The Importance of Naming Emotional Labor

Recently my boyfriend thanked me for doing emotional labor for him.

As in, he actually used that phrase: “I appreciate all the emotional labor you’ve been doing for me.” And then he apologized for not doing as much in return. (I disagree, actually: I think it’s been quite balanced.)

It was an interesting moment in that it illuminated the empty space around it–the space where all the emotional labor I’ve done for others, previous male partners especially, has gone unacknowledged.

I told him that nobody had ever thanked me for that before.

Sure, people have thanked me “for listening” or “being there for me,” and that was obviously meaningful. But few have ever done so in a way that acknowledged the work involved–the emotional labor. Nobody has ever used that term.

It’s not that I do it for the gratitude. I don’t support my friends and partners to get something in return, or so that they feel deeply indebted to me or any other power play-type shit like that. I do emotional labor for the simple reason that it feels good. Same reason most of us do anything, at the root of it.

But it stops feeling good when I feel like I’m expected to do it, especially if I sense that I’m expected to do it because of my gender. It stops feeling good when rather than directly asking me for what they need, they try to passive-aggressively coax it out of me. It stops feeling good when they demand tons of emotional labor and then half-heartedly return the favor by offering me types of emotional labor they know I don’t want. (For instance: I don’t like talking at length about my problems. Stop offering to listen and then considering your share of the work done.)

Issues like that surrounding emotional labor have plagued most of my relationships with men. In fact, they’re what ultimately ended most of my relationships with men.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the few partners I’ve had who understands the term emotional labor and is able to use it to acknowledge a pattern in our relationship is also one of the few partners I’ve had with whom I did not experience (at least not yet, and not in my perspective) a noticeable imbalance in it.

It’s hard to value things that we have no language for even thinking about, let alone speaking about to each other. As I mentioned, there are words and phrases that get at little pieces of what emotional labor is–“being a good listener,” “being considerate,” “good manners,” “sensitivity”–none of them really address the fact that it is work, and work takes effort. Considerate and sensitive is something you are. Emotional labor is something you do.

When you name emotional labor for what it is, you’re able to treat it as valuable. That doesn’t just mean literally thanking someone for it–I’d felt completely happy with the emotional labor I was doing for my boyfriend before he explicitly thanked me. The thank-you was nice, but what’s even nicer is the way he responds to my emotional labor with increased intimacy and vulnerability, the way he makes an effort to figure out what sorts of emotional labor I might appreciate from him and do those things, and the way he treats my emotional labor as mine to give rather than his to take. That requires an understanding of what it is that’s being given or taken.

I don’t doubt that there are people who do what he does without having ever heard the term “emotional labor,” but that’s doing it on the highest difficulty setting, in my opinion. Clearly he’d been thinking about this for a while before he said anything to me, and that meant that in his head he’d been organizing things under the heading “emotional labor that my girlfriend does for me” and “emotional labor that I do for my girlfriend.”

I would be curious to see what those lists look like for other people, with their partners and friends. What they think emotional labor is, what they don’t think it is. To me, it’s a combination of things most people would want to do, such as showing concern if your partner’s had a rough day or picking out a gift that’ll make your partner feel loved, and things most people probably wouldn’t want to do, such as pretending to be happy so that your partner isn’t upset by your negative emotions and reminding your partner for the millionth fucking time to do the thing they promised they’d do.

Those seem like totally different things that don’t belong in the same category, but they do, because it’s not about whether it’s positive or negative. It’s about whether it requires effort and energy. It’s just like any other work in that way–I have tasks at work that I love and tasks at work that I hate, but regardless, they’re all work and I want all of them to be seen and acknowledged.

Knowing what emotional labor means and feeling comfortable using the term in context is a great way to start seeing and acknowledging the less-tangible ways in which your partner supports you.



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