Emotional Labor and Relationships | Counseling | Therapy

Emotional Labor and Relationships : Couples Counseling Phila & Ocean City

Emotional Labor and Relationships: Individual and Couples Counseling image

When we think of labor, we often associate it with the physical components; work, chores, and projects quickly come to mind. However, labor also involves the emotional realm, which often connects to our romantic relationships. So, what is emotional labor, and how does it affect your relationships?

Defining Emotional Labor

Parvez (2006), an academic researcher, explains emotional labor as the process in which service workers suppress and/or express certain emotions that are desired for their job. For instance, customers expect waiters and waitresses to be friendly and warm, despite what they may feel internally. Tyrone may be annoyed with his rude and rowdy customers, but he has to be patient and cordial in order to play the part of a good waiter. However, Parvez argues that emotional labor extends into our personal life, as well.

Essentially, emotional labor is the burden associated with forgoing an authentic response. Being calm when you’re actually angry, or being supportive when you actually feel apathetic, are all common examples. To be clear, emotional labor isn’t inherently wrong. Like emotions themselves, emotional labor is natural and can be very beneficial. The problem occurs when we are blind to how much emotional labor that we’re under. Therefore, let’s go over some common examples of how emotional labor affects romantic relationships.

Examples of Emotional Labor

Humans are social creatures; therefore, attributes like empathy and compassion have been significant for our survival. Though these traits are wonderful, it’s easy to overdo them with our romantic partners. Let’s take these two scenarios, for example.

[Eric and Marcus have been together for three years. The beginning of their relationship was full of bliss and excitement, however, Eric recently noticed a change with his partner. Marcus has become more lethargic and apathetic, and was even diagnosed with depression by his therapist. Growing up, Eric’s mother had depression, so he knows firsthand how difficult the disorder can be. This prompted Eric to be as supportive as he can with Marcus.

To help with Marcus’s depression, Eric makes all of the meals, empathetically listens to all of Marcus’s complaints, and always maintain an optimistic image. In actuality, Eric has grown annoyed and exhausted that his needs aren’t being met. “Just get out of bed!”, “Stop being a baby!”, and “Do things for me!” are all a sample of some of Eric’s thoughts. However, he keeps them all to himself. In Eric’s eyes, feeling neglected and angry towards his depressed partner would make him a “bad person.” It wouldn’t be “fair” to hold negative feelings towards a depressed loved one, so Eric suppresses them while emphasizing the positive ones.]

When assessing this scenario, let’s think back to the definition of emotional labor: the process of suppressing or emphasizing certain emotions in order to maintain a desired image. So, how does this apply to Eric and Marcus? Though it is understandable and laudable to support his depressed partner, Eric is overdoing it. By trying to be the perfect listener and caretaker, Eric isn’t allowing himself to express his natural frustration and grief of now having a depressed partner. To further showcase emotional labor, let’s look at another scenario.

[Mei and Anthony are recently married. Despite his job suddenly flooding him with work, Anthony wants to keep the newlywed passion alive. He often flirts and initiates sex with Mei, even after being exhausted with work. Mei is verbally thrilled with their sex life, which makes it even harder for Anthony to tone things down.

Internally, Anthony is tired most nights, and would rather do passive activities with Mei, like watching movies. However, he hides this exhaustion in order to be a “good” newlywed. Anthony often tells himself, “Only old couples watch movies instead of having sex”, and “Fun husbands want to have sex.” Anthony never expressed these thoughts nor his exhaustion to Mei, fearing that she would be disappointed in him as a partner.]

So, how does emotional labor apply for this scenario? Anthony has certain feelings at the end of his day: exhaustion and stress. However, he puts those emotions to the side for more “favorable” ones: passion, energy, and virility. Anthony is putting himself through high emotional labor by not communicating his real feelings, all because he fears that Mei would see him as a “boring” husband.

In both scenarios, there is a pressure to act in a “desired” way. Eric and Anthony are both suppressing certain emotions in order to fill their perceived criteria of a good partner. Once again, it’s not wrong to make compromises within a relationship. Instead, it’s a matter of how much you’re giving up in order to make the other person happy.


This article has focused a lot on the negative aspects of emotional labor. However, it’s important to remember that emotional labor does have its use. For example, if you are irritated with your toddler, it’s important to set your feelings to the side. Yelling at them might feel good, but it probably isn’t healthy for your toddler. Similarly, it could be problematic to be clearly apathetic when hearing your partner complain about work. Like emotions themselves, emotional labor requires balance. Too little of emotional labor is just as bad as too much of it.

Final Thoughts

Emotional labor is the process of suppressing and/or emphasizing certain emotions in order to maintain a desired image. Though emotional labor is essential for our social world, we have a tendency to overdo it. By feeling one way and behaving in a contradictory way, it prevents us from getting our authentic needs met. This isn’t a significant issue for workers like Tyrone, who waits tables. However, undergoing strong emotional labor can be hazardous for our romantic relationships. Fortunately, by understanding the concept emotional labor, you are now more equipped to prevent its overabundance in your relationships.

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