You and your husband may have discussed (or argued about) how you divvy up household chores and responsibilities. But have you ever talked about how the two of you divide the emotional labor that’s necessary to keep your relationship and your family functioning?
The term “emotional labor” has gotten a lot of buzz in the past few years, but it’s not new. Academics have been looking at the concept for decades. Inequity in who performs emotional labor is an issue in the workplace, in social situations and at home. But, since this is a blog about marriage, today I’m going to focus on emotional labor as it affects our domestic relationships.
Defining Emotional Labor
So what does emotional labor encompass? Writer Suzannah Weiss defines it this way:
Emotional labor is the exertion of energy for the purpose of addressing people’s feelings, making people comfortable, or living up to social expectations. It’s called “emotional labor” because it ends up using – and often draining – our emotional resources.
Of course, we all perform emotional labor in our relationships. The reason it’s such a hot-button topic, though, is that emotional labor at home disproportionately falls on women.
Emotional labor looks different in different households. But here are a few examples that might feel familiar to you:
- Your husband may be happy to go to parent-teacher conferences and other school events with you. But you’re the one who is primarily responsible for nurturing and meeting the emotional needs of your kids on a daily basis. You talk to them about conflicts with friends. It falls on you to make sure their birthday celebrations special. When you can, you volunteer at school so you will be seen as a good mother.
- Somehow it’s fallen on you to remember and send birthday/sympathy/graduation cards and gifts — even for his side of the family.
- You habitually monitor and manage your husband’s emotions, doing what you can to keep the peace.
- When you have guests, you’re anticipating their needs so they have a good visit. He simply enjoys himself.
- While your husband does chip in at home, you’re the one who’s constantly thinking ahead: We need to go ahead and book our vacation to get the best rates … If we want to host dinner on Saturday, we have to pick up groceries and clean up before then … If we want to sell the house next summer, we should start fixing it up now … Your mom is having trouble getting around. Let’s find someone to help her with chores.
Again, no one is saying that you shouldn’t perform tasks like these — or even enjoy performing them. The problem is that if you’re doing all of this type of work in your marriage, you’re going to end up depleted. That isn’t good for your health or the health of your relationship. When you’re exhausted and stressed, you’re likely to become resentful with your husband. And he may have no idea why.
Sharing the Emotional Load
Every couple could benefit from thinking and talking more about emotional labor. Try these ideas and insights to get started:
- First, realize that the emotional labor you do really is work. If you’re feeling tired and frazzled, it could be the constant emotional pressure you feel as you try to tend to everyone’s needs. Don’t wait until you explode. Ask for what you need from your partner.
- You may undervalue emotional labor because you’ve always prioritized other people’s emotional needs before your own. It’s important to acknowledge that constantly trying to keep others happy can be burdensome. It’s okay to put your needs first at times.
- Just because you’re better at emotional labor than your husband, doesn’t mean it should always fall on you. As writer Rose Hackman points out in The Guardian, we’d never accept this line of reasoning when it comes to, say, cleaning.
- If your husband isn’t taking on the emotional labor in your relationship, that doesn’t mean he’s a bad or incompetent person. Family therapist, speaker and author Terry Real reminds us of a disappointing truth: Almost universally, men don’t grow up learning how to be intimate partners. But that doesn’t mean they can’t become more skilled at emotional labor. Your marriage will certainly be stronger if you and your husband can learn how to share the job of nurturing and tending to the emotional needs of your loved ones and each other.
If this article has resonated with you, you and your husband may want to read my book Strong Women, Strong Love together. It’s a practical guide to maintaining a strong marriage amid our busy lives.
With Valentine’s Day coming up, are you looking for a romantic gift for your husband? I’ve got an unconventional idea for you.
Pick up a Chinese Finger Trap. Remember this tricky little toy from when you were a kid? If you do, chances are you also remember that the way out of the trap is counterintuitive. Once you have your fingers in the trap, pulling hard in opposite directions to get them out won’t work. The trap loosens only when you relax and gently slide your fingers out.
That’s actually a great metaphor for the relationship patterns we can find ourselves stuck in. You know how it goes: One partner habitually does something and the other always has the same knee-jerk reaction. The same old back-and-forth leads to the same old fights.
Just as with the finger trap, the only way to escape relationship traps is to pause before you engage in your familiar, instinctive reactions. Relax and ease into doing something different. Breaking the automatic pattern, gives you the power to make a deliberate choice about what you want to do next.
The Chinese Finger Trap may not seem like the most romantic gift, but it can be a gentle visual reminder of the power of being thoughtful and calm in your relationship, rather than fighting furiously when your buttons are pushed.
Want to learn more about breaking out of relationship traps? You may enjoy my past blog articles on chasing and complaining, two common destructive patterns that can also keep you trapped.
