What Exactly is Emotional Labor?

If you’ve ever worked in any service job, you’ve probably dealt with managing your emotions to keep the customer happy. If you work at a restaurant and you bring food to your table, and the customer says their sandwich came with a sauce on it they didn’t ask for, you need to stay positive and offer a solution to keep the customer also feeling positive so they’ll return to your restaurant. You have to manage your feelings while also managing the emotions of the people around you. This idea of managing emotions, feelings, and expressions is called emotional labor.

The concept of emotional labor was first fully explored by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book The Managed Heart. When Hochschild was first discussing emotional labor, she mostly explored this concept in regard to work relationships. Other professions that require a great deal of emotional labor are teachers, nurses, flight attendants, or hotel management, just to name a few.

Since Hochschild’s initial writing on the topic, many other sociologists have delved deeper into studying emotional labor. This topic has now been expanded beyond just showing up in work situations. Emotional labor also is present in people’s everyday domestic lives, and unfortunately, women often bear the brunt of emotional labor in many relationships.

The first time I heard the term “emotional labor” and saw a lengthy explanation of it was a Harpers Bazaar article written by Gemma Hartly. In the article, Hartley describes how she asked her husband to hire a house cleaning service for her as a Mother’s Day gift. She wanted her husband to handle it all so she could relax and enjoy a clean home. She didn’t want to have to go through the trouble of looking up cleaning services, comparing prices, and reading reviews—she wanted her husband to do that for her as part of the gift.

Instead, her husband cleaned the bathrooms himself, which is a nice gesture, but Hartly describes that she ended up watching their children and cleaning up some clothing and a box her husband left out in their closet. Her husband says she should have just asked him to put the box away, and as the author expresses, the whole point is she doesn’t want to have to ask. She wanted to feel cared for by her partner in the same way she cares for him.

Bearing the full responsibility of managing a household and making sure everyone is cared for is a lot of work. Updating a calendar with everyone’s schedules, packing lunches for children to take to school, washing and folding laundry, asking your partner to clean up after themselves, asking them a second, third, and fourth time to clean the bathroom even though it’s their responsibility and they shouldn’t need to be reminded. These are all examples of emotional labor women often are responsible for in a home.

The actual, physical work isn’t the emotional labor— all of the little things you do for others that make their lives easier, and the process of asking your partner to also do their work and share in the responsibilities is the emotional labor.

Having conversations with your partner about them pitching in more, being considerate of their feelings, making sure they understand you asking them to help out and do their chores without being asked multiple times is not an attack on their character, is emotional labor. All the while you just do what needs to be done because if you don’t do it, no one will.

So why is it that women often bear a great responsibility for this? There’s the old stereotype that men will go out into the world and work a full-time job while women stay at home and raise the children and look after the house. Maybe some of this is due to old gender norms sticking around, but honestly, I’m not quite sure. But many modern relationships have both partners working full time, so shouldn’t the housework and in-home responsibilities be split equally?

Obviously, every relationship won’t have this exact dynamic, but if you google “emotional labor,” you’ll find article after article citing specific examples of women handling emotional labor in the home. Think about your own upbringing and who was in charge of domestic and emotional care in your home. Think about those responsibilities in your own life now and who takes care of them in your various relationships.

Everyone has to do some sort of emotional labor in their lives, but if you are thanklessly responsible for the majority of this labor in your home, you should feel able to change that.

If you’re feeling like you are bearing the brunt of all of this in-house labor and you’re having to constantly remind your partner to do their share of housework, run errands, etc., then it might be time for a conversation with them about equally distributing work. Yes, you’ll want to be considerate of their feelings when you talk with them, but you are not nagging! You’re simply asking for an equal share of responsibility. And if your partner loves you and cares about you, then they should want to actively share the responsibility.

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