We Need To Appreciate The Unpaid Emotional Labor Of Single People

Without a partner or family, the line between emotional labor and maintaining relationships blurs.

Woman carrying the exhausting emotional labor of her friends Tero Vesalainen, pixelshot, KoolShooters | Canva

Since my last relationship ended years ago, I’ve been the designated "single friend" in my circle.

The person without a partner or family to tie them down or give them a valid excuse to turn down plans. Also known as the family member whose resources and energy should contribute to the good of the family members with kids or spouses. 

Since single folks don’t have spouses, partners, or little ones influencing how we spend our time, we’re frequently the first ones that those in our circle will call in a crisis.


No one sees our emotional labor because we can’t quantify it as intuitively as someone who pours into their nuclear family or relationship. 

There’s also the emotional labor of navigating life as a single AFAB (assigned female at birth). Although I identify as non-binary, I present very femme. On top of that, I was assigned female at birth. As a result, I experience many of the same issues that cis-women and trans-women do. 


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What is emotional labor?

I keep tossing this phrase around, but you’re probably wondering what the heck it means. Over the past few years, the term "emotional labor" has given a name to the nagging feeling of many people — especially women and feminine folks — that we’re unpaid house cleaners, personal assistants, therapists, and home managers in our families, workplaces, and social groups. 

Emotional labor means keeping a running tally of all the tasks and household chores that need to be completed on any given day. It means remembering social obligations, etiquette, and important dates so those in your life who rely on you for those tasks don’t look silly or fumble the bag at work or family functions. Often, it entails managing our emotions flawlessly so that those around us can express themselves in the messiest manner possible. 

If this all sounds exhausting, it’s because it is. Women especially have been waking up to the reality that managing household duties is a full-time, thankless job that’s underpaid and overworked.


Those who engage in emotional labor are starting to wonder if all of this effort is above our nonexistent pay grade. While wives and mothers are the first groups most of us think about when we consider emotional labor, they’re not the only ones. Stay-at-home partners of all genders and single folks make up a surprising chunk of the "emotional labor force."

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Why emotional labor is insidious for single folks:

If I had a household to manage with a partner, I imagine I’d notice if all of the housework and relationship management in the home fell on my shoulders.

It could be relatively easy to pinpoint the source of my distress if I found myself asking for help with chores only to do it myself when I got sick of seeing the same dirty dishes piled in the sink. What’s more, I’d have a person or set of people (i.e. my family) to sit down and ask for a fairer distribution of emotional labor. 


Without a partner or family, the line between emotional labor and maintaining relationships blurs.

When I support a friend who has no one else to call into the wee hours of the morning, is that emotional labor or being a good friend? When I agree to plan an event at work while my partnered/parenting coworkers go home to care for their families, is that emotional labor or just part of the job? Should an elderly person in my community need someone to deliver meals or grab their mail, is it emotional labor if the person with the fewest other perceived responsibilities in life steps up? 

I don’t know that there are easy answers to these questions. All I know is that I get burnt out sometimes from being the first person that folks will call for help or support when they don’t want to bother their friends who have families or partners.

Sometimes, I have to turn their request for help down. Rarely do I give them a straight answer and tell them I have other things I would like or need to do instead of assisting them. Usually, I make it seem as though I'm preoccupied with other responsibilities. 


As embarrassing as it can be to admit, the only valid excuse I seem to have as a single person to get out of emotional labor is work.

Thankfully, as a freelancer, I always have something that needs to be done. But I still feel guilty if I could spare a few hours for someone else and failed to do it. When I see my other single friends struggling with the same thing, I notice them pulling the work card, too.

RELATED: Therapist Says Failing Relationships Can Only Be Saved Once A Man Chooses To Take On The Emotional Labor

I wonder what it would take for others to value our time and energy in the same way that they at least partially respect the time and energy of those with families and partners.


Unsung single heroes are the ones who stay up late at night talking their friends off the ledge because they don’t have to keep their voices down next to a sleeping partner. When parenting pals are in over their heads with screaming kiddos, these single friends are the first to hold down the fort for a few hours so the exhausted parents can sleep. Often, these are expected of single people since they lack anything others see as equally important to parenting or relationship maintenance.

If they stopped to realize everything single people do to keep the families and relationships in our lives running smoothly, I have no doubts their hearts would swell with gratitude. 

Emotional labor seeps into the dating pool, too. As awkward and unwanted as it may be, single folks are the ones who comfort other single folks who are tired of being alone. They go on dates that end up as emotional oversharing sessions or practice for when the person on the other side of the stereotypical coffee shop table meets their last first date for a long time. They're the untrained, unpaid therapists and the soft place to land when our coupled friends freshly split into the same solitary boat we occupy.  

Emotional labor takes its toll like any work. If you find yourself burning out from being available to help everyone in your life all the time, it may be time to consider whether you put in too many hours of emotional effort. 


As hard as it can be to cut back, single people have lives, too. In many cases, our lives are fuller and more exciting because we don’t have partners or little ones holding us back. 

Even if you’re chilling on your couch tossing back cheap wine and downing a frozen pizza on a Friday night, your time and plans are precious. Don’t let anyone guilt you into giving them your energy and hours simply because you're single.

Know that your resources are a gift. You should share them because you choose to do it, not because of societal expectations. Easier said than done, but I’ll take a leaf from my own book and let you know how it goes.

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Maya Strong is a writer who has spent the last six years blogging about relationships, LGBTQIA+, mental health, lifestyle, and cultural commentary online.