If you haven’t experienced Esther Perel’s work yourself yet, you’ve probably heard someone you know talk about it — and likely express some very strong feelings.
Perel is a psychotherapist and a bestselling author. Her 2006 book, Mating in Captivity, touched off a flurry of discussions and debates about eroticism and desire in long-term relationships. Her most recent book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity is perhaps even more provocative. In it, she offers insights and advice about infidelity that challenge many of the assumptions of our culture.
So what’s all the fuss about? Here are a few of the key ideas that Perel promotes.
1. Affairs aren’t about What We Think
We tend to assume that extramarital affairs are all about lust — that the straying partner is driven by desire for another person. But Perel believes there’s often something deeper going on: An unfaithful spouse is actually sometimes seeking a lost part of herself or himself. As she said in a recent interview on NPR:
When you pick a partner, you pick a story, and that story becomes the life you live. … And sometimes you realize, after years of living those parts of you, that there are other parts of you that have virtually disappeared. The woman disappeared behind the mother. The man disappeared behind the caregiver. The sensual person disappeared behind the responsible person.
And there is an expression of longing and yearning. Longing for connection, for intensity, for a sense of “aliveness,” which is really the word that many people all over the world would tell me when they are having an affair. They don’t talk about sex and excitement and titillation, actually. … What they say is they feel alive — as in vibrant, vital; as in a reclaiming of something that had gotten lost.
When the desire for lost or forgotten parts of ourselves collides with social media, infidelity can be the result, Perel says. Facebook and other social networks mean we can stay in touch with people from different eras of our lives — people who remember those “lost selves” we yearn to rediscover.
2. Affairs are More Painful Than Ever
Infidelity has been around as long as marriage has, but it feels even more devastating today because of our contemporary views on relationships, Perel says.
In the past, we had different expectations about marriage, Perel believes. It was more of a pragmatic alliance. But Western couples today want more from their unions. She writes:
We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, respectability, property, and children—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends and trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot.
We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. We expect comfort and edge, familiarity and novelty, continuity and surprise. We have conjured up a new Olympus, where love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh so exciting, with one person, for the long haul. And the long haul keeps getting longer.
Somehow, we’ve gotten the idea that our spouses should be our primary source of validation, community and companionship. We expect one person to provide everything we once got from our extended families, our communities, our houses of worship. As our worlds get smaller, infidelity feels like a larger betrayal.
3. Marriages Can Survive Infidelity
While she doesn’t downplay the pain of infidelity, Perel doesn’t believe that an affair should automatically lead to the end of a marriage. The crisis of infidelity can drive couples to talk more honestly about who they are and what they need from the relationship. Of course, though, it’s much easier and less painful to have these conversations before cheating happens in a relationship!
Whether you agree with Perel’s ideas or not, consider what you can learn from them. One valuable takeaway is to remember to cultivate yourself and your own interests, both for your own wellbeing and the health of your marriage.
I invite you to explore Perel’s work further through the videos and links I’ve shared in this article. You can also enjoy her TED talk: “Rethinking infidelity…a talk for anyone who has ever loved”:
Among Americans age 50 and older, the divorce rate has roughly doubled since the 1990s. This phenomenon of decades-old marriages dissolving even has a trendy name: “gray divorce.”
In a way, the rise of gray divorce isn’t surprising. We live longer lives than people of generations past. That’s more years to tend to a relationship. Or, as so often happens, to fail to tend to it. Life has a way of handing us other priorities that make it harder to focus on our marriages. As a result, couples grow apart or even become resentful.
If this is something you’re experiencing, maybe you’re wondering what life might be like outside your marriage — and the thought leaves you both nervous and intrigued. There’s a lot to consider, so let’s talk through some of the things that might be on your mind.
Can Your Marriage Be Saved?
Of course, the answer to this question depends on your relationship. But, in general, I would say that if you and your husband still share friendship and a sense of respect, then you have a chance of resurrecting your relationship. As I wrote in a previous article on respect and marriage:
In long-term relationships, it’s quite normal for feelings of love and passion to wax and wane over time. If partners have maintained a deep respect for each other, in time, these feelings can be rekindled. However, when there is a serious breakdown of respect, relationships inevitably end up deeply troubled.
Divorce will affect every aspect of your life. Even though your kids are grown, a divorce will still alter your family dynamics. Then there’s the financial aspect. According to Forbes, gray divorce “deals a heavier financial blow than divorces that happen earlier in life.” That’s especially true for women. Mulling the logistical realities of post-marriage life may or may not prompt you to give your relationship another chance. But whether you stay or go, the possible financial or family challenges of a gray divorce merit your thoughtful attention.
Do You Even Know Each Other Anymore?
