PSY­CHE

Why women tend to do the emo­tional heavy lift­ing in re­la­tion­ships.

ELLE (Canada) - - Storyboard - By Kather­ine Laid­law

IT TOOK KRIS­TINE* about a year to re­al­ize that some­thing in her seem­ingly idyl­lic relationship wasn’t quite right. She and her boyfriend had fallen for each other over long days spent road-trip­ping around On­tario. But, 10 months in, she started to no­tice some red flags in how he ap­proached the nec­es­sary tasks that come with keep­ing a relationship on track. For one, he couldn’t plan ahead. “I rely on you to be my cal­en­dar,” he’d tell her when she would com­ment on his lack of ini­tia­tive. And when it came to mak­ing din­ners to­gether, all the details were on her—from com­ing up with meals they both liked to pick­ing up gro­ceries to re­mem­ber­ing to take the chicken out of the freezer in the mor­ning. Her boyfriend also re­lied on her to spend hours dis­sect­ing his emo­tional state, in­sist­ing he wanted to deal with his in­creas­ingly se­ri­ous de­pres­sion on his own in­stead of go­ing to a ther­a­pist. He would turn ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion about their relationship, like whether or not they should move in to­gether, into one about how dis­cour­aged he felt in his job or how he needed her help to get mo­ti­vated. “I’d walk away and think, ‘He hi­jacked that a lit­tle bit,’” says Kris­tine. “I was eager to help, but I hadn’t no­ticed how much our dy­namic had changed. It was way more drain­ing on me than I re­al­ized.”

Sound fa­mil­iar? Maybe you’ve had this type of ex­change with a friend who asks what’s new and then dumps on you for eons over cap­puc­ci­nos or with the co-worker who uses you as an arm­chair ther­a­pist, vent­ing un­til long af­ter your other col­leagues have gone home. Or per­haps your older brother al­ways as­sumes you’ll re­mem­ber to pick up Mom’s birth­day present and or­ga­nize her party. If it hap­pens once or twice, you may not no­tice. It’s one thing for your best friend to make a con­ver­sa­tion all about her the morn­ing af­ter a breakup, but when that kind of be­hav­iour re­peats it­self over and over, it can start to wear on you.

There’s an ac­tual term for this kind of men­tally tax­ing feel­ings man­age­ment: emo­tional labour. Coined in 1983 by so­ci­ol­o­gist Ar­lie Hochschild to de­scribe jobs that re­quire you to put your feel­ings aside to get the job done (think flight at­ten­dants, nurses and teach­ers), the term has grad­u­ally crossed over into our per­sonal lives. To­day, it’s of­ten used to de­scribe the quiet men­tal work re­quired to keep a relationship or house­hold hum­ming—keep­ing track of when the laun­dry needs to be done or plan­ning ahead to en­sure your mother-in-law gets her birth­day card in the mail on time. Some call it “the over­head of car­ing.”

Think of a flight at­ten­dant stay­ing calm as a dis­grun­tled pas­sen­ger yells at her, or the way you con­tinue to rub your part­ner’s back and of­fer con­cil­ia­tory mur­murs an hour into a rant about his or her boss, or even fak­ing an or­gasm to make your part­ner feel

bet­ter about his or her sex­ual per­for­mance. I’ve had part­ners say “All you have to do is ask” when I’ve ex­pressed frus­tra­tion over al­ways be­ing the one to re­mem­ber when the dish soap is run­ning low. But that’s the prob­lem: Reg­u­larly hav­ing to del­e­gate to some­one with less ini­tia­tive is ex­haust­ing. It’s not the act of buy­ing the soap—it’s the stress of be­ing the one who con­stantly has to think about it. And, spoiler alert, re­search tells us that this kind of work is still largely, and most ef­fec­tively, done by women.

In fact, a Cana­dian study that an­a­lyzed the sat­is­fac­tion of nearly 2,000 het­ero­sex­ual cou­ples in com­mit­ted re­la­tion­ships, pub­lished this year in the Jour­nal of So­cial and Per­sonal Re­la­tion­ships, found that women putting in the work made for a hap­pier relationship over­all. But why should the onus be on us? Cul­tural ex­pec­ta­tions—you know, the an­ti­quated male-bread­win­ner and fe­male-home­maker roles we were as­signed cen­turies ago— are in part to blame, says the study’s co-au­thor Re­becca Horne, a Univer­sity of Toronto psy­chol­ogy doc­toral stu­dent in the Re­la­tion­ships and Well-Be­ing Lab. “Tra­di­tional gen­der norms frame women as nur­tur­ing and men as more in­de­pen­dent and stoic.” So­ci­ety and tra­di­tion have con­di­tioned men and women to act this way, she adds, with lit­tle ev­i­dence to hold up the ar­gu­ment that women are just bet­ter, bi­o­log­i­cally, at feel­ings.

