – I love telling him that I used to walk around stating that I would never get married!) and at the time, we were still living with a roommate for a while. It was a fun modern family set up but from the start, I decided to address things that I didn’t like/wanted more awareness about. Like how peeing all over the toilet wasn’t a thing I would ever support, nor tolerate. Neither from my husband nor from other men with whom I shared my home. I had made it my mission to address things from the start, right then and there so that bad habits wouldn’t actually become habits. So that I wouldn’t find myself frustrated and bitter 10 years into my marriage. At the beginning, it was rough because Noah wasn’t used to these conversations and he would react to them defensively. But because I had set up the standard where I was expressing what I wanted and didn’t want, it became our MO and set the foundation for a relationship in which we both constantly make an effort to talk about things openly and in the moment when they occur.
2. Make your invisible work visible.
I love being married to Noah. He is kind and loving and really cares about me. He brings me flowers from time to time and really quickly into our relationship offered to ‘help out’ when I needed help. I can truly not complain about his willingness to help and do things. But what we needed some more time directing, was that helping to execute a task, isn’t the same as helping to think about the fact that a task needs to be done in the first place and also needs to be planned out. Doing the task, like going to the grocery store, is often the smallest piece and the visible one. The true labor comes from the invisible work of proactively identifying things that need to get done, often weeks and months in advance and building a strategy around it. That planning work takes a ton of emotional work and energy. Tell your significant other about it and ‘teach him’ to take on the entire task. For example, if he wants to help with grocery shopping, he needs to identify what is needed for the week, what you guys are out of, when to go to the store, and what to get exactly. Owning the entire task will give you a piece of mind and actual relief and it will make your better half more fulfilled as he will take full ownership.
3. Don’t blame him directly.
Equality, at home and at work, sometimes seem decades away. Maybe our daughters will feel truly equal? No matter how frustrated this topic can make you at times, do not make your boyfriend or husband responsible for it. This is the result of centuries of habit formation across societies, across cultures and across religions. In most places on this earth, most women have for most of the time carried most of the emotional labor. You can’t undo this in one generation and you can’t blame your significant other for it either as it’s truly society as a whole that is responsible for it. Don’t expect your significant other to read your mind or identify this all spontaneously because that will lead to even more frustration. Help him learn and understand that it’s not his fault but that he can help every day to take off a little bit of the burden.
How do you address the problem of emotional labor in your relationship?