Why Couples Need To Make Invisible Labor Visible In Their Relationships

Licensed Psychoanalyst By Jordan Dann, MFA, LP, CIRT
Licensed Psychoanalyst
Jordan Dann, MFA, LP, CIRT, is a licensed psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City working with individuals and couples. She is a graduate of the Gestalt Associates for Psychotherapy, an IMAGO couples therapist, and a Somatic Experiencing practitioner.
Is Someone's Invisible Labor Going Unnoticed In Your Relationship?
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Understanding the concept of invisible labor is key to a satisfying partnership. Over time a lopsided division of labor, or the failure to recognize a partner's domestic contributions and efforts, can have a negative impact on our connection. In every partnership, each individual carries some "mental load." Learning how to reveal this essential and hidden aspect of every partnership can bring greater acknowledgment of one another, ease resentment, and create more balance.

The problem of invisible labor.

In a 1987 article published in the Social Problems journal, sociologist Arlene Daniels describes the concept of "invisible work," referring to unpaid work that goes unnoticed, unacknowledged, and thus unregulated. The term "invisible labor" gets its roots from the work of Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who explores that as more women began working outside the home in the latter half of the 20th century, women were still picking up the bulk of the household and child care duties when they got home after the workday. In 1989, Hochschild coined the term "the second shift" to describe "clocking in" at home after "clocking out" of one's professional job.

The infinite tasks of invisible labor are indeed work, and they require time and effort. But there is no financial compensation, and in many relationships these tasks go unrecognized and unappreciated, which can create a cycle of resentment and distance in relationships.

In the academic definition, invisible labor affects a wide range of marginalized groups; often it is that the people performing this labor are marginalized because their work isn't seen, paid, or acknowledged. In more recent years, invisible labor has become shorthand for the domestic tasks and child care activities that women carry out, and primarily cisgender, heterosexual women. Of course, this same inequality exists in LGBTQ+ relationships and may be dictated by personality style, relationship dynamics, established roles within the couple, and/or any other number of reasons.

From a historical standpoint (and a patriarchal, gendered, and heteronormative perspective) "housework" and "child care" were traditionally done by women. In some instances, it is not the wife or mother of the house that is doing the invisible labor, but rather women of color, immigrant women, or white women of lower socioeconomic status, who are performing invisible labor for another family's home.

Today the division of labor is more evenly distributed in domestic partnerships, though research shows that women still do significantly more in the home—a dynamic particularly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the past 40 years, men's participation in housework and time spent on child care have tripled. However, even when both individuals have careers, there are still variations in how invisible labor gets divided. The New York Times reports that working from home has "highlighted and compounded the heavier domestic burden borne by women," and McKinsey & Company research reported that one in four women are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers, versus one in five men. The three groups that were most strongly affected and faced the largest challenges are working mothers, women in senior management positions, and Black women.

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What can be done? Making visible the invisible.

When my husband and I make dinner together, we decide who is going to be head chef. That person is usually the person who has selected a recipe or has a concept for dinner. The sous chef will then assume the assisting role, and we often will engage in a humorous dynamic wherein we ask questions such as, "How would you like the red pepper cut, chef? Thank you, chef. Oui, chef!"

While couples express frustration regarding household division of labor, some couples find greater effectiveness in accomplishing domestic tasks. A study of couples preparing dinner together revealed a variety of interpersonal styles that demonstrate increased effectiveness, including:

  • Silent collaboration, in which both individuals work in the same space and go about separate tasks.
  • One partner as expert, in which one spouse was considered an expert or authority in a particular task, either humorously or with genuine respect.
  • Coordinating together, wherein both individuals communicate in advance and clarify roles and tasks.
  • Collaborating apart, in which partners complete their share of the labor in separate locations.

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Invisible labor and emotional labor are also referred to as "cognitive labor," and so it is important that we explore how to make this implicit system more explicit—to make that which is "invisible" visible.

Emma, a French cartoonist and blogger, has a wonderful viral comic that depicts the work of "project managing" the household. This cartoon makes visible this "invisible," near-universal phenomenon. One of the most insightful images she depicts is the "cleaning of the table" and the endless interconnected tasks that the female character completes as a part of this one task.

Emma offers a number of causes for this gender inequity. One main complaint she illustrates is that we "teach" our children which gendered toys to play with, which, from an early age, sets the stage for teaching children about "roles." She also critiques gendered stories, wherein men get to go on hero journeys while the women stay home to take care of the children and await the man's return. She also offers that men should start to lead the charge on advocating for paternity leave, not just the feminists who have taken up this cause. 

Another way to bring more visibility is to appreciate the skill involved in cognitive labor. Harvard sociologist Allison Daminger recently published a study in which she defines and describes cognitive labor. Based on her research, Daminger describes four components of cognitive labor:

  1. Anticipation: recognizing upcoming needs, problems, or opportunities.
  2. Identification: determining options for fulfilling needs through research, discussions with others, etc.
  3. Decision-making: choosing among the identified options.
  4. Monitoring: making sure that decisions were executed and that needs were met.

When domestic life hums along with smoothness and ease, when the groceries are in the fridge, and the kids come to and from school, when the bills are paid, and doctor appointments are scheduled, it can be easy to forget that this machine doesn't just run on its own. However, when all this work goes unacknowledged, this means that the individuals who accomplished this also go unacknowledged. Recognizing the work equates to recognizing the persons doing the work.

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An exercise to try at home.

Review the following questions and have an honest internal dialogue with yourself about how you and your partner relate to invisible labor in your partnership:

  • Who is responsible for household management? Who takes care of grocery shopping, meal planning, household necessities, home repair, and who escalates the situation when there's an issue that needs attention?
  • Who engages with any outside help? Who arranges dog walking, babysitter, house maintenance, deliveries, health care, etc.?
  • Who is the "assumed parent" when it comes to engaging with child care, school arrangements, socializing with other children, managing child needs, etc.?
  • Who is the social connector or event planner? Who is the individual who organizes time with friends, attending events, planning vacations, etc.?
  • Who initiates communication that supports and nurtures emotional intimacy? This might be talking about sex, money, emotional closeness, or conflict. This area might be defined as "emotional labor" and can also fall into the category of "invisible." 

All of these aforementioned areas of life are concrete tasks that necessitate complex thought and resulting behavior. These tasks are named "invisible" because in a sense they are unpaid, assumed, and less time-bound, but these are the necessary "little and big jobs" that make domestic living and relationships chug along with comfort and ease.

After reflecting on the above questions, you might also find that you would like more support or help in carrying the mental load or that you'd like to renegotiate the division of domestic labor. If this is the case, try approaching your partner at a moment when you are feeling calm and say, "I've been reflecting on how invisible labor plays a part in our relationship, and I'd like to collaborate with you about how I might get some support with X (name identified area where you'd like support). Would you be open to exploring this with me?"

Separately, take another look at the list above and notice the areas where invisible labor occurs. Identify a task that your partner manages. (Note: Even better if you can select a task that you've never offered appreciation about.)

When you have a quiet moment, try this structure for dialogue and begin by saying to your partner:

  • I'd like to offer you appreciation for a piece of invisible labor that you do. Are you available?
  • I really appreciate when you do X (name the task). 
  • When you do this task, it makes me feel X (name how you feel—loved, taken care of, relieved, etc.). 
  • Thank you so much for doing this because it improves our life. 

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