How to Manage Emotional Labor at Home: An Expert Weighs In

How to Manage Emotional Labor at Home: An Expert Weighs In
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How to Manage Emotional Labor at Home: An Expert Weighs In

Scheduling appointments, making the grocery lists, managing fights between siblings. There’s a seemingly endless list of things that go into running a home, especially when you look beyond physical tasks like chores and getting kids where they need to be.

Recently, more and more people have been talking about emotional labor, the often unseen work that goes into making sure life runs smoothly, whether that’s at home or at work.

Emotional labor often takes the form of everyday tasks, so it’s easy for them to be overlooked, but no household would function without it.

Oftentimes, emotional labor falls more on one spouse over the other, which can get exhausting over time.

We sat down with Dr. Yasmine Saad, clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of Madison Park Psychological Services about how parents can manage emotional labor more effectively at home.

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How would you define emotional labor at home?

Emotional Labor was initially introduced by Arlie Hochschild in her book “The Managed Heart” (1983). This theory explores how individuals manage their emotions to meet the demands of their roles, initially in professional settings but later extended to personal and family contexts.

Emotional labor in the home context refers to the management and regulation of emotions to maintain harmony and meet the emotional needs of family members.

This includes a wide range of activities, from showing empathy and support, to managing the emotional climate of the home, to ensuring everyone’s needs are met in terms of love, care, and attention. Examples of emotional labor in a family setting can vary widely but often include:

  • Listening and providing emotional support: This involves being there for family members during times of stress, sadness, or celebration, offering a shoulder to lean on, and providing comfort and encouragement.
  • Anticipating the emotional needs of family members, such as knowing when a partner had a tough day and needs space or when a child needs extra attention.
  • Maintaining a positive home environment by mediating conflicts, maintaining morale, and fostering a sense of security and belonging.
  • Ensuring family activities foster positive memories and bonds 

It’s not uncommon for the distribution of emotional labor to be uneven at home, with one spouse doing more than the other. What effect can this have on a relationship in the long term?

The distribution of emotional labor in homes is often uneven, typically with one partner, usually the one who is most maternal, taking on a greater share of this emotional role. Fathers or mothers can occupy that role.

The uneven distribution of emotional labor can have several long-term effects on a relationship, including:

  • Resentment and frustration: The partner carrying a larger share of emotional labor may feel overburdened, unappreciated, and resentful, eroding relationship satisfaction.
  • Emotional burnout: Constantly managing others’ emotional needs can lead to emotional exhaustion, reducing one’s capacity to manage one’s own emotions effectively.
  • Decreased intimacy and connection: As one partner feels increasingly burdened and the other potentially oblivious or disengaged, the emotional distance can grow, affecting intimacy and connection.

How can spouses make sure emotional labor is evenly distributed?

To ensure a more even distribution of emotional labor, spouses can take several steps:

  • Open Communication: Regularly discuss the distribution of emotional labor, acknowledging its presence and importance. Share feelings and experiences openly to foster understanding.
  • Recognition and Appreciation: Recognize each partner’s efforts in managing emotional labor and express gratitude for these often invisible tasks.
  • Shared Responsibility: Actively work towards sharing the emotional load, which may involve redistributing tasks, setting boundaries, and proactively offering support.
  • Develop Self-awareness: Encourage each other to become more aware of one’s own emotional needs and capacities and how one’s actions affect the emotional climate of the home.
  • Seek External Support: In cases where the imbalance is significant and difficult to address, seeking the guidance of a therapist or counselor can be beneficial.

Additional considerations include the importance of modeling healthy emotional labor practices for children, as this sets the foundation for their future relationships and emotional well-being.

Also, understanding that the dynamics of emotional labor can vary widely among different types of families and cultural backgrounds, and what works for one family may not work for another.
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