Why Are Women Still Doing More Emotional Labor Than Men In Relationships?

by Laken Howard
BDG Media, Inc.

We're living in a time where women and men are viewed and treated much more equally than in generations past, but there are still plenty of gender stereotypes and norms that are ingrained in us as a society — and these can have a big impact on how relationships between men and women function. One pertinent example of how traditional ideas about gender influence relationships between men and women? When it comes to doing emotional labor in relationships, women are typically the ones picking up the slack.

According to a 2018 report from the United Nations, women do 2.6 times the amount of unpaid work that men do — meaning that women are the ones who are taking care of everyday things like doing chores, cooking, cleaning, managing household expenses, caring for children, and more. But doing the emotional labor in a relationship is about much more than just washing the dishes or paying the bills; it's really about being mindful of your partner's feelings and emotions.

"The key in emotional labor is to make sure that both parties fully understand what emotional labor is," Joshua Klapow, PhD, clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. "Often they think of it as only 'doing' (i.e. making plans, texting, buying gifts) — when in reality emotional labor is the energy put forth towards the person as well. Worrying about their wellbeing, thinking about what might be a nice surprise, feeling for them when they are struggling. A relationship can have equal parts 'doing' but unequal parts emotional labor."

In short, even if your partner has no problem pitching in around the house when you ask, that doesn't necessarily mean they're doing their fair share of emotional labor. And when they don't pull their weight when it comes to doing emotional labor, women often end up in a caretaking role as a result. However, because caretaking can take so many different forms — from managing a partner's health to planning all their meals to always being the one to initiate emotional conversations — it's not always obvious when one partner is the "caretaker" to another.

"In general, women are socialized to do things more often and more effectively," Nicole Richardson, LPC-S, LMFT, tells Bustle. "That said, there are some very emotionally intelligent men who do a lovely job of being aware and checking in on their partner's feelings."

Of course, not all men are unwilling or unable to put forth emotional labor in relationships, but generally speaking, it's women who are putting in the majority of the emotional and mental work to maintain their relationships and households — and that's something that needs to change.

Why Are Women Doing More Emotional Labor?

In order to figure out how to make the division of emotional labor in relationships between men and women more equitable, it's important to first understand why women are typically the ones who take on roles like caretaker and household manager. According to Jonathan Bennett, dating and relationship expert at Double Trust Dating, traditional gender expectations and stereotypes, though outdated, still have an influence on the way we view men's and women's roles in relationships.

"Women are supposed to be nurturers and 'emotional,' while men must avoid expressing emotion," Bennett tells Bustle. "Even in 2018, relationships are a place where many normally progressive men and women conform to traditional gender norms. So, there is an imbalance of emotional labor."

In generations past, women were the ones running the household while their husbands worked. Those days are long gone, though: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2017, women account for almost half (46.9 percent) of the workforce. So why is it that women are still the ones picking up the slack at home, too?

One obvious explanation is that, because women have been managing their households and relationships for generations, they're simply used to putting forth that effort. Plus, because emotional labor requires thoughtfulness and openness — both traits that are traditionally considered "feminine" — many men are reluctant to actively take it on. But in order to have a truly equal partnership, it's important for both partners to put in time, effort, and thought.

"It takes great courage to recognize your feelings and express them to others, especially if you’ve denied this aspect of your humanity for years"

"I would advise men to be honest about their emotions and needs," Bennett says. "Many men can’t even get this far in the process. But, it can be very liberating. And, once those emotions are acknowledged and accepted, then, they should work on being vulnerable with their partners. This doesn’t diminish masculinity. It takes great courage to recognize your feelings and express them to others, especially if you’ve denied this aspect of your humanity for years."

But it's not just relationships between men and women that see these gendered stereotypes come out to play: according to a 2016 study from Indiana University, even in queer relationships, dated ideas about gender and sex had an influence on how partners assigned household duties. In relationships between two male respondents, more feminine tasks like cleaning were assigned to the partner who had more stereotypically feminine interests (like shopping instead of playing sports). The bottom line? It's clear that all relationships are in some way impacted by outdated notions about sex and gender — and that can have lasting, harmful effects.

The Effects Of An Uneven Division Of Emotional Labor In A Relationship

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While it can be healthy in a relationship to take care of and support your partner to some degree, if that caretaking and emotional support isn't a two-way street, the partner picking up the slack will eventually burn out. So what happens when one partner is doing most of the emotional heavy lifting in a relationship?

"An imbalance of emotional labor will ultimately lead to the failure of the relationship," Bennett says. "A healthy partnership will always involve give and take and working together. One person can never carry the load for what ultimately has to be a partnership."

For 24-year-old Lucy*, doing all the emotional labor and acting as a caretaker for her boyfriend is what ultimately ended their relationship. Lucy tells Bustle that, prior to their meeting, her ex had never gone to see a doctor, dentist, or mental health professional (despite having great health insurance). After they started dating, Lucy took on the responsibility of finding him both a doctor and dentist — his unmanaged anxiety, she says, prevented him from calling to make such appointments himself.