You might be mulling a gray divorce if you feel that your husband isn’t the same person you married. And there’s a degree of truth to that. Life has probably changed both of you in some important ways. Do you know why your husband is the person he is today? Does he understand what has made you who you are? Longtime partners can assume they have each other all figured out. Before you write off your marriage, consider engaging each other with more curiosity. Remember, too, that the qualities that initially attracted you to each other are probably still present. You just have to remind yourself to notice and appreciate them.
You’re Craving Change
Another common reason for seeking a gray divorce is feeling stuck or stagnant in your marriage. You may feel that your relationship has no room for growth and adventure. That may indeed be true in some marriages. Before you make any big decisions, though, I believe it’s worth a try to reinvigorate your relationship. It’s natural for passionate love to ebb, especially in long relationships. But you can stoke the fires by adding variety to your relationship. Travel to a new place or learn something new together. If your husband is slow to get on board, go ahead and pursue your own interests. The new energy you bring to the relationship could bring him around.
You Want More Romance
And — let’s be frank — more or better sex. If you lack sizzle with your husband, the idea of new partners can feel tantalizing. But if you haven’t dated in a long time, you may have forgotten that it’s also a lot of work! Chances are you won’t immediately find a magical person with all the passion your husband lacks. Also remember that you may not need to leave your marriage to rekindle the sense of romance in your life. If you follow the advice above to get to know each other again and introduce more novelty into your relationship, passion should also start to reappear. (And if you suspect that health problems have interfered with your sexual connection, seek treatment.)
Can Your History Overcome Your Problems?
One of the most compelling reasons to stay in your marriage might be all of your shared experiences, which might include raising children together, weathering your parents’ illnesses or deaths and coping with your own health crises. Writing your story together can be a powerful exercise that highlights the meaning of the life you’ve shard.
If you decide to stay, remember that your relationship will always need maintenance and tending, no matter how long you’ve been together. You can never just set it to “cruise control”! My book Strong Women, Strong Love has strategies that can help.
Thank you for the nearly 40,000 visits to the Strong Women, Strong Love blog this year! I hope that you found resources here to nurture and enhance your marriage.
As 2017 winds down, I wanted to look back on some of the most popular marriage advice articles published this year.
How Attachment Styles Affect Your Marriage
This article looks at attachment styles as a framework for understanding your marriage. Your attachment style was shaped by the family you grew up in, and it continues to influence how you approach relationships. For example, if your early caregivers were loving, responsible and reliable, you’re probably comfortable with emotional intimacy and trusting others. But if your caregivers were unavailable or unresponsive, you may have trouble seeking closeness with others. Knowing your attachment style and your husband’s can be an important first step toward improving your marriage.
Learn more: If you found the article on attachment styles useful, you may also want to read Chasing Doesn’t Work (No Fooling!). Chasing is a common pattern when someone with an ambivalent/anxious attachment style marries a partner with an avoidant attachment style.
Some Key Truths About Honesty in Your Marriage
What does it mean to be honest and authentic with your spouse? You and your husband might have very different answers to this seemingly simple question! Some people have a let-it-all-hang-out philosophy, but their spouses might feel attacked by their bluntness. Again, your feelings about what should — and shouldn’t — be shared in a relationship were probably shaped by your own family. Talk with your husband about how each of you defines honesty so that you can understand and navigate your differences.
Learn more: For some advice on blending honesty with compassion, see my article Strong Women Mistake #2: Brutal Honesty.
How Your Husband Really Feels About Your Miscarriage
A miscarriage is one of the greatest heartbreaks a couple can share together. Sometimes misunderstandings between partners can compound the pain. You may feel hurt and confused if your husband seems unemotional or indifferent after a miscarriage. But he may be acting this way out of a desire to protect you and not add to your burden. It helps to be very clear with him about the kind of support you need.
Learn more: If struggles with infertility have you worried about your marriage, my article Will He Leave If You Can’t Conceive? should be reassuring. In an overwhelming majority of marriages, one spouse’s inability to conceive a child is not a deal-breaker for the other partner.
Your Husband Wants to Separate — Now What?
The above three articles were the most popular ones published in 2017. But by far, the most-read post on the blog is this article on separation that I wrote in 2015. This post has generated ongoing discussion since it first appeared, with commenters opening up about their own experiences with separation and offering each other support and compassion. If you’re going through a separation now, know that while you can’t do anything to make your husband return to the marriage, you’ll have a better chance of saving your marriage if you can avoid acting from a place of fear.
Learn more: If the advice in my article on separation resonated with you, you may also wish to explore The Last Resort Technique for saving your marriage. Creator Michele Weiner-Davis (a marriage therapist) makes no guarantees that the technique will work, but says “it works often enough for you to be eager to give it a shot.” And, she adds, “even if your marriage doesn’t improve … your mental health will.”
Thank you again for reading the Strong Women, Strong Love blog in 2017. I wish you and your husband much love and joy in 2018. If there are relationship topics you’d like to see me cover on the blog next year, just drop me a note or a comment on Facebook.