labor /ˈlābər/, n., v.

Whenever I find articles that offer a critical lens on an aspect of contemporary social culture (for example, Asian American representation in the media or the feminist movement), I always ask two questions:

1. Does the author cite credible sources in their article and do they also have a credible background? And 2. If I send this article to other people, would they agree with me, or at least regard the article with equal respect given its credibility?

That is precisely what I did when I found an article in the Huffington Post titled “Why Women Are Tired: The Price of Emotional Labor.” (The article offers fewer hyperlinked sources than I preferred, but the author’s background makes up for some of that.)

A brief definition: “‘Emotional Labor’ …is emotional work (listening, validating, pretending to feel something for the sake of the other)… Emotional Labor has been studied in the field of sociology for a while, and somewhat recently has been incorporated into feminist discourse.”

Author Christine Hutchison explains that female partners in heterosexual partnerships are far more likely to take on a larger responsibility in carrying out the emotional work within the relationship. The woman is not only aware of her emotional status, but she’s also aware of those of her male partner and then behaves in ways to ensure that she tends to both people’s needs to maintain the well-being of the relationship.

It takes a significant amount of self-awareness to be mindful of own’s own and others’ emotional states. Long-standing gender roles, however, have conditioned women to be “good at” doing this, being mindful.

Traditional female roles see women tending their families and being mothers. Women are assumed to take on nurturing, care-taking roles, so it’s been ingrained into them since birth to practice the emotional labor necessary for their responsibilities. By the time women are grown and in relationships, emotional labor isn’t just something they’re “practiced at,” but also an action that has become harder to stop doing than it has to start.

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Photo by Courtney Cheng

The handful of people to whom I sent this article agreed; Hutchison’s analysis carries significant weight and truth. The place where disagreement rose, however, was in finding a resolution to the problem of unbalanced emotional work.

Is it the responsibility of the woman to communicate these burdens and needs to her partner? Should the man be expected to step up to the plate and begin asking more questions to become better in tune with his emotions, as well as those of his partner? How should the work be balanced if, potentially, the two partners already disagree on how much work there is to be done?

Even after much difficult discussion and dialogue, I still don’t have a “good” answer. It would be unfair to expect the man to suddenly become emotionally aware when he has potentially spent a large part of his life being unaware and not realizing it was a “problem.” It is not, then, unrealistic to ask the woman to bring up moments when she would like the man to “do more” of the emotional labor.

That being said, however, as a woman who has been in heterosexual relationships, I know it is particularly challenging to bring up the topic of emotional labor. There is the concern that the man will feel self-conscious about his previous naïveté and respond negatively after being “called out.” And then there is the fear that we/us/women will be asked to “validate” our experiences and burdens of carrying out emotional labor because men do not regard the relationship as being unbalanced in this way.

These factors make women far more interested in finding support from her female friends, dissecting the problem with them, and then taking this solution back to her relationship and performing the emotional labor necessary to move forward. This method of problem solving is seemingly cleaner, neater, and more efficient.

— until we realize the problem is still there because emotional labor is still being done, and also consider the fact that some of these women might be communicating their needs with their male partners while they’re also discussing with their friends they, but just not being heard by the former (as Hutchison mentions in her piece).

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Photo by Courtney Cheng

In lieu of leaving this post without a conclusion, I’ll say this: There needs to be communication in order for any sort of “mutual exchange” or labor (emotional or otherwise) to become [more] balanced. How this exchange takes place will be different for every person and partnership, but the most important part is that the exchange happens — and not just between partners.

It has been encouraging and reassuring for me to have discussed this topic with friends. As a woman, I have felt supported by my fellow women to feel confident in bringing this topic up to my male partner. And as a woman with male friends, I feel comforted knowing that men are willing to listen and engage me in this conversation.

Whether you’re in a relationship or single, a man or a woman or identify as another gender, I would argue that the most important piece to takeaway from Hutchison’s article is to communicate more openly and willingly about emotional labor. Make this a topic that more people are aware of, and hopefully then, it will also become one that is more easily discussed between partners.

“Relationships are hard work, they require labor. Sometimes they are tiring. But hopefully, they can be a mutual exchange, so that both parties can alternate working and being worked for, fighting and being fought for.”

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