THE BLOG
04/06/2016 10:16 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why Women Are Tired: The Price of Unpaid Emotional Labor

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2016-04-05-1459888822-9311931-ChristineHutchison.jpegAuthored by Christine Hutchison, Executive Editor for Psyched in San Francisco Magazine and therapist. Christine is studying for her doctorate in Psychology at the Wright Institute, as well as working as a Registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern at New Perspectives Center for Counseling. Supervised by Debra Warshaw Taube, LMFT 29304, Christine provides psychotherapy to individuals, couples, and adolescents. Christine leads writer's workshops for helping professionals. Learn more here.

"I feel... I don't know. Confused and sad."

Jen's voice broke on the last syllable, and the tears came in a rush.

I'd been working with Jen for some years. Our time together started right after her move to San Francisco from the East Coast, and I listened on the sidelines as she began a new career in HR, slowly made some local friends, began trying to get pregnant, and, suddenly, about a year ago, was blindsided by her husband's announcement that he was done with their 10-year marriage.

She fell apart. For the next year, the bright and mischievous woman who could talk intellectual circles around me in session was replaced by a childlike face of hollow horror. "What happened?" she asked in a whisper, looking up at me, confused and desperate. "What did I miss?"

As the divorce progressed, Jen dipped into suicidality. "I won't, Christine, but I don't want to live," she said once, looking down at the rainbow carpet in my nonprofit's office.

For the next several months she clung to friends, her work, and her Saturday morning Zumba class. The basics saved her, moment to moment. When she despaired, when her apartment was too quiet and empty, she walked two miles to buy a cup of tea, and returned home. Our "therapeutic goals" had shifted from the realm of self-actualization to far further down Maslow's hierarchy. Eating, getting out of bed in the morning, moving her body a little every day, and not collapsing into isolation--- basically, survival, was the goal for the better part of a year.

And, slowly, as she dedicated herself to her self, she began to come out of it. She grabbed the chance to apply for a new and better position at work and, through intense competition, she got it. Perhaps most importantly, she told her ex-husband that she wanted no communication, after getting a series of light-hearted newsy emails from him detailing the adventures he was on and "hoping she was well."

"I told him I would not respond to anything other than divorce-related legal or financial issues," she told me.

There were many turning points in Jen's recovery, but that seemed to be the biggest one. "My life is my own," she told me the next week, her face holding a lightness I had never seen before, even pre-divorce. "I don't have to deal with his bullshit anymore. I don't have to wonder what he's feeling and what he's avoiding feeling, I don't have to be the one who supports him in his career, cheering him on and listening to his woes, acting as his most trusted confidant. I can do all that for myself now. I'm free!"

Jen's marriage, I suspect, had contained what so many heterosexual marriages do: a pattern of unequal emotional labor that neither party is fully aware of. Tellingly, while Jen felt sad at her divorce, she also felt unburdened and free. Her ex-husband, possibly, had not realized that he had been receiving ongoing emotional support in the form of Jen's mirroring, curiosity, acknowledgement, validation and empathy. Maybe his emails were sent out of a desire to continue getting what he'd always gotten.

And here Jen was now, in my office, confused and sad again because she'd just received another message from Christopher. This time, he wanted to tell her that he'd realized over the last year how poorly he treated her. That he was sorry. That he hoped she was well.

She read me the email. It struck me as not manic or fake like his previous ones, but gentler and more self-aware. They were the words she longed to hear last year. So why did she, and I, feel confused?

"Would you rather have not heard from him, that he'd kept his apology to himself?" I asked.

She looked startled. "You know, yeah! I don't want to hear from him, ever, and I've told him that TWICE. Is he still looking for a response from me? Does he want me to forgive him so HE can feel better? Ugh! I am so beyond done with this shit."

As a feminist who strives towards intersectionality, I try not to split everything into female = oppressed and male = oppressor categories. The white female university professor is usually better off than the Latino migrant farm worker, and the clothes she purchases at Banana Republic impact the quality of life of men (and women) across the globe. The cisgender woman is almost always safer and taken more seriously than the transgender one. We don't live in a binary world, and feminism must always look for the shades of gray.

But some patterns between men and women are hard to ignore, especially when they play out in your office (and in your own life) day after day.

And I do hear it, literally every day, both on the therapy couch and in coffee shops and parks where I sit with my own friends on weekends.

"I'm trying not to be that girl who wonders why he's not texting back, but WHY IS HE NOT TEXTING BACK?"

"He's a good partner, we share housework and childcare, but it's still me who's doing the scheduling and planning. And if I tell him I'm tired of it he just says, 'Well then don't do it, we'll figure it out.' But we won't figure it out unless someone figures it out! So I end up figuring it out again."

