Balancing Emotional Labor In Your Relationship Shouldn't Be Hard. Here's What To Do If It Is

Most healthy relationships require some degree of give and take. But it's not just about deciding who's going to do what chores every night, or figuring out who is going to cook dinner. Along with physical and mental labor, building a trusting and loving relationship requires a balance of emotional labor, too. 

But what exactly does emotional labor even mean? The original definition of the term published in Arlie Rothschild's 1979 book "The Managed Heart" referred to how female employees were expected to manage their emotions for their profession –think along the lines of bottle service workers being expected to slap on a smile no matter what's happening around them. Since then, what constitutes emotional labor has evolved, and today the term is used to describe the emotional burden required to undertake responsibilities that often go unacknowledged and undervalued. In romantic relationships, this includes always being the one to rush to your partner's side when they need help but not receiving the same urgency in return when you need them.

Although it requires some work on both ends, balancing emotional labor in your relationship shouldn't be a difficult task. So what do you do if it is?

Figure out if your relationship lacks emotional balance

There are a number of different tell-tale signs there could be facing an emotional labor discrepancy between you and your partner, with MasterClass reporting one of the biggest indications is a discrepancy in the amount of emotional support given. If you feel like you're constantly showing up and being there for your partner in times of distress, but you're not getting the same sense of urgency in return, you're probably carrying the majority of the emotional labor. As physiotherapist Alena Gerst told MBGMindfulness, "Many people, women in particular, don't even realize they are carrying a heavier total load and, therefore, bearing the burden of emotional labor." Unfortunately, keeping things bottled up and pretending everything is okay will only hurt you in the long run.

Per Well + Good, another sign your relationship is emotionally imbalanced is if you feel the need to constantly push your feelings aside or fake your emotions about a situation in order to keep the peace. This can be common if your partner has a tendency to get overly emotional in response to a crisis and rely on you for comfort. You may just want to keep quiet so that you avoid conflict. Though it may be fine for during some periods, this lack of balance can build into resentment, which can harm the bond you have together. That's why it's so important to call attention to the issue so it doesn't get to that point.

Talk it out, but put the focus on you

Talking about any problems in your relationship with your partner is rarely a bad idea, as it lets them know how you're feeling without having to play the guessing game. But there are a few things to consider when having that initial conversation about emotional labor to ensure things don't escalate into a fight.

First, set aside a specific place for the conversation to happen rather than bringing it up over dinner in front of the family. Brooke Bralove recommended to Brides that couples discuss these matters outside of the home because being out in public encourages both people to keep their emotions in check. Next, be mindful of how you're communicating the issues.Try to avoid statements like "you always do this", as this can come off like you're making accusations, says MBGMindfulness. Repeatedly putting the emphasis on the other person and what they have or haven't done could make them feel attacked, which likely won't go down well if they're only just learning you're unhappy. Remember, your partner isn't a villain for not being able to read your mind. Instead, focus on "I" statements, explicitly stating how the situation has made you feel and what you need to happen. Biomedical engineer Chloe Goldbach shared some similar advice with The Outline, noting, "Taking in the big picture and asking how we could do better to balance this in our relationship makes it less of an attack and more of a joint effort."

Start making your own changes

At the end of the day, as much as we want to care for our partners, we are our responsible for our own happiness. And sometimes making small changes for ourselves can have a ripple effect on our partners. As Dr. Candice Hargons, assistant professor at the University of Kentucky and a licensed psychologist, explained to New York Times, "The beauty of couple dynamics is that if one person changes, the couple has changed." 

Maybe that means setting aside time for yourself to go to therapy on your own. Or maybe it means refusing to engage in situations that to fights between the two of you. Perhaps it's coming up with coping strategies for your own stress so you aren't so codependent on your partner. In any case, once you start altering your own actions and way of thinking to make yourself more comfortable, your partner will then have to decide whether or not they're willing to find a healthy way of adapting to meet your needs. "If the person taking on the emotional labor attends individual therapy and learns to relinquish some of the responsibility for emotional labor, the other partner has the choice to move on to another partner or begin attending to their emotional needs and the needs of the family differently," Hargons said. 

