I was asked to write about the impact of emotional labor on relationships, which I thought was a great idea. And then when I put the question out there on social media about what people wanted to see in this section, it was immediately apparent that most of us don’t have a really good handle on what the term emotional labor is referencing. And that’s pretty common.
One of the first hits on Google for “emotional labor” is a piece in Harper’s Bazaar by Gemma Hartley called “Women Aren’t Nags, We’re Just Fed Up.” And it’s a great piece. But it’s really about the unpaid relational labor of time and thoughtfulness, not emotional labor. And, as is wont to happen, the more poorly we define something harmful, the less likely we are to recognize this harm being perpetuated in our own lives.
Emotional Labor: The term actually comes from studies of the workplace and how many people, especially those in service industries, are required to regulate and manage their emotions as well as express emotions they don’t actually feel in order to provide service to their customer base. The obvious example would be the restaurant server seeming very happy to see us and cheerfully pronouncing that cleaning up the ground in saltines and jello left behind by a toddler is no problem at all. And for the record, this is a level of emotional labor that I feel in my soul, even though I haven’t waited tables in 20 years.
The term originates from a sociologist named Arlie Hothschild and is categorized in three domains: expressive, behavioral, and cognitive. The expressive part is the easy part. Pretending that scraping up jello is a delight in your day when you are really thinking people need better home training is expressive emotional labor. Cognitive and bodily is a bit deeper. It can mean conciously changing your own thoughts (cognitions) to create an emotional state that makes others happier (“Yaaay! It really is OK! After all it’s my job, and there is work satisfaction to be had in Jello removal!”) and bodily emotional labor means changing how you present and use your physical self to signal acceptable emotions, such as smiling, arm posturing, etc.
It’s easy to see how this term can apply to relationship communication outside of employment. A friend of mine mentioned that this was an expected duty of women who grew up in the church community she grew up in. In her marriage, it was her place to modulate her emotions for the ease and comfort and care of her partner’s emotions. Negative emotions, either her own, or in response to his were considered unacceptable.
Many people (especially women) have grown up with this message as a cultural norm, whether from a faith-based community or another setting. And oftentimes, especially if you are quite adept at performing emotional labor, your partner may not even be aware of what is going on. And are as confused as the people around you when you (eventually, inevitably) lose your shit.
Other times, we get trained in modulating ourselves and performing emotional labor by partners that are controlling and abusive. We learn to avoid as much conflict as possible interacting as if we are waitstaff that are thrilled to be of service…in our own household. This is a form of coercive control, which is abuse without physical violence. If the perpetrating partner is willing to do the work, it may be able to be addressed in therapy but just as likely may require a relationship exit strategy.
Unpaid Relational Labor: Back to Gemma Harley’s piece. She wrote about how she asked her husband to get her a housekeeping service as a gift. She wanted him to do the research and price compare, find a good deal and hire the service. The point was not so much the money being spent, but him taking the physical time and to do the research and the mental time it took to think and care about her needs in order to do so. The article was about how he failed in this process. This is a catch-all category about physical and mental time spent on caring for a partner and the joint responsibilities of that partnership (child rearing, household chores, etc.) This is another category that, for a variety of cultural reasons, tends to fall to women in heterosexual relationships. This may be a cultural expectation, or it may be a frustrating and inconsiderate (but not mean spirited) blindness to the extra work one partner is doing for the household.
Household chores and parenting obligations are far easier to recognize and quantify. But other laborious activities, less so. Who makes all the vacation plans? Date night arrangements? Who is far more likely to do thoughtful and considerate things like picking up the drycleaning, or running to the post office simply to make the other partner’s life easier? Mr Intimacy Dr is great at the household chore load. He definitely does at least 50% of house task bullshit, including cat box duty and most of the dishes. So lots of gold stars there.
But he will also be the first to admit that planning date nights and the like is not his forte. He is genuine when he says whatever I want to do is fine. It’s not a matter of laziness. But after conversations about it, he realized that him doing the planning made me feel cared for. Taking the time to research restaurants, looking at menus, finding one that looked promising, getting my work schedule, making reservations based on it, etc., etc, not only freed up my time it signaled that I was important to him.
This also comes up frequently in conversations regarding power structures in society. Race is probably the biggest right now, with gender norms close on its heels.
Emotional labor is pretending I’m not bothered by someone touching my hair without permission, because it is a different texture than theirs and they want to “see” it and they don’t “mean anything by it.”
Relational labor is me taking the time to explain to someone why hair is particularly sacred to Indigenous cultures and is not there to appease your curiosity. (Although, ohmygod, everyone’s hair should be off limits.)
Emotional labor is pretending that you totally understand that your bosses “sense of humor” isn’t racist because he’s “only joking.”
Relational labor is when you are asked to explain the perspectives of racial injustice protestors to samesaid boss to demonstrate to him that they are not all “thugs.”
All of those circumstances are shitty, right? But there are still differences.
Emotional labor is always problematic. This doesn’t mean people should be mean. I don’t think service workers should be surly assholes to customers any more than I should be a surly asshole of a customer to service workers. But performative niceness in which you may be harmed by others without consequences is not OK.
Relational labor is different. It’s contextual. Sealioning someone on Facebook to explain their political views to you over and over is crap. Expecting your South Asian colleague to explain the sanskrit symbol on your hoodie to you because y’all sit across from each other and they are the only South Asian you know? Also crap.
But, as mentioned above, relational labor is something we do for each other regularly. And, like I said, it’s valuable work. It’s the glue that helps us create a better society.
If we recognize it for what it is, we can appreciate it deeply when it is offered to us. Someone taking the time to correct you on their pronouns is not attacking you. They are doing relational labor to educate you and allow for the both of you to have a more authentic relationship.
And if we ask for relational labor, we hold it in esteem and value it for what it is. Whether it be making dinner reservations or explaining a complexity of our lives for someone else’s edification. And recognizing that this is not owed to us. It’s as valuable a commodity as any tangible item they may give us.
Let’s value each other more consciously.
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