"He's about to get a promotion. He's worked really hard for it. I'm so proud." (I believe this woman, and I have a nagging wondering whether "he" would be as invested, as proud, as aware of every step of the process and bragging to his own therapist, if she was the one getting promoted.)

A few months ago, I was introduced to the concept of "Emotional Labor," from sex workers who were tweeting about the topic. These women talked about how they get compensated for their sexual labor, but a huge part of their job is emotional work (listening, validating, pretending to feel something for the sake of the other), which is assumed by the male clients to be given for free. Emotional Labor has been studied in the field of sociology for a while, and somewhat recently has been incorporated into feminist discourse. Feminists have begun asking the question Rose Hackman posed in her article on the topic in The Guardian: "What if, much like childcare and housekeeping, the sum of this ongoing emotional management [that women do] is yet another form of unpaid labor?"

When I work in therapy with heterosexual couples, the disparity of training each gender receives in emotional management is stark. Often, the woman is aware of her male partner's needs and feelings at the expense of her own, whereas the male partner struggles to identify and understand both his own and his partner's emotions. He has been taught that it is either dangerous, not manly, or not his job to feel and respond to feelings, including his own. It's tragic. As a female therapist, I often have an urge to join the female partner and save the man from the struggle and embarrassment of this work. We name his feelings for him, begin extrapolating on them, and once again, the man becomes an emotional project of women. It has taken me some time to catch my own impulse to collude with wives and girlfriends when I sit with heterosexual couples, to step back and let men find their own words for their own experiences.

With individual male therapy clients, I hear echos of the emotional labor the women in their lives may be putting in when the men speak of the "random explosions" that "seem come from nowhere." I agree with them that it would be helpful if their partners could tell them their feelings and frustrations incrementally, rather than letting them build and explode. Many women are taught to not "nag," which is usually code for "don't ask for what you need," and so they do bottle up and explode.

But then, I wonder if the women in these men's lives ARE communicating. If the men are just untrained at the emotional work of listening and responding, and the explosions are not a matter of build-up, but of not being heard the first forty times. What, after all, did Jen's ex-husband hear when she said, "Do not contact me" the first, and second, time?

As the obvious disparity in emotional intelligence has come into societal focus, gender essentialism has re-entered our lexicon, medieval Calvinist theology wearing a lab coat, and speaking in words like "Naturally," "Biologically," and, my very least favorite, "According to neuroscience." You'll hear this in many forms:

Women are NATURALLY BETTER at empathy.
The male brain is WIRED FOR SEX and the female brain is WIRED FOR CONNECTION.
Men are BIOLOGICALLY DRIVEN to procreate with many women rather than establish bonds with one monogamous partner.*

And, frustratingly, these begging-the-question conclusions bring comfort to many. Women feel a temporary relief that they don't have to stop themselves from the things they are so practiced at, and men never have to admit to the constant emotional failures they inflict on the women around them.

Honestly, I don't know how to work with this, as a therapist or as a human. It's so lopsided. It seems like women, on average, have a PhD in emotional labor and men are trying to pass third grade. And as the unspoken rules of patriarchy have it, men are not ever to feel inferior at anything. So we're all in a bind.

Audre Lorde wrote an essay entitled, The Master's Tools will Never Dismantle the Master's House. We keep trying to fix this emotional labor problem with the same tools that built the shitty structure in the first place. Women continue to do the emotional work they are so good at, protecting men from feeling incompetent and inferior, or else exploding in frustration and becoming scathingly critical. Men, often not having language for their emotional experiences, shirk away from hard talks, and in some spaces, they mock women for wanting to have them.

And we as a society continue to devalue emotional labor economically, and ignore the ways it is gendered. As anyone who has worked in customer service knows, the hardest part of the job is faking the smile, but female employees seem to have a higher standard of cheerfulness demanded of them. Even my own profession, psychology, has seen a decrease in salary and prestige and an increase in training fees in the last 20 years, both of which correspond with an influx of women entering the field.

So, what does it look like, friends, to build a new house together, and to find new tools for the job?

Can the emotionally exhausted among us say "No," either simply and gently to those we love, or, as Jen did, loudly and insistently when our emotional boundaries are crossed and we are asked to work for free again? Can we dedicate our labor to ourselves, humbly learning the basics of taking care of our own emotional needs?

Can those who have received the benefit of others' emotional labor admit, "I am embarrassed to not be good at this. I need help with it. I was not taught these skills, and that is unfair to me and to those I love?"

Relationships are hard work, they require labor. Sometimes they are tiring. But hopefully, they can be a mutual exchange, so that both parties can alternate working and being worked for, fighting and being fought for. When we all pitch in to dismantling and rebuilding our relationship houses, perhaps we can finally, together, get some rest.

*For an antidote to this 19th century sexism guised as modern science, I recommend the book Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine.

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