Consult a third party for help

As much as we want to believe we can fix everything on our own, sometimes it's necessary to turn to a third party to ourselves and our partners get a clear perspective on what needs to be fixed in our relationship. Sometimes, that person is a family-friend who knows both of you well. But if we want to avoid messing with our other relationships, it may be wise to consult a professional who can provide you with a truly unbiased opinion. "[Couples therapy] can allow the person who takes on less emotional labor to identify and better communicate their emotions, and learn to meet their own emotional needs," Dr. Candice Hargons told New York Times. "It can assist the person taking on more emotional labor with exploring how they came to believe it was their responsibility, and begin to relinquish some of the aspects that do not serve them well."

As noted by Prospect Therapy, setting aside time with a professional creates a pressure-free environment for each person to open up about how they feel. Often times, that professional can provide you with tips for how to make actionable changes in your dynamic so that you can both meet your needs. 

Set boundaries and stick to them

There's nothing wrong with being there for your partner during a difficult time, but every human being has a limit. Per MindBodyGreen, in couples where the emotional labor is unbalanced, that can look like one person always venting about their stressors, while the other is expected to always offer advice. It can also mean one person is always the first to compromise during an argument because the other one is being domineering and always gets their way. 

Setting emotional boundaries in your relationship can help you ensure that you ensure your needs aren't being overlooked. As for what your boundaries can look like? Well, that will be different in every relationship and for every person, but it could include anything from asking for a safe place to be able to share your thoughts and feelings without judgement, to letting them know you need time to yourself.

Start regular check-ins

Unlike physical labor, which produces a result you can see, gauging who's doing the most emotional labor in a relationship is more subjective. That's why regular check-in sessions with your partner are crucial. A consistent meeting will give you both a safe space to open up and address any issues without distraction, while also allowing you time to bring up anything else on your mind. 

Desirée Robinson, a psychotherapist and sex therapist, suggested to The New York Times that for many couples, designating weekly 20-minute conversations with your partner is a good place to start. This will allow you to enter the conversation with a clear goal in mind to recap what isn't working and what you both need from each other in the coming week. For instance, maybe you have a stressful work presentation and you need them to be extra kind and patient with you. Let them know. Also know that things don't have to all be about demands when you sit down. Robinson explained that the sessions also make for an ideal time to give your partner some recognition for any extra effort they put in balancing things out during the week. Saying thank you can never hurt!

Hold each other accountable

Since emotional labor often involves more of a mental than physical burden, it can be difficult for some people to appreciate how much work is going into it. Although we'd all love for our partners to stare us in the eyes and know exactly what we're feeling, the reality is nobody is a mind reader. If you want to make real change happen, NBC News advises telling your partner specifically how you'd like them to be more active in the relationship. For example, if you're always the one responsible for reminding everyone about anniversaries and birthdays, let your partner know that and ask for them to start using their calendar to track big events. Or maybe you're the parent who the kids constantly go to when they need emotional support. Ask your partner if they can handle it so you can get a break. Give your partner the chance to be better by showing them what you need.

While it may take some work time your partner on the same page, be mindful of weaponized incompetence, which is when a person pretends to not be good at a task to get someone else to take on the responsibility. Per Brooke Barlove, LCSW-C, to ensure this doesn't happen and maintain accountability, try communicating your goals to each other and calling out excuses. Speaking to Brides, she explained, "When you ask for help, you need to allow the help to occur. The more you enable your partner to under-function, the more you will continue to over-function, and that part is on you."

Know when it's time to let go

While being explicit with your other half about your expectations is key to achieving balance, be mindful that the change probably won't happen overnight. If you and your partner have been doing things a certain way for many years, asking for a sudden change to your dynamic can come off as surprise of even unreasonable, even if things have been off balance. In other words, your relationship may endure a rockier patch before things get better. Brooke Barlove, LCSW-C, told Brides the key to navigating this period is being firm about your needs are and not backing down. "If you get pushback from your partner when you ask to balance the emotional labor, do not give up. 

Per NBC News, being realistic about your relationship expectations can also mean recognizing your partner may not do every single thing the way you would, and that's okay. Part of an equal partnership is respecting each other's differences and letting the other person know their experience is valid. At the same time, if you've been struggling to balance emotional labor for months or years, and find yourself going back into the same cycle it may be worth checking in with yourself if it's worth it to keep investing in this relationship.