The Relationship-Destroying Force That The Strongest Couples Tackle Head-On

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couple cuddles with the sunset behind them near a lake

"I just can't seem to do it all!"

That's a phrase we hear all too often from women in our society — especially wives and mothers. It's not just the balance of work and home life that can be exhausting, it's also the unfair burden put upon women (or whomever is the "default" or "primary" parent in a household) to maintain the home and to bear the "mental load" of the family. 

In a colloquial sense, this is called "emotional labor".

While the term was originally developed by a sociologist in the 1980s in reference to emotional work one does while at their paid job, it has evolved to talk about all sorts of emotionally taxing work expected of people — most often people who are in a minority or oppressed position within society. 

The emotional labor of being a wife and mother is often associated with the burden of being the partner who is expected to keep the home and family running — from the very physical needs of a home, like the laundry and the mopping, to the "mental load" work like scheduling appointments, knowing the unique needs of each child and pet, and being a sounding board and support system to their partner. 

Sadly, emotional labor often goes unacknowledged, leading to burn-out and stress within a relationship.

RELATED: What Emotional Labor Really Means — And How To Empower Yourself Before You Burn Out

Emotional labor showed up in Justine and Jordan’s relationship the moment they started their journey together. After living together, first as college roommates and then as lovers for seven years, they married and started a family.

Two children and twenty years of sharing space later, Justine called me for help to de-clutter and organize her home, her life, her family, and her kids. 

Within 15 minutes of our call, Justine repeated the now-familiar lament, "I just can’t seem to do it all." 

To which I replied, "No one can, Justine."

Yet, parity between partners is practically non-existent when it comes to household management. Here's what we can do to recognize and correct the imbalanced division of emotional labor at home — and why that's so important.

RELATED: There Are 3 Different Types Of Relationships — Which Are You Meant To Be In?

How does emotional labor show up in relationships?

In my 13 years as the owner of a professional organizing, decluttering, and "let’s get you out of the mess" company, I didn’t even have to ask Justine what she meant by "all" (as in, I can’t do it all).

And that is because Justine’s "all" is an extraordinarily long list of "to-dos" when it comes to household management and family togetherness, also known as "women’s work."

  • Pets to the vet.
  • Establishing/maintaining family communications.
  • Hiring the housekeeper, nanny, and music teacher.
  • Care-taking elder parents and in-laws, and disabled family members.
  • Making sure there’s wrapping paper and tape, ketchup and mustard, etc.

And making endless lists.

And don’t forget laundry, meal prep, cleaning and organizing, lawn and garden care, everything school-related (permission slips, backpacks, homework, car-pools), scheduling and planning (vacations, appointments, family visits, childcare, extra-curricular activities), and, of course, gifts for family, in-laws, new babies, birthdays. 

Are you exhausted yet? Justine is.

I ask because this partial list of the physical tasks included under the rubric of "household management" doesn’t include the tasks that comprise the "other" side of the work which is, quite possibly, an even longer and more onerous one.

And, ironically, the list is mostly invisible. 

This type of "emotional labor" is defined as the unseen, unnoticed, unpaid, unwritten work women do in the home and at their jobs.

Largely taken for granted by those who don't experience it, the mental load of emotional labor weighs heavily on the shoulders of women — yet the value is huge.

It's the collective wisdom, experience, processes, and facts that provide a solid foundation for a profession or a household to continue on and improve.

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Valued as a profession or not, the collective wisdom of women in the home is a heavy body of knowledge.

Where does this knowledge come from? How you're raised, for sure.

We have memories of our mothers doing particular forms of housework and the like. Your own hands-on experience is key, too.

You're in a constant state of acquiring knowledge. It connects to both your long-term memory and your working memory.

You pull out myriad specialized pieces of knowledge when you need to perform tasks like unsticking the garbage disposer or buying the right size pants for a slightly hefty 7-year-old.

A Life of Lists and Responsibility

And so that task list grows, too. Living with a family requires remembering who likes what, and managing everything school-related (permission slips, backpacks, homework, car-pools, masking protocol). 

But wait! There’s more!

  • Sending around the sympathy/birthday cards at work.
  • Filling the picture frames.
  • Handing out tissues, band-aids, and snacks.
  • Problem-solving (internal and external).
  • Listening.

It's about noticing what needs to be done — and just doing it. Delegating work at home and making sure it gets done. Offering advice, lending an ear. Labors of love.

And these task lists grow and change over time. 

Emotional labor shows up in every relationship with intimate friends or family members. When it comes to the work of emotional labor, ownership of the task lists above began somewhere, usually at the start of a new relationship.

You see the bud of emotional labor begin with that first kiss — the bliss of that kiss is to be documented and remembered and deposited into the first stage.

Evidence of that event will be kept and treasured and whipped out as needed.

They say a women's work is never done and this creates an unseen burden of emotional labor.

For Justine, it was from that first kiss to college, setting up the house, creating new traditions, connecting families, making babies, packing and moving, to making new connections on the job, and with other kids’ parents.

Women are single and married and queer and poly. There are parents and aunties and people you love and who rely upon you for one thing or another — or you rely upon them. Everyone relied on Justine.

The connections among us are the cornerstone of emotional labor. The patching and piecing and joining lives with friends, family, and co-workers are integral to who you are as human beings.

Women rely on each other to help them get through life. Maintaining these relationships can be fun or satisfying or a real burden — and for sure it’s a whole lot of work

RELATED: 10 Realistic Pieces Of Marriage Advice That Actually Work

Work Load Responsibility

Justine’s overwhelmed feelings have two components.

First, the workload itself — and there’s a lot of it! From the lists above not a single element of the work requires that one have a particular body part (such as a vagina!) in order to perform the work. 

Second, Justine feels awfully alone in a household that includes another adult (Jordan) and two teenagers (Julie and Joe).

As Justine explained, "I’m ‘it’ around here — the buck stops with me. I’m tracking and planning and getting everyone on board to clean the house, help with dinner, help with the trash, and help getting out the holiday cards. All of it. It’s all on me and I’m really, really tired. When did knowing where to find the super-glue become my job?"

Emotional labor can be a shared responsibility, but this needs to be negotiated between partners.

While emotional labor is often the glue that holds a family and their values together, I recommend spreading the wealth and creating a more equitable homelife in three meaningful ways. 

First, the adults in the household will make a list of all the work they do toward the management of the home — no filters, write it all down. 

Second, compare lists and start a new conversation that revolves around who’s doing what at home. 

Finally, in the spirit of what I call "radical delegation," the person with the longest list decides which tasks they no longer want to manage, and the person with the shortest list takes them on — even if they’re not "good" at those particular tasks.

Emotional labor shows up in every relationship and in every personal interaction. Since it’s usually women who are tasked with (or are best at!) doing, well, most everything, having them "do it all" doesn’t promote equity and it’s really not fair. 

Consequently, it is time for a radical re-thinking of how to create equity at home.  

RELATED: 7 Truths About What Married Life Is Really Like You Must Know If You Want Your Marriage To Last

Dr. Regina Lark is a Certified Professional Organizer (CPO) and a Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization (CPO-CD). For more information on her services, visit her website.

This article was originally published at Reprinted with permission from the author.