There is a new book out by Gemma Hartley called Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women and the Way Forward. Interesting! This labor is defined by Ms. Hartley as “unpaid invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy.” The point is, this labor is mostly considered women’s work and women resent it.
When you really get down to it, this labor turns out to be mostly about housework and who does it, although it does include administrative tasks like remembering family birthdays and scheduling events. Ms. Hartley also stresses that this division of labor is bad for both sexes. And I agree, as would most professionals who work with couples and families, that it doesn’t help men to teach them that the “emotional landscape” is somehow not worthy of their attention or is somehow not “masculine.” All this pinpoints that the caring responses that are simply expected of women, are – well – WORK!
But, for me, this book is still missing a vital element. I have listened to literally hundreds of women in couple therapy and in relationship education groups weep about feeling unappreciated and taken for granted in ways that fit into this concept of emotional labor. However, the real source of desperation and rage is nearly always more specific.
Women are usually more sensitive and attuned to the levels of closeness and emotional security in relationships than men, and so naturally take on the role of “Closeness Monitor and Regulator.” It is THIS labor that women desperately want their partners to share. After all, if only you notice that something is missing when the vital elements in love – focused attention, intimate confiding and affection – are dialled down to “off,” how can you ever feel valued or secure?
Yes, women get mad because their men do not join them in the tasks of running a household, but they get even more desperate, afraid, and frantic when their men do not help them take any care of the emotional bond that makes them a couple. Most often, they then express their pain, often cloaked in frustration.
Edith says, “How come you never take the time to talk and hold me before we go to sleep now? It’s like we are roommates who just share a bedroom and a bed. It’s lonely, is what it is.”
Unfortunately, Ted hears only criticism coming at him and counters, “God, you exaggerate. Really, you know how busy I have been. Do you always have to be so negative?”
He continues, “I am working hard for this family if you haven’t noticed,” and he turns away from her.
This leaves Edith feeling – wait for it – even more alone.
The stage is then set for the dance of distress that I call the Protest Polka. This dialogue takes over relationships and predicts future divorce. The whole relationship becomes stuck in a dreary pattern of angry demands, followed by defensiveness and distance. Both partners are flooded with the pain of rejection and isolation but neither feels safe enough to reach out or try to reconnect. For Edith, Ted, and their family, this is a tragedy in the making.
The new science of bonding is clear. Secure connection with a loved one – usually a partner in most adult lives – fulfills our most basic need: to belong, to know you matter to another. This sense of belonging calms our nervous system, gives us emotional balance, strengthens our sense of our own value and protects us from being overwhelmed by our own vulnerability. It is our deepest need.
In a good relationship, the work of maintaining this sense of safe belonging and of repairing rifts in that belonging are shared. It seems to me that Edith does not, in fact, always need Ted to remember the kids’ birthdays or to manage their schedules. That’s nice, but it’s not essential.
But it is essential for Edith that Ted sometimes opens up and reaches for her – that he responds emotionally. This emotional responsiveness is the core element that defines the viability and happiness of a love relationship. “Sharing the load” looks like Ted realizing that he is missing the emotional music in his dance with his partner.
Can you imagine what might happen if Ted turns back to Edith and says,
“Wait a minute. Maybe you’re right. I am so tired these days. I guess I don’t hold you like I used to. I miss that too. You are right, we don’t spend enough time together. I go on automatic. I don’t want us to be just roommates.”
Here, he moves to take care of the connection between him and his wife. Edith sinks into his arms – reassured. And she really doesn’t care if the next day he forgets to get his daughter a birthday card. But here’s the best part: Ted does not experience this moment as “labor” at all. This kind of loving interaction switches on pure joy and contentment in our set-up-for-bonding brains, just like when we are holding a baby or playing with our new puppy. Edith, knowing she is important to Ted, can now easily listen to his feelings of tiredness with empathy.
None of this feels like work. It feels like human connection. If love is a dance, both people have to be out on the dance floor – both have to show up emotionally. This is the “work” that has to be shared.
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