Emotional labor is a term that's become popularized since it was first coined in the '80s as a critique of capitalism. Since then, the term has been popularly applied to our personal lives—so we dug into what it really means, plus how to talk about it in relationships.
What is emotional labor?
Emotional labor is defined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, Ph.D., in her 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling as the process by which workers must regulate their emotions to manage the emotional state of customers as part of the job requirements. Today, the concept is often applied to the domain of personal relationships, generally referencing the invisible work of managing other people's emotions and well-being.
Most prominently, the term emotional labor is often used to describe the emotional demands of a relationship (such as being available for your friends to unload their problems on you) as well as the family management responsibilities women tend to be saddled with in heterosexual relationships (such as being the one who's in charge of knowing what chores need to get done and assigning them to your partner).
In general, emotional labor can be thought of as any tasks that take from a person's emotional, mental, or energetic tank. Although Hochschild herself has criticized this expanded definition of emotional labor, many people have gravitated toward the term to describe these mental or energetic imbalances within their relationships.
Emotional labor in relationships.
All relationships involve some level of emotional work, from caring for a friend who's feeling down to trying to articulate your emotions respectfully while arguing with your romantic partner. In some relationships, though, one person often ends up taking the brunt of this so-called emotional labor. Take the case of the friend who's always texting you for advice on their life problems, seemingly always in crisis mode.
"Emotional labor is the process [of] managing and regulating your own feelings in order to perform a task," California-based therapist Alyssa Mancao, LSCW, recently told mbg. "In these situations, the tasks at hand are to listen, provide support, and problem-solve depending on what the asker is looking for. In order to do this, the friend has to be fully present and be able to momentarily put their own issues to the side in order to engage thoughtfully and mindfully. Doing this is not easy."
The term emotional labor is sometimes used to reference the mental responsibilities of household, family, or relationship management, all of which often fall on women and is expected of them. Sometimes this is referred to as the "mental load" or the "overhead of caring." It's being the one who has to ask your partner to do the dishes and every other task rather than them taking the initiative to do it themselves and being the one who feels stressed and guilty when they can't accomplish all of their household responsibilities.
Even today, research shows women are still doing the majority of this unseen domestic labor1, not to mention the expectation that women are to be more nurturing and appeasing.
Here are some examples of those inequalities, which might be considered emotional labor in friendships and romantic relationships:
- One person is always venting, making the other their unofficial therapist.
- One person is expected to always be available to listen to the other person's problems.
- One person is reactive, leaving the other feeling like they must always walk on eggshells around them.
- One person is more likely to be the one to try to talk things out after a fight.
- One partner compromises their boundaries more than the other.
- One partner is expected to be the household "manager," in charge of assigning chores, making sure the other has done theirs, and picking up the slack otherwise.
- One partner is always called on to soothe the children and tend to their emotional needs, while the other isn't.
- One partner is expected to know the whole family's schedule and remember special events, while the other partner isn't.
Emotional labor at work.
Originally, Hochschild intended for this term to relate solely to "work, for which you're paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job," she explained in an interview with the Atlantic. And it occurs both when an employee has to suppress certain emotions—but also fake others.
If you've ever worked a clientele or customer-facing role, you likely know all too well the need to regulate emotions, abiding by "display rules." For example, part of a flight attendant's job is making customers feel a certain way (happy and relaxed), and this work is done by constantly adjusting their own emotional affect.
The "service with a smile" mentality is one common example of emotional labor, says Erin Rae Fluegge, Ph.D., a business management professor who has researched emotional labor. And it can become emotionally taxing and even cause long-term psychological consequences for such workers.
"The components of emotional labor are 'surface acting' and 'deep acting,'" Fluegge explains. "'Surface acting' involves faking one's emotions to show the 'correct' one. ... In 'deep acting,' they are genuinely trying to change their own feelings to hopefully display positive emotions authentically. Both types of acting require internal regulation of one's emotions and feelings, which can sometimes lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout2."
Baked into this definition of emotional labor is a critique of a capitalist system whereby people's emotions are commodified and controlled by their employers, often to their detriment.
"Emotion regulation is a crucial factor in being able to function in a family, job, or community," licensed psychotherapist Alena Gerst, LCSW, adds. "But emotional labor is more about the suppression of feelings."
Some people criticize the use of the term emotional labor in the context of personal relationships; firstly because it removes the focus from systemic, structural labor issues, and secondly because the word labor can make it feel like we're commodifying our very relationships.
There are lots of terms that can be applied to the broader view of emotional labor. Emotion work and emotion management, for example, were also coined by Hochschild and deal with managing the emotions of oneself and others in more contexts than just the workforce.
Other terms to consider using, particularly if you're a woman feeling devalued in your home, include invisible labor and the mental load. Invisible labor refers to the maternal and household tasks that inundate mothers everywhere—and, according to research, can leave them feeling very overwhelmed3. The mental load specifically refers to the mental tasks and exhaustion that comes with being the de facto household manager.
But at the end of the day, Fluegge says she understands why, as a term, emotional labor has been adopted in these more feminist and relational contexts. "Anyone who has been married or has a significant other can certainly attest to it being hard emotional work," she says. "More than anything, I am excited people want to talk about emotional labor and learn more about it."
How to talk about emotional labor with your partner.
"Many people, women, in particular, don't even realize they are carrying a heavier total load and, therefore, bearing the burden of emotional labor," Gerst notes. If you've begun to realize you are, it's important to address it, to avoid resentment from brewing and potentially blowing up.
Start by asking your partner if you can sit down to talk about something that's been weighing on you, so they're prepared. And when you do tell them how you're feeling, avoid using "you" statements that could be interpreted as an attack, and focus on "I" statements, such as "I feel I've been putting an unequal amount of effort into housework," or "Sometimes I'm overwhelmed when I'm needed for emotional support."
Explain what the emotional labor in your relationship feels like to you and that you have boundaries that need to be honored. Changes may not happen overnight, but it's important to bring awareness to the challenges you're facing if you want to see progress.
Here's our full guide to how to get your partner to be more involved in the housework, plus what to do in a codependent friendship when a friend is leaning on you too much for support.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, as well as a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.