One thing is clear: This im­bal­ance, no mat­ter the type of relationship, can have con­se­quences. Re­search is still evolv­ing (as sub­jects go, emo­tional labour is rel­a­tively young) and re­sults are mixed, but, ac­cord­ing to a study in the Jour­nal of Mar­riage and Fam­ily, cou­ples with an equal di­vi­sion of house­work (which is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked with the emo­tional labour that keeps a house­hold run­ning) report be­ing more satisfied with their sex lives. There’s also anec­do­tal ev­i­dence that women who carry more of the emo­tional load are more likely to cheat on their part­ners out of re­sent­ment. An­other study, done by re­searchers at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity and pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Fam­ily Is­sues, looked at cou­ples rais­ing chil­dren and found that fe­male part­ners who gave more than they re­ceived emo­tion­ally re­ported feel­ing less loved. “If a woman per­ceives her­self to be do­ing more than her hus­band, then that does seem to have a more neg­a­tive out­come,” says Horne. “So it re­ally is about eq­uity.”

Here’s an­other piece of this puz­zle: Some­times peo­ple don’t even know when they’re mak­ing you do all the emo­tional heavy lift­ing. Margeaux Feld­man, a Toronto-based writer and Ph.D. stu­dent, re­calls be­ing sub­jected to an avalanche of emo­tion from her room­mate ev­ery time she asked him how his day went. “I wouldn’t re­al­ize un­til the next day that the rea­son I was feel­ing so aw­ful was be­cause we didn’t talk about me at all,” she says. She even­tu­ally started to dread com­ing home to play sup­port­ing char­ac­ter to what­ever drama was go­ing on in his life. “It’s weird to have a con­ver­sa­tion about emo­tional labour be­cause you tend to fall into cer­tain rou­tines af­ter time,” agrees Horne. “Some­times you don’t re­ally re­al­ize you have com­pet­ing goals or ex­pec­ta­tions un­til you’re in a conflict scenario.”

So how do we break the cy­cle? First, con­sider whether you’re giv­ing more than you’re get­ting—and if it both­ers you. For some, re­duc­ing emo­tion work means los­ing a sense of pur­pose that comes with car­ing for oth­ers. If you find your­self com­plain­ing about mak­ing your part­ner’s lunch but you won’t stop do­ing it be­cause you think “I can do it bet­ter if I just do it my­self” or you get a spark of sat­is­fac­tion from this ges­ture, con­sider whether there’s an­other way he or she could help pick up the slack.

“One of the ways I get peo­ple to think about emo­tional labour is to con­sider their per­sonal re­sources—we only have so many re­sources avail­able to us in a given week,” says Christo­pher Shilling­ton, a psy­chother­a­pist and clin­i­cal di­rec­tor of the Um­brella Men­tal Health Net­work in Toronto. And once they’re gone, you’re tapped. Af­ter a tir­ing week at work man­ag­ing your boss’s frus­tra­tions, re­search­ing itin­er­ary op­tions for your up­com­ing ro­man­tic va­ca­tion and co­or­di­nat­ing a baby shower for your sis­ter, maybe you just don’t have the emo­tional ca­pac­ity to spend Sun­day brunch lis­ten­ing to your friend com­plain about how stressed she is that her in-laws are com­ing to town. And that’s okay.

Of­ten, re­solv­ing the prob­lem is as easy as say­ing some­thing—gen­tly. “Frame it in a way that’s not all about as­sert­ing bound­aries for your­self but about ask­ing your loved one what their bound­aries are,” says Shilling­ton. When Feld­man and her roomie hashed it out, he sur­prised her by telling her she was right. “He re­al­ized he needed more sup­port in his life beyond just me,” she says.

As for Kris­tine, af­ter months of en­dur­ing her boyfriend say­ing he didn’t have the ca­pac­ity to sched­ule plans, pick up gro­ceries once in a while or ask her how she was feel­ing once he’d un­loaded on her, she de­cided enough was enough. They broke up, and now he’s on a wait­ing list to see a ther­a­pist. For her part, in her next relationship, she plans to take note of these im­bal­ances ear­lier. “We all have our strengths. Some peo­ple are more or­ga­nized, and some peo­ple can’t cook,” she says. “In a per­fect world, it would be find­ing each other’s in­ter­ests and build­ing off that and setting bound­aries. It’s hard to stop and think about it when things are go­ing so great, but you have to.” n * Name has been changed.

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