What is Emotional Labour in Relationships?

Emotional labour is a term coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild that means managing & displaying emotions to perform a job. In the context of relationships, emotional labour includes a whole shit load of work performed to make sure others feel emotionally 'comfortable'.

This piece will unpack some of the fuckery that comes with that work, and some of the common relational patterns arising from emotional labour.


    What is Emotional Labour?

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    Image from Canva

    Emotional labour is the energy & effort required to perform the task of managing your own emotions for someone elses emotional comfort.

    Like performing happiness in a service environment -smiling as you serve a customer coffee like you're just so fuckin' happy to be at work.

    This skill is about your capacity to;

    • notice own emotions as they arise in real time
    • choose to display or suppress those emotions
    • choose to perform or display a different emotion
    • predict the emotions of others and manage own behaviour accordingly
    • predict the emotions of others and suppress or create emotion in others
    • prioritise expression of emotion with others according to their emotional state

    Emotional labour is a measurable and teachable skill, which means that it is a competency you can develop with practice. It is also important to note that it is also possible to unlearn & repattern the way we apply that skill, to minimise the psychological damage it can cause.

    To be more accurate, emotional labour is an application of emotional intelligence. It's not possible to skillfully perform emotional labour without good emotional self-awareness and emotional self-management.

    Surface Acting and Deep Acting

    There are three levels of expression within emotional labour - deep acting, surface acting, and genuine expression.

    Surface acting describes a superficial performance of an emotion that doesn't match someones actual feelings. This could be something like;

    • Smiling at someone at work even though you feel sad
    • Demonstrating empathy while someone is (unreasonably) complaining
    • Demonstrating interest in your partner's day even though yours was awful

    Deep acting requires more energy & effort, it isn't just performing the emotion for a short period, but rather actively changing your emotional state to be more 'appropriate' to your context. You know, pushing down how you really feel to play nice. This might include things like;

    • Playing happy couples in public even though you're fighting
    • Pretending everything is fine with your partner, even though you're sad, angry, or otherwise not okay
    • Not letting anyone in your life know when you're not okay

    There is also another category of spotaneous & genuine emotional labour - where you genuinely experience the emotion but it requires extra work. Some examples of how that might occur are;

    • For those working in caring industries (therapists, aged care, child care) where there is an inevitable component of emotional labour
    • Caring for a family member, friend, or partner during a difficult period
    • The important emotional regulation that comes up in every single human relationship! Feeling friends feels, sharing highs & lows, all the things.

    Emotional Labour & Gendered Expectations

    While emotional labour is performed by many people, there are gendered sociocultural expectations about the types of emotional labour performed.

    This topic deserves a real deep dive, but in this context I'm just going to touch on those expectations.

    For example, in a Western patriarchal society, it is okay for men to express anger, aggression, happiness. Men are punished socially for expressing sadness, vulnerability, curiosity, wonder... and taught that they are unable to identify or engage with their own or others emotions.

    Men are seen as 'logical' and expected to express a limited range of emotions, and learn at a very early age to do the emotional labour required to suppress unacceptable emotions, and perform acceptable emotions.

    'Masculine' emotional labour is the suppression of emotions and limited emotional palette, as well as carrying the heavy burden of unprocessed stress, trauma, and experience that is not culturally permitted.

    Women are seen as 'emotional' and  expected to experience, notice, facilitate, & manage the full spectrum of emotion for themselves and the others in their life (especially the men).

    'Feminine' emotional labour is prioritising the feelings of others, at the expense of their own. It's also being expected to be responsible for the emotional wellness of all others, from partner to friends to family to colleagues... carrying the heavy burden of the emotional wellness of everyone else.

    This gendered expectation of emotional labour play out in all relationships with all people regardless of their gender identity, sexual orientation, and relationship structure. Like, we're all fucking socialised in it, and despite our best efforts those patriarchal influences will show up in our relationships.


    How Does Emotional Labour Effect Relationships?

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    Image from Canva

    All healthy relationships require some component of emotional labour. It isn't always desirable or appropriate to act out every emotion with everyone everywhere.

    You know? Like, if your friend called you to celebrate an achievement, but you had a shit day, you might decide to put your feels to the side to focus on their happiness. Or you're celebrating but a family member is sick so you don't gush too much. Or maybe your partner's work is super stressful at the moment so you postpone an important & difficult conversation with them until they are feeling better.

    All of those scenarios demostrate appropriate emotional self-awareness and regulation in relationships.

    Emotional labour becomes an issue when there's;

    • lack of reciprocity,
    • no transparency,
    • no consent,
    • poor boundaries
    • and/or imbalanced power dynamics.

    Emotional Labour Problem #1 - Lack of Reciprocity

    In a relationship where both people have good emotional intelligence there should be a high level of reciprocity in emotional labour. You know? There is ebb & flow where sometimes you're okay and they're not, and sometimes they're okay and you're not, but you take turns and feel like your efforts are balanced.

    There's really no objective way to measure this because we all have different contexts and capacities. Like maybe there's a friend who's not okay a lot, or their life is a fucking rollercoaster, but you don't feel like you overcontribute and they contribute in meaningful ways.

    The best way to establish the level of reciprocity is to ask yourself;

    • do they transfer responsibility for their emotions to me?
    • am I able to rely on them for emotional support?
    • do I spend much time planning how & when to say things to them?

    It's fine to not have a equal reciprocal relationship with people. It's just important to acknowledge that, decide if you want it, and then manage it strategically. I strongly encourage you to consider how to spread emotional labour across more than one relationship. Perhaps you have a friend who requires a lot of emotional labour, but they're important to you and you're committed to that. So then you might have another friend who helps you manage your shit from time-to-time, and then their partner also does some emotional labour between them.