"At first, I was happy to make these calls because he needed help and I wanted to see him become a healthier person, but over time I became resentful that I had to keep pushing and reminding him to make appointments, especially to get medication refills on time," Lucy says. "When I would remind him, no matter how gently, he would push back and not do it because I was 'nagging.'"

Lucy says her ex was also irresponsible with his finances, legal matters, cleaning their apartment, and making appointments for his dog — and taking on the responsibility for his responsibilities just became too much. "I had to constantly remind him to take care of all of these things, and eventually became resentful of that too," Lucy says. "Ultimately his irresponsibility and inability to recognize and appreciate just how much work I was doing for us led to me breaking up with him."

Before you can be one half of a mature, adult partnership, it's important to be able to take responsibility for yourself and your own emotions — because you can't support someone else if you're not supporting yourself. In a relationship where one person is putting in all the mental and emotional energy to keep your shared life afloat, eventually resentment will build — and that's a serious relationship killer.

"Not always, but often when the balance with emotional labor and household chores is out of whack or out of balance, one partner can grow resentful," Richardson says. "Resentment is like death by a thousand cuts, things just build up over time and make it difficult to repair."

Does Sharing Emotional Labor Improve Relationships?

If you suspect that you're doing more than your fair share of emotional labor in your relationship, is it worthwhile to bring up to your partner? The answer is absolutely yes — even if you don't necessarily feel the effects of carrying all the weight of that emotional labor yet.

"If both partners can be emotionally vulnerable and meet each other’s needs, the relationship will have a better chance of being healthy and happy."

"Relationships are strongest when both partners are working together towards the shared goal of making the relationship successful," Bennett says. "If both partners can be emotionally vulnerable and meet each other’s needs, the relationship will have a better chance of being healthy and happy."

If you want your relationship to have the best chance of lasting, working to make it more egalitarian and fair is the way to go. According to a 2018 study from the Council on Contemporary Families found that couples who shared household tasks equally demonstrated "clear advantages" over couples where one partner did the majority of the chore load — and compared to previous generations, splitting chores in an egalitarian way is more important than ever for relationship satisfaction.

Of course, splitting chores fairly is just one small facet of "doing emotional labor" in a relationship. But it doesn't have to feel overwhelming to imagine taking on more emotional labor: when you boil it down, it simply means you're being thoughtful and mindful of your partner's feelings — which should be the bare minimum expectation for any relationship, honestly.

"Very often the person who is not investing as much emotional labor will tend also not think about and feel for the other partner as frequently," Klapow says. "It’s about incorporating your partner’s emotional needs into your awareness. So conversations around observing one another, validating each other, picking up slack when one is stressed. Being kind and thoughtful in words — all of these issues are as important as how many times you plan dinner."

The tricky part? If one partner is used to doing the bare minimum amount of emotional labor in their relationship, they might need some outside influence or perspective to recognize that — but putting the onus of that on the partner who is already doing all the emotional work is unfair, and might not necessarily yield the best results.

"I believe that the desire to take on the emotional burden of someone else has to truly come from within the person who is not carrying their weight," Lucy says. "I don’t think the pressure can come from the person who is doing the majority of the emotional labor because otherwise it’ll just breed resentment."

How To Have A Conversation About Emotional Labor

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Even if you recognize that there's an imbalance in who does the emotional labor in your relationship, it's not always easy to broach the subject with your partner — but if you want to avoid building resentment toward your partner, it's important to communicate if you're feeling taken advantage of or burnt out.

"Communicating about emotional investment is critical but can be tricky," Klapow says. "It very often gets to a discussion around what each person is 'doing' versus how they feel. For emotional labor, it’s all about how you are feeling and the energy you are putting towards the relationship. So it’s important to talk not just about how much planning, gift buying, texting is going on, but also how much you each think about each other, anticipate each other’s needs and wants and desires."

Simply put, as long as your partner is willing to put in the work to build the habit of being more mindful of you/your relationship, there's no reason you can't get things back in balance with some time. Try talking to your partner about what you can both do to make each other feel more loved, supported, seen, and heard in the relationship — if they're really a healthy partner for you, they'll understand your frustration and vow to do more.

"If one partner sees the imbalance and is not willing to work however — the relationship is doomed."

"Because emotional labor can be somewhat abstract and intangible it becomes challenging to talk about," Klapow says. "If each partner makes an effort to understand that it’s not just about doing, but about thinking about what your partner needs, how they are feeling, what their fears and desires are — then the conversation is easier."

As important a conversation as it is to have, it can be tricky to have a productive, clear, and honest convo about the balance of emotional labor in your relationship. If you need help articulating your needs and getting on the same page as your partner, you might want to consider talking things out with a therapist — either individually or with your partner.

"If one partner is trying but is struggling or if the conversation is going nowhere it is time to see a professional," Klapow says. "These conversations and the strategies to get back in balance can be learned from a psychologist or other therapist who specializes in relationships. If one partner sees the imbalance and is not willing to work however — the relationship is doomed."

One crucial thing to remember is that not every person is willing or able to be a healthy, equal partner in a relationship. So if you're feeling burnt out in your relationship and your partner seems unwilling to change their ways, don't be afraid to cut your losses and start your search for a new partner, one who will share the burden of emotional labor with you — and who will do so gladly, no 'nagging' required.