How can I scale back all of this emotional labor?

How can I scale back all of this emotional labor?

Tension about the imbalance of emotional labor in heterosexual marriage has been an ongoing conversation topic in my therapy practice for decades. By emotional labor, most female clients are referring to the emotions they experience related to an unfair balance of physical or mental labor associated with managing a household. Women experience a strong aversion to feeling like a nag, so feelings of irritation and anger are kept inside until they explode. Furthermore, many women remark that they do all of the emoting in their marriage. They grow to resent the likelihood that if they did not express or explore emotional topics with their spouse, the marriage would remain void of feeling. Female clients express tremendous frustration and ask various versions of similarly worded questions and concerns: “Why am I always the one to initiate a meaningful conversation?” “Why is it always on me to make sure everyone knows the schedule and responsibilities for each child, and why am I always the one to absorb the worry about our children’s collective well-being?” “I’m so sick of telling myself not to be a nag, so instead I do too much of our housework and become filled with annoyance and resentment!”

I wish I had discovered a perfect solution, but emotional labor is a complicated concept, especially in today’s egalitarian society. Men and women are socialized differently and these differences may be most noticeable in the emotional labor imbalance that characterizes many marriages.

One strategy that many couples find helpful is to create separate domains so that women can claim certain family responsibilities as their own, and completely check others off their mental list. Of course, designating separate domains necessities true delegation and loss of control. If dad is in charge of absolutely everything related to soccer, he may do a terrible job making sure the uniforms are clean and the backpacks are filled with everything a child needs. He may not place emotional effort into certain conversations about how a game goes or how a child feels after practice. But at least mom can scratch something off her mental list and dad will probably bring a wealth of other strengths to this domain.

Fearing that things will fall apart is a common thread of resistance to creating separate domains of responsibility to reduce emotional labor imbalance in marriage. However, sometimes allowing things to fall apart is a necessary catalyst for change. If the over-emoting spouse can tolerate refusing to pick up the fallen pieces, the under-emoting spouse will almost always function up to the emotional task at hand. It is not easy, but allowing things to fall apart is often the blueprint for authentic change.

Humor is another strategy for attempting to create more of an emotional balance within marriage. Using humor won’t help all couples, but sometimes having a humorous code word or making a funny face that signals a prompt for more sharing can decrease defensiveness and spark a more open emotional exchange. One of the couples I work with make creative use of the word “share”. He’ll say: “I’m ready to share some news about my day!” This humorous prompt let’s her know he is trying to evolve to become more emotive and helps them connect in an authentic but not overly intense manner.

Elisabeth LaMotte

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