Being in any type of relationship involves some level of emotional commitment, which can, at times, feel draining. But, if you carry a disproportionately large load of the emotional labor in relationships, that level of drain is likely high and potentially unsustainable.
Being able to correct a situation of carrying the emotional labor in relationships first requires you to know that it’s happening in the first place. With that it mind, it’s important to understand what, exactly, emotional labor even is, and then being able to spot signs that you may be experiencing it yourself. The hope, then, is that you and your partner, friend, or family member can take steps to equalize the dynamic, because bearing the brunt of the emotional labor in a relationship can be exhausting and potentially put the health of the relationship in question in jeopardy..
What is emotional labor
The term first came from Arlie Hochschild, PhD, a sociologist at University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Hochschild coined the term in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, and has since continued to study emotional labor in a range of situations. She first used the phrase to talk about how people need to manage their emotions on the job to handle the emotions of customers, but it’s eventually grown and expanded to focus more on personal relationships.
That said, “emotional labor is not easily defined,” says therapist Lesli Doares, LMFT, author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage. “It usually refers to the amount of emotional energy expended to keep a relationship going. This can mean managing your own emotions as well as trying to manage your partner’s, and making sure everyone is ‘happy.’ It can also include taking on tasks such as being the one to reach out after an argument, initiating physical contact, planning dates, and following up on a partner’s important work event.”
“[Emotional labor] refers to the amount of emotional energy expended to keep a relationship going.” —Lesli Doares, LMFT
People who take on the bulk of responsibility of emotional labor in relationships may also try to mute their own emotions so that they don’t “weigh down” the other person in the relationship, says licensed clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go?. Meaning, if you carry the emotional labor in relationships, you may try to hide the fact that you’re upset about something because you feel like it could be a burden on your partner or friend. “It can also be the holding of the emotional load in a relationship, serving as a sort of ‘therapist’ to a partner, providing reassurance,” Dr. Durvsula says.
4 signs you’re carrying the emotional labor in your relationship
Experts say there are a few signs that you’re the one carrying the emotional labor in your relationship:
1. You feel resentful and frustrated.
These emotions, Dr. Durvasula says, are “sure signs that you believe something is out of whack,” and can include things like wondering why your partner never does certain things.
2. You feel taken advantage of.
Meaning, it can feel like if you don’t do something in your relationship, it will never get done, Dr. Durvasula says.
3. You feel like your partner doesn’t care as much as they should.
That could mean feeling like your partner is uninterested in your feelings or that they’re not putting in as much effort as you are, Dr. Durvasula says.
4. You’re emotionally exhausted.
You can only bear the emotional labor in a relationship for so long. That’s why Doares says that “fatigue and psychological exhaustion” are common when you carry the emotional labor.
How to change the relationship dynamic
Again, bearing the emotional labor in a relationship is exhausting, and it’s not sustainable. The first thing that needs to happen to change things, Doares says, is to figure out what you’re doing and why. Ask yourself whether you’re bending over backward for your partner because you’re worried they’ll leave, or acting as a therapist of sorts for your friend because you feel like they have no one else they can trust?
“Get clear about any behavior that is driven by fear,” Doares says. “Decide what you are willing to take on moving forward without resentment or your partner doing anything differently. Identify and address any feelings about letting go of the rest.”
If this is happening in your romantic relationship, Dr. Durvasula recommends talking about the status quo and why it’s not working. “Consider couples therapy as a place to do this,” she says. “But talk about it, and if your partner cannot manage to do that, then you have bigger issues afoot.”
It’s also important that you work through your own emotions, Dr. Durvasula says, given that you’ve probably been pushing them down in order to emotionally care for someone else. That could mean talking to a trusted friend or even going to individual therapy. “Not sharing your feelings about carrying this undue burden can be draining on a relationship,” Dr. Durvasula says. “Sometimes people are afraid to talk about it for fear of a relationship ending, or due to long-standing patterns of carrying emotional labor starting in their family of origin.”
If your partner is receptive about making a change, Doares recommends having a healthy dialogue about what is and isn’t working. “Talk to your partner about what they think is important to do to keep the relationship healthy,” she says. “The truth is they will not see things the same way you do. Some things may be more important to them; others to you.”
Ultimately, though, “sharing what you need and want and making requests for specific actions on their part is the way to change things,” Doares says. You are your own best advocate, so identifying what your needs are and speaking up about them can help ensure you don’t carry more than your share of the emotional labor in relationships.
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