Uneven Emotional Labor Is Like When Someone Is Hogging the Controller But Won’t Admit It

NES controller
Image by William Warby / CC BY

I grew up in a pretty busy house, one of four children.

And while we were fortunate that our parents brought us home a Nintendo Entertainment System in the 80s (complete with a zapper light gun and a running pad for the track and field game), we were unfortunate in another way:

We had to share it.

Because of this, I didn’t get to play with the NES too much when the system was hot and new. It was only after my older sisters moved out and my little brother upgraded to the Super Nintedo that I had free reign of the system.

Until then, I mostly watched my siblings play. It worked out pretty well since I didn’t like platformers or shooters too much anyway. Action games where it was easy for you to fall into a pit or get shot to death.

It was a lot of stress, those artificially high-pressure situations. It was hard enough to even watch as my brother and sisters flung Mario across yet another chasm.

But I did watch. And across those countless hours of spectating, I witnessed countless fights between my two older sisters and little brother.

“My turn, my turn,” someone would inevitably say, “You’re hogging the controller.”

And even if the alleged bogart were guilty of the crime of controller-hogging, they never admitted it. They’d plead, “Nuh uh.” Whine. Scream. Cry. Physically spirit said controller away. Even if it meant unplugging it and all other controllers from the machine.

It was a mess.

And I’d see the same pattern of behavior later when it came to people doing uneven emotional labor in relationships.

What Is Emotional Labor?

What is emotional labor?

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 needs 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.

Now, to be clear, uneven emotional labor doesn’t always follow these same gender lines. It can be found in same sex relationships as well. And yes, there are situations in which men are the ones providing the hog’s share of emotional labor.

But overall, the broader pattern finds this phenomenon affecting women. Especially women who date men.

The Bogart Who Lacks Self-Awareness

Having been in a situation (or three) myself where I was dating someone and being expected to provide huge sums of emotional labor and receiving little or no emotional support or consideration in return, I can tell you that it can be truly maddening. And not just because it’s unfair.

But also because the person who isn’t helping out often doesn’t realize it. Or if they do, they won’t admit it.

As they suck up emotional resources, leaving others out to dry, they have no awareness of what they’re doing. And when someone says, “Hey, could I have a turn? Quit hogging the controller,” they’re the first to whine and cry and abscond to the next room with all of the controllers.

Even if it means no one else ever gets to play.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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