Transitioning the Burden of Emotional Labor

Transitioning the Burden of Emotional Labor

Doing emotional labor is only easier for adult women because we’ve been doing it our entire lives.


We’ve always been expected to carry the weight of solving our relationship problems, and to hold the burdens of our loved ones’ difficulties. By the time we’re adults, we’ve been navigating our own minds and needs for far, far longer than men have. We’ve been the sole owner of initiating talks about the rough stuff, changing ourselves to suit our partners, spending time in situations that make us feel uncomfortable, and navigating complex social spheres. We’re the only ones doing it, and that’s made us GOOD at it. Good at emotional regulation and appeasing and keeping track of dozens of tricky moving parts. We’re all experts in emotional labor through forced practice.


Now, we’ve found the language for what we’ve been doing. Folks – women, mostly – are writing these incredible, nuanced articles on what emotional labor is, and how it’s unbalanced in hetero relationships. We’re looking around going “wait, it *is* ridiculous that I’m the only one planning dates.” or “hold on, my partner comes home and complains about his day at work, and I help him problem solve what to tell his boss, every single day. That’s not right.” or even “I stop myself from crying to not distress him.” We’re realizing that it’s not natural, the role we’ve been forced into.


So, we try to offload some of that burden onto our dude partners, and boy are they *not* used to it.


Even if they’re feminist, respectful, communicative men who believe that sharing emotional labor is part and parcel of being in a relationship, it’s a hard thing to start doing. To start being the one who changes when there’s an incompatibility. To start communicating clearly when there’s an issue to work through. To be the one who makes awkward calls. To communicate with people outside of the relationship. To seek outside help to resolve emotional difficulties. To not offload stresses onto a partner. To process emotions without the help of a partner.


And we can *see* our partners struggling. They’re our partners and we love them, and we can see that it’s difficult for them to handle emotional labor. They’ve never had to do that kind of work before, and any time you begin something new and hard, there’s a tough transition. And being the problem-solving, partner-loving, emotionally-laboring women that we are, we… want to help.


I’ve seen a partner struggle to figure out the logistics for a vacation for the two of us. They said that they wanted to take us both away for the weekend, and so they needed to figure out transportation, accommodation, and plans, and they had never really had to figure out that sort of thing before. It was hard, seeing them get frustrated, and more than once I offered to take over and do that kind of work, because I was used to it. “No!” they snapped, “I’m planning this! I’m taking you on a relaxing vacation!” And unsurprisingly, they became stressed and upset, and I had to help them come down from that level of stress, or have to deal with the discomfort of spending time with a grumpasaurus rex.


It’s not a smooth transition, moving the burden of emotional labor from entirely one-sided to a more equal split. And it’s not a smooth transition, watching someone struggle when you love them. When you think to yourself “I could just deal with this myself, and save both of us the trouble.”


Some tips on how to achieve this transition:


  1. Set boundaries

It’s likely that you’ve struggled before, and you’ve hidden it from your partner. They may or may do that with you on their own, so you need to be clear about what is and isn’t okay to share with you. It’s okay to insist that they process with other people, and not with you. You can explain what kinds of topics are their responsibility to deal with without you.

  1. Learn to listen without helping

When your partner is dealing with a tough situation, just listen to them. Don’t offer suggestions, don’t problem solve, don’t make it your problem. Say things like “yeah, that sounds really upsetting” and “I hope you find a solution that feels good to you.” You can validate their feelings – I’m not telling you to abandon them to having feelings alone – but don’t take on the burden of fixing the things that make them upset.

  1. Give tips when you delegate tasks

Some tasks are just someone’s job to deal with, and they can be exhausting. Arguing with the bank over the mortgage payments, or scheduling the drop off for a new appliance, or dealing with a handyman. Buying gifts for a parent or friend, or to bring to a wedding. Booking plane tickets. Taking the dog to the vet. Writing up a budget. Sometimes those tasks get handled by the person who’s best at them – so if one person is good at math, they should handle the budget. If another person has phone anxiety, they shouldn’t be the one making calls to the bank. But remember I said above – sometimes someone is best at something because they’ve always been forced to do that thing, so they got practice.

If you’re a woman, passing a task off to your partner, you can give them a few tips on how to do that thing. You don’t have to watch them struggle because they don’t know how to do it – then you have to deal with the stress of them struggling. You can say “hey, I need you to call the bank – all of the paperwork is in the yellow folder in the kitchen” or “please book the tickets for our trip – I suggest you use this website, because it’ll make your life much easier.” They’ll get better at it faster, leaving you to not stress about it sooner.

  1. Spend time apart

Is your partner dealing with the stress of suddenly being expected to pull their weight? Sure, it’s hard. We *know* it’s hard. I know it can be upsetting, but you don’t have to deal with that from your partners. Spend time with your other friends. Leave the house. Encourage them to spend time with their friends. If you’ve fallen into a habit of spending all of your time together, this might be a good time to mix that up.

  1. Up your communication game

It’s time to use your words more clearly than ever. Be explicit about what you want and what you need. Don’t imply things, state them. And make sure your partner is doing that too. The easiest way to build resentment is to not be clear about your expectations and to keep things which upset you all shoved away.

  1. Go slow

This one is a little more iffy than the rest. You are totally within your rights to say “this is bullshit, and you need to take on half of the burden of this relationship *now*” or “I don’t date men who expect me to do more than them” or even “I don’t date men who ask me to do anything for them – if I don’t explicitly offer, it’s not happening.” But if you’re in a long-term relationship with someone who’s trying to step up their emotional labor game and is having trouble, you can make the transition slow.  This one is mostly for people in a relationship that they see lasting a long time, that they want to make sure is sustainable and stable. Slowly up what you expect from your partner, until they’re appropriately taking on half of the burden. This will mean that there’s no one transitional shock that makes them miserable and stressed, and that you have to deal with in response. It’s frustrating to have to wait or go slow, but if that feels right for you and your partner and you don’t resent it, a longer timeline could teach them more sustainably about what an equal partnership looks like.


Give it a shot, folks. Your partners should be doing their part in your relationship, and it’s not your job to coach them on how to get there.

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