    That way from a broader community perspective we are all helping each other care for all our needs according to our individual capacity.

    Emotional Labour Problem #2 - No Transparency

    Transparency in emotional labour requires being skilled in self-awareness.

    To be able to share insights into a thing, you first need to notice both when you are performing it, and when you're asking for it to be performed. That might not always happen in the moment, sometimes you only realise retrospectively!

    It's cool to lean on others from time-to-time, but it's uncool when that emotional labour goes unnoticed, unacknowledged, and unappreciated. This can be as simple as sharing what you are learning about emotional labour and positioning it as something that you'd like for you both to become a little bit more free from. It helps to acknowledge the emotional labour of others & to be transparent about your own capacity and boundaries.

    Being transparent is vital as well to change the current paradigms that don't value the labour that goes into care & community! When we can name and point to the work of emotional labour, it moves from invisible to visible which is a tiny shift towards change.

    Emotional Labour Problem #3 - No Consent

    Ohhhh this is a big one!

    A lack of consent to emotional labour signals a lack of self-awareness, and/or a real sense of entitlement.

    Most often I see this flavour of problem with people who have poor boundaries who emotionally dump on others without realising. That might look like rants about the drama in their life, phonecalls with gales of tears and disasters, or being short tempered when under stress.

    Of course that's all normal human shit, and it's not inherently a problem to do that! But it's a problem when you require emotional labour often, don't realise you're doing it, and don't ask for consent. For reals, are you high maintenance? High drama? Spicy tempered?

    It's a super simple fix - check before you download.

    "Hey, I'm feeling really upset, is it okay if I vent with you or talk it out?" or "Man, I've had a fucking day and I'm super short tempered, do you mind if I get it off my chest?" or "I'm struggling, can you help me reset?"

    Sometimes your friend or partner will say no, and you can be appreciative that they are so good with their boundaries then go call one of your other support people. Sometimes they will say yes, and you can be appreciative that you have their support.

    Emotional Labour Problem #4 - Poor Boundaries

    People with poor or no boundaries often find themselves overperforming emotional labour.

    Someone who isn't able to say no, will often carry emotional burdens that belong to others, and feel an inappropriate level of responsibility for others' feelings. Fuck yeah part of this is patriarchal conditioning, so let's be clear it's you, AND them, AND the system all feeding into each other.

    It's an important consideration as you reflect on the emotional labour you perform in different contexts - is this about my lack of boundaries? their expectations? our relational dynamics? And how can I develop the required skills to navigate this?

    Developing Skills With Boundaries in Relationships; A Complete Primer to Empower Your Relationships (Part 2)

    There is a low wooden fence in a grassy field. Two people are balancing on it, one behind the other, and walking away from the camera.

    Exploring personal boundaries is not a one and done exercise, it's a lifetime engagement in an everchanging environment through all the different evolutions of your self. That said, there are some solid foundational skills that you can build so that you get better at identifying, and then defining them.... Read More...

    Emotional Labour Problem #5 - Power Dynamics

    We've looked at self-awareness and skills development, but it's important to note that sometimes you just don't get to choose your engagement & performance of emotional labour. When the power dynamic in an environment or relationship is heavily weighted toward someone else, there are real world consequences that we can't personal development away.

    People of colour, first nations people, LGBTQI+, disabled people, women, non-binary and trans people, and other oppressed people are disproportionately impacted by these power dynamics.

    For example, if you are financially dependent on someone you may find yourselves doing emotional labour just to survive. That person could be a colleague who has influence on your job, an employer or manager, a family member, or even a partner. This isn't a reflection on your skills, it is a fucked up situation that is not your fault. Sometimes there is some wiggle room where you can reduce your emotional labour, discuss their behaviour, or otherwise manage the interaction, but sometimes there isn't.

    Relationally this is an issue in almost all of my couples therapy, where one partner does far more than an equitable division of emotional labour. Most often, but not always, this division falls along gendered lines. This kind of work rarely has a complete resolution because the patterns of a lifetime that BOTH individuals carry mean it takes a lot of time, and a lot of effort to repattern. And even if that work is accomplished within a relationship the world outside the relationship still exerts pressure for those partners to conform back to cultural expectations.

    I don't want to be a downer, but this is the fucking truth and anyone who tells you otherwise is naive, oblivious, or lying... 

    ...But where there is a will there is a way, and while the patterns remain we can all increase our awareness, appreciation, and contribution to the emotional labour required in all of our relationships.

    Where Do We Go From Here?

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    Image from Canva.

    If you'd like to learn more about emotional labour, I invite you to continue your own research by googling "what is emotional labour" and "emotional labour 2022"

    You can also learn more and develop your skills;

    An Introduction to Boundaries; A Complete Primer to Empower Your Relationships (Part 1)

    Developing Skills With Boundaries in Relationships; A Complete Primer to Empower Your Relationships (Part 2)

    And if you'd like to work with me individually or as a couple to explore emotional labour in your relationship/s, you can check out my FAQ, or book a Meet & Greet with me to work with your specific circumstances.

    Did you enjoy this blog? I'd very much appreciate you sharing it with others!

    A moment of your time has deep & long lasting effects on my capacity to keep creating this kind of content.

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    For full transparency you should know: This transcript has been edited to optimise the SEO on my website. That means that I have substituted some words or phrases so that the article is more likely to appear in a google search. In this article "emotional labour" has been optimised.

    This is a decision which I've made because SEO is one of the key factors in determining whether people do, or do not, read my blogs & articles, visit my website, and work with me.