The issue of emotional labour, and most notably women’s often unequal share of the load, has been hotly contested in recent times. Some describe it as one of the new frontiers of modern-day feminism, while others are sceptical and see it as overanalysing the situation or ascribing unnecessary blame.
There are undoubtedly inherently gendered elements to the issue of emotional labour. For many women, the burden of emotional labour is what prevents them from pursuing their own careers and involves putting the lives of others before their own. These efforts often go without remuneration or even thanks from the recipients of such generosity.
Generally speaking, women are conditioned to interrogate and self-analyse because we are compelled towards an unattainable standard of perfection in many spheres of our lives. Whether this be conforming to an image of beauty, the role of wife or mother, or the very contrived notion of being ‘feminine’, it is expected that there will always be someone who can find fault with what women do and choose.
Our tendency to self-analyse manifests in that common dilemma of: “Am I overreacting, or is this something that the patriarchy doesn’t want me to speak up about?” Of course, micro-aggressions and small disparities or inequalities are not at the forefront of all women’s minds — and being able to question whether I am overanalysing emotional labour by applying a gendered lens certainly hints at my privileged position.
But rather than diving too far into the gendered characteristics of emotional intelligence specifically — and how women are supposedly ‘better at these things’ — I thought it would be useful to consider emotional labour from the perspective of providing a service.
Relationships can be viewed as (and are for some people) an exchange of services. This may be expressed in physical affection, doing small favours for each other or completing more abstract tasks of listening and providing advice. The idea of a what a ‘good friend’ or ‘proper partner’ does can lead to disputes if there are conflicting expectations.
I have had experiences where ‘being there for someone’ has been defined as a quantifiable role, and where failing to carry out expected duties has resulted in a temporary exclusion from the relationship. I have similarly projected onto others what I think the ‘right’ thing to do as a friend or partner is — such as showing up to a significant event to support. In fact, this often occurs in my relations with women-identifying friends, as we all grapple with our anxieties surrounding our share of emotional labour more generally. It is saddening that we as women* sometimes transfer patriarchal pressures onto each other, just because those in power don’t sympathise or remain fairly unaffected.
Illustration by Ananya Kumar
What I have learnt is that it is important to take stock of how much you are giving and receiving in your relationships. There are only so many hours in the day, and emotional labour is often not the most rewarding experience. It is unsurprising that many female-identifying partners and mothers find themselves drained and isolated by the constant demands put upon them by those they look after.
As someone who has often considered herself highly rational and calculative, my experience with what people would describe as emotional labour has been quite unemotional. My interactions with friends, family and partners have been driven by logic and intuition. Often this is more as a result of internalised perfectionism than anything else — perhaps due to the compounding effects of a tight schedule and preference for how things ‘should’ be done.
There have been times, however, where I’ve found myself questioning why I feel I am best ‘positioned’ to complete a task in a certain way — whether it be reminding someone of something they have coming up or trying to analyse and resolve a crisis they may be having. This doesn’t occur exclusively in my interactions with male-identifying people either; it is important to remember that emotional labour imbalances are not limited to binary male-female interactions.
Is it bizarre and somewhat misguided that I take pride in being able to do these things for people? Is this really generosity I am showing, or just an enactment of my duty as a partner, friend or family member? This is often where I find the lines become somewhat blurred. My interrogation can extend to me questioning whether my own acts are selfless or self-interested. Am I being genuine in wanting to help, or am I only performing this service so that they ‘owe me one’, or so that I can increase the number of points I have won in the ‘tactical game’ of relationships?
Of course, this may just be another example of my over-extended self-critical disposition, as well as some degree of internalised misogyny that encourages society to see women as manipulative. After all, relationships are inherently malleable and flexible things; it is not possible to keep score, or alternatively, to simply maintenance them by putting in a little bit of effort every so often. This kind of attitude towards our bonds with others can often leave both parties feeling hollow and out of touch with each other.
All things considered, while I am often inclined to approach emotional labour quite unemotionally, I nonetheless feel uneasy about the whole thing. To avoid getting trapped in an unbalanced and gendered routine of service, where feelings of resentment are likely, we must ask ourselves: “Is this unnecessary emotional labour?” Striving towards a relatively equitable share of the ‘work’ of care-giving is necessary to ensuring everyone feels cared for.
Due to my competing and sometimes contradictory feminist, perfectionist and nurturing instincts, the question of what constitutes emotional labour is still something I struggle with. Maybe it is simply providing a service, or perhaps it is an unfair burden, or perhaps, it is a bit of both.
Editors note: in edition four, an oversight resulted in a different article being printed underneath this title. We would like to retract this misleading version and clarify that this online version is the correct version.