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The Secret to Improving Your Relationship 10X: Emotional Labor and You

By Hannah Brzozowski

Note: I want to start out by saying, this blog might be a little controversial. Some might hate me for bringing this up. It's a contentious topic that tends to push a few buttons. It might make you a little uncomfortable or defensive. But lean in anyways!

I first heard of the concept in 2020 through a video circulating online. As I watched, I immediately resonated. I brought it up with my husband. It started a fight. We talked more. Some realizations were made on both of our parts. The grand decision made at the end of the night? Nick would turn off the lights and lock the doors every night before we went to bed. The tiniest thing that helped bring some relief to the stress I was feeling.

It's not like my husband was a deadbeat, who just drank beer, ate Cheetos, sat on the couch all day/every day, watching football with his belt unbuckled. He pitched in all the time. Every time I asked him to do something, he would do it.

So, why did this video hit such a nerve with me?

It made me think about weddings. When we'd have a wedding on our calendar, I was the one who would pick out new clothes that he needed for the wedding, pack for him, RSVP, pick out the bridal shower gift, pick up a card for the actual wedding, put the money inside and sign it for both of us. Then, I had to pick out an outfit for me, pack myself, and also have in the back of my mind, that he would be stressed out about how much this wedding was going to cost. So, I'd need to take on the burden of breaking the news of the cost of the hotel that I booked or the meals that we would have to pay for.

Throughout my married life, I'm the one who has taken care of scheduling the doctor's appointments, feed the dog, made sure the house was clean for guests, meal planned, made meals, made the cookies for the new neighbors, kept track of birthdays, bought clothes for him, and made sure we bought gifts for his mom for Christmas. On and on the list goes.

What I am describing is called emotional labor. That is the burden to care for all the details in the home and family, along with also keeping a pleasant smile on your face. And often, it is women who carry it, without men or women even being aware.

Emotional labor is different from labor. Even if the husband is doing chores, it often falls on the wife to figure out all the chores that need to be done, ask him, and follow up as needed.

And when the house isn't clean or the kids aren't dressed right, the woman typically gets blamed by our society, not the man.

I see it all too often, as a pastor. When I meet with women and their husbands can't "watch the kids," and the kids are brought along. This weighs on them. The constant pressure to be everything to their child, while also trying to maintain some level of adult friendships. This rarely happens with Nick when he meets with men. The dads simply don't have to think through childcare like the moms do.

This isn't to say that men don't work hard. Oftentimes, men have full-time jobs that have a whole other level of stress too. If they're the main bread winner, they have the pressure to provide and to make sure that the family doesn't go without food or shelter. That's a lot of pressure too.

Men will pitch in and help. They will mow the lawn, take out the trash, or make sure the oil gets changed. All things that need to happen for the family to function well.

When it doesn't happen though, sometimes the wife feels like she has to tiptoe around the husband's emotional state. Alternatively, she just keeps asking until it turns into nagging or a fight. Then, she's accused of being annoying or asking too much. So, instead, we think: "Don't stress him out. He's got too much on his plate. Instead, I'll just do it myself."

In this mindset, the woman just keeps piling things on her plate until one day she realizes that she's depleted, discouraged and alone. To top it off, she doesn't know why.

How is she supposed to carry all of this burden on her own?

Spoiler alert: She's not.

We weren't meant to do all of this by ourselves.

When I finally put my finger on this and started to realize what I was doing, it was like a lightbulb finally went on. But it was also a transition for us to figure out what to do with this new information. I had to let go of control and let him help. I had to let him make the appointments or help with grocery shopping.

Since we've talked through this, he's been prepping dinner with me, packing his own bag (and even mine) for trips, taking on the scheduling of appointments, etc... The list goes on and on. It's made such a difference in our relationship. I now feel like we're a team, taking on the world together.

I encourage you to talk to your partner about this topic too! Maybe for you, everything's just peachy but you won't know unless you talk about it!

How do we handle this as Christians? Should we keep a scoreboard on the fridge of who's winning the emotional labor battle? Probably not.

Let's take a look at the Bible for some principles to glean.

Husbands, Love.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Ephesians 5:25

The call for husbands is not just any love - but a self-sacrificing Jesus kind of love.

Husbands, think about how your wife is doing emotionally. Is she thriving in her life? Does she have time to herself on a regular basis? Or is all the stress of the house a constant burden to her?

Let the concept of emotional labor spark new ideas for ways you can show your wife extravagant love:

  • Instead of asking if she needs help with dinner, just start cutting some carrots.

  • Pack your bag for vacation early.

  • Offer to pick up the kids from school or pack their lunch without any reason.

  • Plan out the next date night on your own.

  • Ask her what seems to be on her mind a lot.

Husbands, Ditch the Ego.

For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Galatians 6:3

You are not too important to scrub the toilet bowl. Your time is not too limited to do dishes.

Maybe the reason you won't offer to cook is because you are embarrassed that you don't know how. Trust me, your wife would love to teach you.

Also, you'll make mistakes as you learn new things. It will happen. Be willing to try again, even if you burn the chicken the first time.

Wives, Speak Up.

Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. James 3:5

Often, when Christians talk about the power of the tongue, it is negative. But, the tongue can be used to chart a new future. Work to understand yourself and the anxieties you have. Then, share them with your husband. Ask him to read this blog and learn more about emotional labor. Have discussions about your needs and all the running checklists in your head.

Wives, Be Patient.

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. Colossians 3:12-13

Unbalanced emotional labor is the result of generations of baked-in habits. If you are stressed out and sick of taking all this on, know that it will take time to create a healthier relationship for you both to thrive.

Chances are good that your husband does love you and wants the best for you.

Chances are also good that if you bring up emotional labor to your husband, he will instinctively receive that as an attack that he isn't good enough or that he doesn't work hard enough.

For the best results, frame the conversation around your needs, not his inadequacies. You are a team together.

Know that he won't do everything the way that you would do it either. He might fold the clothes differently or make the wrong appointment. Mistakes will be made. But that's ok. We've all made mistakes when we've taken on new things.

Think back to when you first learned to cook - did you make the chicken perfectly the first time? No. It took time for you to learn to get it right. Even, now, I screw up the chicken sometimes. None of us are perfect. The important thing is that he's willing to learn.

Have The Conversation:

  1. Set a date and time when you're both free from distractions.

  2. Go into this conversation keeping in mind that you are on the same team as your partner. You have a problem to solve together. They are not the enemy.

  3. Pray and ask God to lead you throughout this time.

  4. Make a list of the household tasks separately (include every single little thing).

  5. Write next to each task, who takes care of what without the other person saying something.

  6. Compare lists. Is it balanced?

  7. How much of the emotional labor is being taken on by each person? Who's keeping track of what?

  8. Has it always been like this? Or is this just for this season?

  9. How would each of you want this to change?

  10. What needs to happen to create a change?

  11. Set a date for next month to talk about how things are going.

Want to read more? Check out this book that I used as a resource for this blog:

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