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Emotional Labor & Its Toll on Marriage

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Written by Amanda Singer

Recently my Dad sent me a podcast to listen to from ‘Dear Sugars” titled The Invisible Work (Most) Women Do – With Gemma Hartley. Many of you may have heard of the term “emotional labor.” However, for those of you who haven’t, it can be described as being the work of caring. It’s not just caring, it’s that thing where someone says “Ill clean if you just tell me what to clean” because they don’t want to do the mental work of figuring out what or how to clean. Some other examples are caring about all of the moving parts required to feed the family at dinnertime, caring about social management, remembering the grocery list, coordinating with the babysitter or scheduling a get-together with the in-laws. They are mainly invisible tasks that often fall to women to do in their romantic and family relationships. Gemma Hartley was the writer who set up a national conversation about emotional labor with her article in Harper’s Bazaar that went viral last fall, “Women Aren’t Nags – We’re Just Fed Up.” In her article, she discussed her experience with her Husband on Mother’s Day when all she wanted was for him to hire someone to clean the bathroom and instead he decided to clean the bathroom himself as she was left to care for the children. Her point wasn’t just that she wanted the bathroom clean; it was that she wanted someone else to do the research and work of finding someone and setting up the cleaning of the bathroom.

Now emotional labor doesn’t always fall to women. There are couples where the emotional labor is split more equally or falls on the men. As I was listening to the podcast, it got me thinking about how this applies to couples that are going through a divorce when one spouse may have been the one that took on more of the emotional labor during the marriage. Once divorced both spouses now have to take on that role themselves, and this can be difficult. It can be difficult not only for the spouse who might not have realized what their spouse was doing during their marriage, and also for the spouse who was the one who took on the bulk of the emotional labor. I see this play out in that the spouse, often the woman, doesn’t understand how her ex is going to be able to do and remember everything necessary for the family and kids.  I often have the conversation with them that it’s not their responsibility anymore and it’s up to him to figure it out, and they have to let him. Very often the spouse didn’t do the emotional labor because it was done for them and now that they have to they figure it out.

Thinking about emotional labor in a relationship is also important if you’re trying to work on your marriage or are newly married.  This can be an issue that many couples fight about and is often hard for the spouse who isn’t bearing the burden of the majority of the emotional labor to understand. Broaching this subject with your partner or spouse can be tricky, especially if they feel as though you’re blaming them for the imbalance of labor.  However, if you can shift your perspective on it, then you can work together to move forward and hopefully not have this be a reason that you end up sitting in my office for a divorce.