Emotional labour is a significant part of a couple’s relationship. Emotional labour was first coined by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her book, The Managed Heart (1983). She defined it as the work of managing your own emotions, but the term has been expanded to looking at the overall burden of managing or carrying emotions in a marriage and/or family context. You’ll probably be aware in your own marriage, one spouse often takes most of the responsibility for worrying about a particular issue: a struggling child, or financial issues, etc. That is part of their emotional labour that they are carrying in the marriage.
Emotional Labour is not Distributed Equally
Often, the burden of emotional labour is not borne equally by both partners in a marriage. According to a 2011 study by Ellison et al., women take on the majority of emotional labour bearing in marriage. Women may be socialized or programmed to be more nurturing than men, and they typically take on not only their own feelings and concerns, but also those of their husband in order to accomplish daily tasks.
Morris and Feldman (1996) reported that nearly 2/3 of both men and women report that women tend to remind their spouse more often about things that need to be done like going to the grocery store or taking out the trash. In addition, husbands don’t experience societal pressure to take charge of family to-do lists the same way wives do. Men are more likely to issue reminders about things from which they personally benefit. For example, making sure your wife remembers to buy you a new suit jacket for a work party. Women’s reminders, on the other hand, are more selfless and oriented towards others: organizing a child’s birthday party, picking up the family dry cleaning, taking the dog to the groomer, and so on.
The problem with the difference between men and women’s agendas comes back to the idea of emotional labour. In this case, the greater burden is on the wife. This can lead to burnout as she has to keep a happy face on but carry most of the emotional labour.
Emotional Labour Involves Mental Work
Emotional labour involves more than just who does what items on the to-do list. Morris and Feldman (1996) also noticed that husbands frequently don’t take responsibility to think beyond the task nor do we take initiative regarding the task. For example: when a wife asks her husband to go to the grocery store, he may ask her to tell him what to buy. He may not put in the mental work of going to the kitchen and considering a meal plan and what’s in the pantry and fridge and figuring it out himself. So even though he goes to the grocery store and does the purchasing, which is helping out physically, he is not really helping with the emotional workload associated with the task.
Spouses Should Agree Division of Emotional Labour
Returning to the idea of fair division of labour: what matters in marriage is not that division of labour (emotional or physical) is exactly 50/50 but, rather, that the division is seen to be fair by both the husband and wife.
How exactly emotional labour should be divided is something that needs to be worked out in your marriage between you and your spouse. It may be that in your marriage it is perfectly fine for the husband to be given a list and just get the groceries. But it’s important to think beyond the example to the concept behind it. By considering the overall emotional burden, you may be in a marriage where both spouses appear busy and working hard to contribute to the functioning of the household, but the way you have arranged it may leave a much greater emotional burden on one spouse versus the other. That may lead to burnout. It may feel unfair. It may create resentment: even though both spouses as busy in the physical sense of doing things. This is definitely something you want to talk to your spouse about.
Because this subject is one that requires us to step back and reflect, we created a worksheet for our Patreon supporters that helps you look at the emotional contribution you are making to your marriage. It will help you understand what you bring to the marriage and what you need from it so that both of you can discuss and refine balance of emotional labour in your marriage. If you’re not a patron, you can get this worksheet by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Why You Really Need to Consider Emotional Labour in Your Marriage
Because this subject is one that requires us to step back and reflect, we created a worksheet for our Patreon supporters that helps you to take a step back and reflect on the emotional contribution you are making to your marriage. It will help you understand what you bring to the marriage and what you need from it so that both of you can discuss and refine balance of emotional labour in your marriage.
Emotional Labour and Conflict
Emotional labour also relates to the issue of conflict in marriage. Most people are guilty of immature behaviour during conflict. For example, if you avoid talking about a fight you had with your spouse, even when it’s important to do so, you really just let the discomfort hang in the air which is basically a ploy to get you to take on the emotional labour of that problem. It shows your spouse that you’re not willing to put the effort in to resolve it. You may even be passively working to get your spouse to pull out their feelings without actually communicating with them so that it becomes their problem to try to guess what to do to make things better. This puts the emotional burden on you.
Another study related to this issue of emotional labour and conflict showed that the effort required by emotional labour is not only physically exhausting, but can actually result in psychological harm to the people involved in the conflict. Additionally, it means the spouse carrying the emotional labour burden may end up feeling the feelings for both spouses. Typically, wives are more absorbent emotionally and able to feel negative emotional energy more instinctively. In the long run this can be exhausting.
