Despite being one of the most-talked-about phrases in dating right now, the concept is nothing new. Originating from the 1983 book The Managed Heart by Arlie Russell Hochschild (which was reissued in 2012), the term in its initial context meant ‘surface acting’; essentially managing your emotions to make people around you feel more comfortable. It referenced having to put on a smile in a service job, no matter how you’re feeling; not expressing emotion when you’re upset to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.
But it was in September last year, when Harper’s Bazaar writer Gemma Hartley put pen to paper about the disparity in emotional labour among spouses and partners – how it disproportionally affects women – that the global conversation ignited. In the feature, entitled ‘Women Aren’t Nags. We’re Just Fed Up’, Hartley claimed emotional labour was “the unpaid job men still don’t understand”.
In it, she details her frustration over having sole responsibility for “thankless” tasks such as tidying, laundry, reminding her husband of family birthdays, updating the household calendar to include everyone’s schedules, asking his mother to babysit their kids when they have an evening out planned and keeping track of what food and household items they're running low on. “Delegating work to other people, i.e. telling him to do something he should instinctively know to do, is exhausting,” she wrote – and thousands of women took to social media to say that they agreed.
Playing into emotional labour’s original meaning too, Hartley revealed one of the most frustrating parts of all is having to phrase her requests for help sweetly – lest she be accused by her husband of not appreciating him when she asks him for help with ‘her’ tasks – and how he expects her to notice and congratulate his efforts when he pitches in of his own accord.
And she’s far from alone. Dr Lisa Huebner, a sociologist of gender, believes women are taught to keep the peace in this way from a very early age. “In general, we gender emotions in our society by continuing to reinforce the false idea that women are always, naturally and biologically, able to feel, express, and manage our emotions better than men,” she says. “We still have no firm evidence that this ability is biologically determined by sex, yet we find all kinds of ways in society to ensure that girls and women are responsible for emotions and, then, men get a pass.”
Since the Harper’s Bazaar piece went viral last year, emotional labour has made headline news – we’ve seen women share their personal stories, tips on how to recognise signs you’re doing all the emotional labour in your relationship (here’s a clue: the words ‘feeling exhausted’ come up a lot) and even journalists going ‘on strike’ from the mental load to see how their partners reacted (another clue: there were a lot of microwaveable dinners).
On the whole, just like Hartley, it’s the double-edged sword of emotional labour that women are tired of the most. Because it’s not just about being the one who always buys new loo roll, it’s feeling like you have to act in ways that aren’t true to your feelings in order to keep the peace at home. “Even having a conversation about the imbalance of emotional labour becomes emotional labour,” she wrote. “It gets to a point where I have to weigh the benefits of getting my husband to understand my frustration against the compounded emotional labour of doing so in a way that won’t end in us fighting.”
As relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein says, this “draining” set-up isn’t only bad for women, it’s not doing men any favours either. “Women need to learn to be less responsible for men’s emotional lives, and men need to learn to be more responsible for their own emotional lives,” she says. And how she advises doing it? ”If your partner walks around angry and brooding, it’s up to them to be a grown-up, identify their feelings, and share them with you. Often, if you stop the work of coaxing feelings out of them, they’ll be more likely to have to do the work of identifying and sharing.”
And trust us, even the most ‘forgetful’ person will eventually buy their own loo roll (although we do suggest keeping a secret stash of your own until the point is proven).