If you’ve ever worked in any service job, you’ve probably dealt with managing your emotions to keep the customer happy. If you work at a restaurant and you bring food to your table, and the customer says their sandwich came with a sauce on it they didn’t ask for, you need to stay positive and offer a solution to keep the customer also feeling positive so they’ll return to your restaurant. You have to manage your feelings while also managing the emotions of the people around you. This idea of managing emotions, feelings, and expressions is called emotional labor. With Mother’s Day in May, it feels especially right to discuss emotional labor, as women often exercise it most. 

What is emotional labor?

The concept of emotional labor was first fully explored by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book The Managed Heart. When Hochschild was first discussing emotional labor, she mostly explored this concept in regard to work relationships. Other professions that require a great deal of emotional labor are teachers, nurses, flight attendants, or hotel management, just to name a few.

Since Hochschild’s initial writing on the topic, many other sociologists have delved deeper into studying emotional labor. This topic has now been expanded beyond just showing up in work situations. Emotional labor also is present in people’s everyday domestic lives, and unfortunately, women often bear the brunt of emotional labor in many relationships.

Examples of emotional labor for women

The first time I heard the term “emotional labor” and saw a lengthy explanation of it was a Harpers Bazaar article written by Gemma Hartley. In the article, Hartley describes how she asked her husband to hire a house cleaning service for her as a Mother’s Day gift. She wanted her husband to handle it all so she could relax and enjoy a clean home. She didn’t want to have to go through the trouble of looking up cleaning services, comparing prices, and reading reviews—she wanted her husband to do that for her as part of the gift.

Instead, her husband cleaned the bathrooms himself, which is a nice gesture, but Hartley describes that she ended up watching their children and cleaning up some clothing and a box her husband left out in their closet. Her husband says she should have just asked him to put the box away, and as the author expresses, the whole point is she doesn’t want to have to ask. She wanted to feel cared for by her partner in the same way she cares for him.

Bearing the full responsibility of managing a household and making sure everyone is cared for is a lot of work. Updating a calendar with everyone’s schedules, packing lunches for children to take to school, washing and folding laundry, asking your partner to clean up after themselves, asking them a second, third, and fourth time to clean the bathroom even though it’s their responsibility and they shouldn’t need to be reminded. These are all examples of emotional labor women often are responsible for in a home.

The actual, physical work isn’t the emotional labor— all of the little things you do for others that make their lives easier, and the process of asking your partner to also do their work and share in the responsibilities is the emotional labor.

How can we manage emotional labor?

Having conversations with your partner about them pitching in more, being considerate of their feelings, making sure they understand you asking them to help out and do their chores without being asked multiple times is not an attack on their character, is emotional labor. All the while you just do what needs to be done because if you don’t do it, no one will.

So why is it that women often bear a great responsibility for this? There’s the old stereotype that men will go out into the world and work a full-time job while women stay at home and raise the children and look after the house. Maybe some of this is due to old gender norms sticking around, but honestly, I’m not quite sure. But many modern relationships have both partners working full time, so shouldn’t the housework and in-home responsibilities be split equally?

Obviously, every relationship won’t have this exact dynamic, but if you google “emotional labor,” you’ll find article after article citing specific examples of women handling emotional labor in the home. Think about your own upbringing and who was in charge of domestic and emotional care in your home. Think about those responsibilities in your own life now and who takes care of them in your various relationships.

Do what works for you and your relationship

Everyone has to do some sort of emotional labor in their lives, but if you are thanklessly responsible for the majority of this labor in your home, you should feel able to change that.

If you’re feeling like you are bearing the brunt of all of this in-house labor and you’re having to constantly remind your partner to do their share of housework, run errands, etc., then it might be time for a conversation with them about equally distributing work. Yes, you’ll want to be considerate of their feelings when you talk with them, but you are not nagging! You’re simply asking for an equal share of responsibility. And if your partner loves you and cares about you, then they should want to actively share the responsibility. 

Getting a handwritten note from a friend, spending hours with a loved one catching up, your partner doing the grocery shopping, or taking out the trash– these are all ways we can feel loved and cared for. These different methods of expressing love can be boiled down to five main types, also known as the five love languages.

How was the love languages idea created?

The five love languages is a concept developed by a man named Gary Chapman, and he’s written many books around this topic. The love languages are the main ways people give and receive love. I’ve heard quite a bit about the love languages in the past few years, but this idea and Chapman’s writings on it have been around since 1995. Chapman has a master’s in anthropology and a Ph.D. in philosophy and spent many years developing this idea and studying couples.

The five love languages are the five main ways people can give and receive love. Although people may give and receive love in many ways, there are one or two main languages that make them feel most loved and allow them to express their love fully. Love languages can be useful not only in romantic relationships but all relationships you have. Knowing your romantic partner or friend’s love language allows you to care for them in a way that makes them feel most seen and loved and allows them to do the same for you.

What are the five love languages?

  • Words of affirmation: expressing your love or admiration for someone through words, and feeling most loved when they do the same for you.
  • Acts of service: surprising your partner with lunch or doing a chore for them is your way of showing you care, and having someone do acts of service for you makes you feel most loved as well.
  • Quality time: You express your love for someone by spending quality time with them. You spend intentional, specific time with them free from distraction. Someone doing this for you also makes you feel loved.
  • Physical touch: You express your love through touch and feel most loved this way as well. Physical touch can include anything from hugs, to hand-holding, to sitting next to one another, to sex making you feel most loved.
  • Receiving gifts: You feel most loved when someone goes out of their way to give you a gift. You express your love for someone best by giving them a gift as well.

How do I learn my love languages?

Human beings are complex, so of course, not everyone will have one specific love language, but a mix of many. Your main love language is the way you feel most loved; this doesn’t mean other forms of expression don’t make you feel good too. There’s a free quiz on the love languages website where you can find out the ranking of your love languages. There are also different variations of the quiz for children, couples, single people, and teenagers.

My ranking is words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and receiving gifts. If someone sends me a meaningful text or tells me they love me, that makes me feel so good. I also express my love for others through compliments and affirmations. Quality time is a close second for me. 

What can I do with this knowledge?

Knowing the love language of the people in your life can improve your relationships. For example, I scored a 0 for receiving gifts when I took the quiz. If I had a partner whose number one was receiving gifts and words of affirmation were low on their list, we could easily make each other feel unloved if we didn’t know this. If my partner feels most loved receiving and giving gifts, but I only write them love notes and handwritten cards, they won’t feel my love for them in a way that speaks to them.

Chapman has written several books on the topic, plus the quiz and other recourses are available on the website. I encourage you to take the quiz and start asking your friends, partners, and family what their love language is so you can all love each other the best you can. Being in touch with your feelings and how you feel best expressing yourself is important and will only help strengthen your relationships and enrich your life.