How Can I Tactfully Address a Labor Imbalance in Our Household?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

Let me start by saying my husband and I have a great relationship and great life. Our three kids are strong and happy, and I feel like as a mother and wife I am respected and heard. The issues I’m writing about are pretty standard: a drastic imbalance between the work I feel I do for my household, children, and relationship, and the work my husband does for all those things.

As a stay-at-home mom, things like cleaning and cooking generally fall to me. That’s not necessarily a problem (it’s kind of the job I signed up for), but it’s extremely grating when it seems to give my husband a pass on all of those things even when he is around. For tasks he does complete, whether I have requested he do them or not, he seems to expect gratuitous kudos or praise (which somehow does not apply when I’m the one completing them). The result is my physical and emotional exhaustion and his frustration with not understanding why I’m upset.

I want to be clear: I’m not asking you to tell me how to get my husband to do the chores. I’m looking for some insight on how I can educate him on the concept of “emotional labor” and why these consistent issues are so taxing to me. Or some wisdom about why I take all this so hard, and what I can do internally to cope better when I don’t feel household management is distributed equitably. —Doing Too Much

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Dear Doing Too Much,

Thank you for writing in about this issue. It is one that I see over and over again in my work. It even extends beyond the realm of the stay-at-home mom and into families in which both people work outside the home. So, you are correct when you identify these as some pretty standard issues. In most relationships, there is an imbalance in the household workload, and often in heterosexual relationships, it is the woman who is doing more. You are definitely not alone.

Couples counseling shouldn’t be reserved for people who reach a major crisis in their relationship that threatens to end it. In fact, couples counseling can be quite helpful in a relatively short amount of time if couples don’t wait until they are at a breaking point.

You ask how you can educate your husband on the concept of “emotional labor”; since you’re writing in to ask for support and saying you are exhausted and he is frustrated, I’m guessing you’ve tried to explain it to him many, many times. If that hasn’t worked, it’s time to try something new. Perhaps you can ask him to do an internet search on emotional labor. If he is willing, pages upon pages of results will come up. If he reads about the concept from different people with different voices who aren’t personally connected to him, he might be better able to take it in. Then maybe you two could talk more about how the concept applies to your relationship.

If he is not willing, or the aforementioned approach is attempted and doesn’t seem to help, you may wish to consider doing some couples counseling together. This might seem like a radical suggestion for someone who indicates having “a great relationship and a great life” with her husband. However, it might be just what you need. Couples counseling shouldn’t be reserved for people who reach a major crisis in their relationship that threatens to end it. In fact, couples counseling can be quite helpful in a relatively short amount of time if couples don’t wait until they are at a breaking point. A therapist could be very helpful in moving beyond the impasse you two seem to have hit on this issue.

You also ask how you can cope better with this issue. If you aren’t already talking to friends about this, opening up a conversation with them could be helpful. There is something quite powerful about feeling less alone in an experience—just knowing others can relate to and deal with some of the same issues can be validating. Reading some of the work by both feminists and mental health professionals on emotional labor might also be helpful. Finally, you can also consider your own individual therapy to create a time and space where you can grapple with these issues, identify actionable items, and learn new ways to cope.

However you and/or your husband decide to approach the issue, please know you are not alone in this struggle.

Kind regards,

Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC

Sarah Noel
Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in working with people who are struggling through depression, anxiety, trauma, and major life transitions. She approaches her work from a person-centered perspective, always acknowledging the people she works with as experts on themselves. She is honored and humbled on a daily basis to be able to partner with people at such critical points in their unique journeys.
  • 3 comments
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  • Myra

    Myra

    November 13th, 2017 at 2:23 PM

    I never minded being in charge of the in the house chores, because I too stayed at home and sort of felt like that was what went with the territory. But I didn’t get applause for doing all of those chores so why my husband thought that he should is beyond me. Seriously I think that we had some of our biggest arguments because I refused to praise him for doing one little thing off of the list of the things that I did without fail either daily or weekly.

  • Terra

    Terra

    November 14th, 2017 at 8:35 AM

    Family Meeting Time!!

  • warren

    warren

    November 15th, 2017 at 2:58 PM

    Over the years we have just gradually gravitated to doing the things around the house that we could each tolerate the most I suppose. I do all of the yard work and most of the cooking actually while she does the laundry and most of the other clean up around the house. I don’t know how it started I guess those were the roles that we naturally felt the most comfortable with and honestly I can’t say that we’ve ever had that much of a problem with sticking to it. The kids on the other hand…

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