We Can’t Actually Do the Most Important Emotional Labor for Others: The Plight of the Unpaid Therapist

a bunch of miniature men on a mining expedition of some giant strawberries, used to represent emotional labor
Image by JD Hancock / CC BY

Emotional Labor, the Plight of the Unpaid Therapist

People have been talking more and more the past few years about emotional labor, the unpaid stress that people acting as caregivers endure by providing emotional support to others. This isn’t limited to just the workplace, however. Women in particular are disproportionately expected in their personal lives (even with strangers) to manage our own emotions in a way that makes whoever we are talking with comfortable, to attend to the need of others and provide emotional support.

Put another way: Women are everyone’s unpaid therapists.

Now, let’s be clear: Providing our friends and loved ones emotional support is a great thing. It is a cornerstone of healthy relationships.

However, the trouble comes when that support is one-sided.

As Christine Hutchison wrote for the Huffington Post:

When I work in therapy with heterosexual couples, the disparity of training each gender receives in emotional management is stark. Often, the woman is aware of her male partner’s needs and feelings at the expense of her own, whereas the male partner struggles to identify and understand both his own and his partner’s emotions. He has been taught that it is either dangerous, not manly, or not his job to feel and respond to feelings, including his own. It’s tragic.

As a female therapist, I often have an urge to join the female partner and save the man from the struggle and embarrassment of this work. We name his feelings for him, begin extrapolating on them, and once again, the man becomes an emotional project of women. It has taken me some time to catch my own impulse to collude with wives and girlfriends when I sit with heterosexual couples, to step back and let men find their own words for their own experiences.

Polyamorous Relationship Systems and Emotional Labor

I’m yet to find a polyamorous relationship system that extends beyond a few folks that hasn’t occasionally run into these patterns of uneven one-sided emotional labor. At their most mild, it happens only occasionally, during periods of events that cause large life stress (death, job loss, illness, etc).

At their most pervasive, it’s an ongoing, known and acknowledged quality of that polyamorous web. And the difference between polyamory and monogamy? The emotional labor isn’t just paid by the people in the original relationship. It’s often passed on and paid by metamours and those further away from the source. Jumping like a nervous impulse, synapse to synapse.

And if a person within the web is particularly skilled at doing emotional labor? They’ll often end up as a lightning rod for it.

I wrote about this in “The Curse of Poly Competence”:

It’s a familiar story – you start a new job…You don’t know how you’re going to master everything they throw your way. But you put in effort, work hard, and persevere. It’s a struggle, but eventually you’ve got the hang of it…everyone’s so impressed by how quickly you picked it up and how well you’re doing.

“Great job!” they say. “Now here’s more work.”

Rinse. Repeat. The harder you work, the more things they throw at you…Before long, you’re sitting there chained to your desk, while half the office wanders around free range, visibly slacking, leaning against the water cooler, complaining about how busy they are in a blasé, bored tone. And you realize that you’re the poor sap who ended up stuck doing everyone else’s work.

Sadly, this isn’t simply the province of an evil workplace — this is a standard way that humans operate. Social psychologists call it “social loafing,” and it’s just like what it sounds. When people work in groups, most of them slack off.

I’ve definitely seen this phenomenon in polyamorous networks. Those most skilled in providing emotional labor and exercising self-control end up picking up the slack and making sacrifices for less reasonable partners.

We Can’t Actually Do the Most Important Emotional Labor for Others

What’s extra troubling about this phenomenon: While emotional labor can provide short-term support for someone? The person we are helping ultimately needs to do emotional labor of their own to get past their difficulties.

It is the same for professional therapists.

Being a therapist is a lot like being a personal trainer. Sure, you can give clients advice.  Challenge them. Attempt to motivate them to work through their issues. Even spot them while they’re lifting heavy stuff to make sure they don’t end up really damaged. But ultimately? It’s the client who has to do the work. This is the thing that tends to really bum out both people new to talk therapy and new therapists, but there’s no getting around it.

It’s no different with the people we love. We can’t do all the work for them.

When We’re Doing Unequal Emotional Labor in Our Relationships

As I wrote before, when we are in a situation where our partner is being less considerate, we are faced with 2 options:

  1. Speak with them and let them know what we need.
  2. Offer them less consideration of our own.

Make no mistake: I always start with the first option.

But the second option, being less considerate, can be helpful when the first fails. It sounds radical, but it can work. Provided this involves taking a step back, detaching, offering less active support. And not being actively inconsiderate.

Sometimes people do grow accustomed to a high level of support and don’t realize that they aren’t contributing much in return. Not even out of any malicious intent but by going on auto-pilot. Time and habituation have a way sometimes of making us take things for granted that we really shouldn’t. And it’s not a personality flaw — it’s a feature of how humans and nervous systems work.

In some (and I stress some) of these cases, the best fix is to be less actively considerate. And see if your partner comes in to fill the gap.

In my own life, since I’m more of a caregiver hinge type, I find that I need to do this periodically when I’m dating people. I used to get really frustrated, but as time has gone on, I’ve realized it’s more that I am so invested on working on a relationship that sometimes I don’t leave other people anything to do. And then I’m upset that they’re not pulling their weight.

I find sometimes all I have to do is to stop doing so much. And they will come in and pick up their share.

 

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1 Comment

  1. I tend to be the caregiver in any relationship I build. And I tend to pour myself into it until I burn out and end up resenting the work I’m putting in. Learning to ask for what I need, and maybe more importantly, what I want has been a huge growth step for me, helping me to be a better partner because I don’t expect my partners to read my mind when in reality they can’t.
    Great insights here…thanks for the article and the reminders that only I am responsible for my happiness.

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