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Labored Union

Dear Stacey,

Could you explain “emotional labor” to me? My girlfriend has started throwing it around a lot in conversations regarding our relationship. We’ve been dating for about six months, and I really like spending time with her. However, I’m starting to worry that I annoy her or that maybe she doesn’t like me very much. I know it’s a trendy term—I’ve done a little research and I’m trying; but I’d really like to gain an objective opinion/another woman’s perspective on how I could do better. Thanks!


The Laborious B.I.G.

Dear Laborious,

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild initially coined the term “emotional labor” in the early eighties. Long story short, Hochschild’s research was about the unpaid but expected management of emotions and the emotions of others in the workplace and how it affected workers’ lives outside of the job, primarily for those working in service positions. Hospitality and service workers, collections agents, law enforcement, healthcare, government, or any public-facing positions are all good examples. The labor involves both surface acting—faking it while still feeling lousy on the inside—and deep acting—internally adapting to meet corporate expectations. The information is fascinating, but the workforce isn’t why you’ve contacted me.

Somewhere along the way—likely due to the #MeToo movement and the current political climate—emotional labor started trending in conversations among women, communities of color, LGBTQ, and basically any group experiencing inequity on some level—both inside and outside of a workplace. There are already many think pieces out there that delve into these important issues, as well as some that are not in favor of using the term to describe situations outside of work, such as Please Stop Calling Everything That Frustrates You Emotional Labor by Haley Swenson.

Even Hochschild thinks the term has become “blurry and over-applied.” In a recent interview with the Atlantic, she explains to author Julie Beck that these non-work situations have to create some level of anxiety or alienation in order to be deemed emotional labor. To use a personal example, writing an advice column could be construed as emotional labor, but in reality, it is just mental labor. Being a person people turn to for advice only becomes emotional labor if I’m somehow disturbed or made anxious by it—like if you cornered me in the vestibule of a restaurant to pitch a feature story to me and talk about your problems. And if you are wondering, yes, that has happened to me; and yes, that is definitely emotional labor.

I’m going to stick to the matter at hand—your relationship. When it comes to relationships, emotional labor seems to be more recently defined as the unpaid, invisible, emotional, mental, and psychological work you put into maintaining it. All relationships require effort from both parties, and roles may vary from couple to couple. This might even include some surface and deep acting to manage expectations and happiness levels. Since I don’t have a lot of detail on your girlfriend’s sore points, I have a hunch this is her way of expressing a word I mention above—inequity. When people tend to talk about their frustrations in a relationship, something is typically out of balance—someone feels like he or she is doing more to keep the status quo.

Six months is a great time to take stock in your roles and, specifically, your contributions. Do you frequently defer to your partner to ensure things are running smoothly in your relationship? For example, on a night when you aren’t going out to dinner, is she responsible for the meal planning and cooking at home? When it comes to dates, do you expect her to come up with ideas and direct the social calendar? Do you find that your girlfriend has to ask you repeatedly to do the same things? For some people, the act of having to ask could be causing frustration. Who leads the discussion if and when conflicts arise? Who initiates sex/physical intimacy? If the answer to most of these questions is your girlfriend, then yes—it is very likely she is becoming annoyed with you.

The fact that you have done a little bit of research on your own and have reached out to an advice column shows you have interest in learning more about this topic and how you can possibly improve. However, I have to wonder why you aren’t having this conversation directly with your girlfriend—are you afraid of what she has to say or simply hoping she will initiate the discussion? The only way you’re ever going to get a proper definition of emotional labor for this situation is directly through her.


Stacey Rowe is a freelance writer and artist located in Rochester. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram as @thestaceyrowe and online at

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