The Advice Therapists Give When One Spouse Does All The Emotional Labor

Whether you're the emotional laboring spouse or the slacker, marriage therapists have some tips for you.

The hot topic in marriage therapist’s offices right now? Emotional labor.

The last few years, a number of viral essays and Facebook posts have highlighted the trouble with emotional labor, or the weight and effort of managing nearly everything at home ― especially the seemingly invisible jobs no one else seems to track or recognize.

It’s tasks like scheduling doctor’s appointments, making sure the kids’ lunches are packed, helping them with homework assignments and navigating emotional crises (everyone else’s, as well as your own). Originally, the term was applied to workplace interactions, but it’s recently been used for housework and parenting tasks, too.

Unfortunately, the invisible work of running a household and raising the kids disproportionately falls on women’s shoulders. And in many cases, it’s on top of their day-to-day responsibilities at work.

Now that there’s a catch-all phrase for this work, spouses ― wives in particular ― are more prone to talk about it. Kurt Smith and other therapists HuffPost interviewed for this piece said the emotional labor divide is brought up most by heterosexual couples.

“I’m regularly addressing this problem with partners,” said Smith, a couples therapist in Roseville, California. “When I ask them if they’ve had a discussion about the roles each is taking on and how they’ll split up the household responsibilities, I almost always get a ‘no.’”

More often than not, emotional labor falls on the wive's shoulders.
Noel Hendrickson via Getty Images
More often than not, emotional labor falls on the wive's shoulders.

Our guess why that conversation never happens? The emotional laborer in the relationship was probably too damn tired to add it to their to-do list. When you do it all ― mediate fights between the kids, run household chores, schedule doctor’s appointments, get everyone to bed ― you don’t have the mental or emotional wherewithal to actually address it.

Still, Smith said, “My go-to advice to the couple is to start this discussion. I say ‘discussion’ because it should be an ongoing, ever-evolving conversation, not a one-and-done talk that happened 15 years ago.”

Because that’s easier said than done, we asked Smith and other therapists to share the exact advice they give when this issue comes up in their offices. We’ve divided their advice into two categories: what they tell the exhausted spouse and what they tell the spouse who’s slacking off.

Don’t assume your spouse should “just get it.” You’re going to have to talk about this.

In an ideal world, your partner would recognize the hot mess your household would be if you weren’t handling it all. They’d home in on the tasks that need to be done and do it without being asked. In the real world, you probably need to speak up about the inequity here. (A word to the wise: Have the discussion when you’re well-rested and have some alone time, not after a long day of putting out fires at work and home.)

“Don’t assume that your partner should ‘just get it.’ Tell them it’s bothering you,” Smith said. “Recognizing non-verbal cues isn’t always a strength for many men because they’re out of habit, but it’s definitely something that can be worked on.”

If he’s never heard of “emotional labor” and really doesn’t get it, consider using the definition offered by writer Khe Hy: “Shit someone does that goes unrecognized.” (Nailed it, actually.)

As for how to bring it up, Alicia Clark, a Washington, D.C.-based therapist, said to avoid blunt criticism that might, however unfairly, make you seem like a nag. Instead, tell your partner how you feel when you are overburdened with responsibilities.

“Tell them you feel anxious, trapped, burdened, worried, alone, ignored, invisible, unappreciated, sad, or distant when you do it all and how you really don’t want to feel that way,” she said. “If you get your communication right, your partner will respond with empathy and compassion.”

Resist the temptation to point fingers. You’re both responsible for falling into this dynamic.

Without even realizing, you may have fallen into an unspoken agreement about responsibilities around the house, said Kathleen Dahlen deVos, a psychotherapist based in San Francisco.

“For parents, the unconscious agreement might be, ‘I prioritize the needs of my children above the needs of my relationship or myself,’” she explained. “With a significant other, it might sound like, ‘My partner’s career is more important than mine.’”

All too often, those unspoken agreement falls along depressingly gendered lines: You might be a full-time worker just like your husband, but that doesn’t matter. Your “second shift” begins the minute you walk through the door and the kids run to you.