What to Do About Emotional Labour
The question remains: what do you do if your spouse is bearing too much emotional labour in your marriage? Well, if you’re the person dumping your emotional burden on your spouse due to conflict between you, you should be open to your spouse trying to help you. If you put down your spouse’s offers of help, or suggestions about solutions, you’re sending the message that you’re not interested in processing what happened or what you feel and that you’re just looking to take your feelings out on your wife or husband. That’s going to have a distancing effect in your marriage: it pushes your spouse away. But it’s also going to exhaust and deplete your spouse both physically and psychologically.
To create a strong relationship, you need to find a way to tackle these issues together. It becomes important to share the emotional burden even of the conflict that occurs between you.
Things to Remember About Sharing Emotional Labour
Here are three key points for sharing emotional labour in marriage:
1. Understand that the Emotional Labour is Necessary.
A relationship without some aspect of emotional labour cannot be a healthy relationship. For example, if you’re expecting that you can have emotional outbursts of anger and that it’s up to your spouse to regulate and solve the problems for you when you are upset, this is going to be very exhausting of your spouse. Especially if it’s a common occurrence.
The better approach is to understand that a good marriage requires hard work — and a good part of that hard work is what we are calling emotional labour. This means taking responsibility for your own emotions and being willing to do the work necessary to resolve conflict.
2. Learn to Listen Instead of Defend.
Part of the work of emotional labour is also being willing to listen to your spouse’s feedback regarding things that you aren’t doing a great job of. This is particularly important for husbands, although some wives struggle with the same thing. It’s easy to hear that kind of feedback as an attack and it can poke a hole in your ego.
But when you are willing to consider the emotional issue that your spouse is presenting, and are willing to be open to and invite her to share her perspective with you, that is sending a clear signal that you’re willing to share in the emotional labour of the challenge that is facing you.
There’s also a gender issue involved because a lot of the emotional labour that wives put into their marriage is around presenting things to their husbands in a way that makes sure their husband doesn’t blow up or get upset. Really, that should not be part of a marriage. We all need to be considerate about the way in which we present a problem in order to be fair to our spouse. It’s important to make yourself approachable by showing your wife that you’re willing to listen and by setting aside any natural tendency towards defensiveness that you may have.
3. Learn to Become Comfortable with Vulnerability
One of the hardest parts of taking on emotional labour for any spouse is the vulnerability that it requires from us. Husbands sometimes need to be pushed a little harder because part of our society’s definition of what it means to “be a man” is to be invulnerable and hide our negative emotions (other than anger). But when you are willing to show your sadness or fear or anxiety or uncertainty, that actually is how you participate in the emotional labour of an issue. Whether it’s conflict between us as spouses, a family issue with children, or an outside issue with work or church life, etc.
As a husband, if instead of minimizing or dismissing these issues, you can allow yourself to feel the struggle of the issue, and share that feeling with your spouse without needing her to take it on for you. Then you are able to feel joined together. It can really create unity between you as you are vulnerable and sharing and together in that moment. This is how even things like life challenges can bring a couple together. That’s all dealing primarily with emotional labour as it relates to conflict or problems.
In conclusion, it is helpful for husbands to have a discussion with their wives about the division of emotional labour in the household. How does that feel for both of you? Does it feel fair? Or do you need to shift that load somehow to make it more balanced for both partners?
 Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, Updated with a new preface (Berkeley Los Angeles London: University of California Press, 2012).
 Christopher G. Ellison et al., “Sanctification, Stress, and Marital Quality,” Family Relations 60, no. 4 (October 2011): 404–20.
 J. Andrew Morris and Daniel C. Feldman, “The Dimensions, Antecedents, and Consequences of Emotional Labor,” Academy of Management Review 21, no. 4 (October 1996): 986–1010, https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.1996.9704071861.
 Morris and Feldman.
 Lea Emery, “7 Signs You’re Doing All Of The Emotional Labor In Your Relationship,” Bustle, 2018, https://www.bustle.com/p/7-signs-youre-doing-all-of-the-emotional-labor-in-your-relationship-8403535.
 Hsin-Hui“Sunny” Hu, Hsin-Yi Hu, and Brian King, “Impacts of Misbehaving Air Passengers on Frontline Employees: Role Stress and Emotional Labor,” International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management 29, no. 7 (July 10, 2017): 1793–1813, https://doi.org/10.1108/IJCHM-09-2015-0457.
 Virginia Pelley, “‘What Can I Do To Help?’ Is a Stupid Question,” Fatherly, March 9, 2018, https://www.fatherly.com/love-money/emotional-labor-marriage-care/.
 Phillippe Fradet, “4 Ways Men Can Take On More Emotional Labor In Relationships (And Why They Should Do It),” May 28, 2019, https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/7-ways-men-must-learn-to-do-emotional-labor-in-their-relationships/.