For your own well-being, don’t allow yourself or your spouse to fall into these traps.

Stop doing everything. Let some things fall to the wayside and see what happens.

Stepping back can be difficult, but doing so can change your entire dynamic. See what happens if you don’t address everything, even if the thought alone fills you with immense dread (including visions of “D” test grades for the kids or your home looking like an episode of “Hoarders”).

“You might assume you have to perform all the emotional labor because your partner can’t or won’t,” said Anna Poss, a therapist in Chicago. “In reality, you’ve created the expectation that you’ll bear the burden and have established that role in the relationship. It sends a message to their partner that they are not expected to help and often, that they should not.”

In the process of letting go, mistakes will be made ― but they’ll also be learned from. Don’t underestimate your partner’s ability to get most things done, said Greg Cason, a psychologist based in Los Angeles.

“To make things move faster, refrain from complaining about what your partner isn’t doing and just ask your partner for help,” he said. “Then, whatever your partner does, give them kudos and keep letting go.”

Examine why you feel responsible for doing it all.

Often the partner who shoulders most of the emotional labor grew up with a parent who “over-functioned” to compensate for a partner who slacked off. It’s a vicious familial cycle. Remind yourself that that doesn’t need to be the track you follow, said Samantha Rodman, a psychologist in North Bethesda, Maryland.

“You might just be subconsciously emulating this same dynamic you saw with your parents and then blaming your partner for it,” she said. “Often, your partner does less because you allow them to, because you expect them to, and because you teach them how to treat you.”

Think of what your home life might be like if your spouse wasn’t there.

Understanding and genuinely appreciating the emotional labor your partner performs every day is difficult if everything is going swimmingly at home. And if you don’t feel pressured to do it, is this stuff really all that important?

Emotional labor might be called invisible work, but look hard enough and you’ll see your spouse’s handiwork: The report card grade that improved because she prodded your kid to study. The new contact lenses your 11-year-old is sporting because your wife made a doctor’s appointment and took him. The weekend at your parents’ house that’s all squared away because she organized it and packed.

Look around your house, consider your family life, and imagine the chaos that would ensue if she wasn’t handling all of it, Cason said.

“Once you’ve realized things really would fall apart, it’s time to step up,” he said. “For your part, you need to radically accept there is a problem, then apologize to your partner for not always being there. Be careful not to give excuses and ask your partner how you can help. Better yet, look for ways to help and help shoulder the emotional burdens.”

Stop telling yourself “she’s just better at this kind of stuff.”

There’s nothing in your wife’s genetic coding that makes her better suited to this kind of work. You are just as intuitive, empathetic and caring as she is. You’re just as capable of rooting her on in her career and playing in-house therapist when your 16-year-old experiences her first breakup.

Emotional labor is a habit that is practiced rather than the result of a person’s personality or some sort of character trait, Poss said.

“If it is a new habit, it will take some time and a little work for it to feel natural,” she said. “But helping your partner bear the emotional labor load will not only enhance their satisfaction in the relationship, but yours as well.”

Monitor your helpfulness around the house. (Download a habit tracker if you have to!)

Now that you know this is an issue, look for areas where you can do some heavy lifting around the house or with the kids.

“At least once a day ask yourself ‘How can I be helpful to my partner?’” said Marie Land, a psychologist in Washington, D.C. “At least once a week ask your partner how you can be helpful.”

If it helps, download a habit tracker app so you can monitor your progress.

Don’t be afraid of the criticism. Ask for feedback and practice being non-defensive.

Your spouse may slide back into criticism on this journey to redistribute the emotional labor. If they do, cut them some slack; they probably have years of resentment built up. That might play out in them being critical of how you handled one of your new tasks. Take it in stride.

“If you’re the slacking-off spouse, you might feel frustrated by never getting it right when you help, justifying your avoidance to engage,” Clark said. “Keep engaging, though.”

Point out your progress and stay receptive to your partner’s feedback without being defensive or feeling like it’s a personal attack.

“Aim to listen,” Clark said. “Simply being willing to hear, and understand, your partner is a powerful, and effective, first step in reestablishing connection and solving this problem.”

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