On Listing Grievances and Emotional Labor #ldsconf

In his talk on Sunday Morning, Elder W. Craig Zwick, now an emeritus Seventy, told of a woman who kept an electronic list of things her husband said or did that irritated her. He relates that later, while taking the sacrament and reflecting on the Atonement, she realized that this practice was driving the Spirit from her life, so she deleted the list. The emotion with which he said “Let it all go!” suggests that he found this story a powerful example of forgiveness, and he offered it as an example of overcoming spiritual shortsightedness.

Granting that this course of action may well have been the right one for her, there are risks to generalizing the idea that women should learn to overlook their husbands’ faults. [fn1] This is a delicate issue, because every successful relationship thrives on mutual forgiveness, and yet emphasizing the importance of forgiveness can invite people in abusive circumstances to remain in those situations, by encouraging the belief that forgiving those who abuse them is the Christian thing to do. That may in some sense be true, but it does not require staying in the relationship (and may even require leaving it). Indeed, for one friend of mine, it was reading back over the list she’d been keeping that helped her realize that she was in an abusive situation and get out. Sure, we’re better off just letting some things go, but some things need to be worked through together, and recognizing when your partner puts something in the latter category rather than the former is pretty important. Working through things may mean that one partner needs to find a voice and the other, ears. [fn2]

That work brings me to a deeper matter, which is the gendered division of emotional labor.  A good definition of emotional labor is “the stuff that won’t get done unless I think about it, because nobody else is going to do it.” Emotional labor means noticing that the bathroom is dirty and figuring out when you have time to clean it, as opposed to wondering why the bathroom is still dirty (if you noticed at all). Assuming that the woman in Elder Zwick’s story is not in an abusive marriage, I’d be curious to know how many of the items on her list involved emotional labor that she was doing while her husband sailed along obliviously. Leaving fingernail clippings on the bathroom counter is a little gross, but otherwise it may not seem like that big of a deal. Expecting someone else to do the minute task of brushing them into the trash is another matter, though, especially when the person to whom this labor falls is the backstop for ten thousand other such tasks in your relationship. You may be willing to help, but if she has to ask, she’s the backstop, and that matters. [Guys, especially: if you haven’t yet read the MetaFilter thread, start today.]

The congregation’s laughter when Elder Zwick related the woman’s acknowledgment that her husband wasn’t going to change anyway reminded me of the line from Guys and Dolls: “marry the man today / and change his ways tomorrow.” This line is funny in part because of the willfully self-deluding cheer with which it’s sung—because, in other words, it lampoons the Sisyphean quality of women’s emotional labor vis-à-vis the ne’er-do-well men in their lives. The musical is grappling in part with the ways that its male characters will need to change if they are to have successful relationships (in other words, if the show’s comic ending is going to work). Although the song on its surface says otherwise, in context its message is that the task of changing falls to the men. It’d be pretty ironic to ask women to do the emotional labor of resolving the problem that women do a disproportionate share of emotional labor. Or rather, it is ironic, because it happens all the time. [fn4]

As a guy, I get that talking about emotional labor can sound like demanding that we be aware of every little thing around the house, and making us feel guilty when we aren’t. But that’s not the point, which is, rather, about being aware that someone has to think about all of that stuff or else it doesn’t get done, and that there’s no gendered reason why either partner should bear any particular part of that burden. I say “burden,” but really what I mean is all of the quotidian stuff that goes into making life happen. Without emotional labor, none of what we understand as the good parts of life could happen. Want to have a nice evening going out to dinner and a play? Who’s going to make sure that the right clothes are clean (and ironed if necessary), childcare arrangements and dinner reservations have been made, theater tickets bought, and everything else that goes into it?

I’m learning these days that I’ve taken for granted a lot of emotional labor from the women in my life. Not only has this made them do a lot of work that remained mostly invisible to me, but it also left me less able to form other meaningful relationships. Emotional labor isn’t just about making sure that bathrooms stay clean and laundry gets done—all the usual feminized domestic chores. More fundamentally, as one of my favorite articles on the subject puts it:

Emotional labour is a skill set. It is work that is supportive, that lifts people up and holds space when things are hard. Often invisible, emotional labour is always working behind the scenes. Foundational to emotional labour is the capacity to listen deeply without trying to fix things; to hold space for people moving through difficult feelings; to offer constructive feedback; to help people feel loved, valued, seen, and cared for. Emotional labour can look like remembering that people need to eat. It can look like making sure a space is clean and ready for work to happen. It can mean being available, showing up, holding someone’s hand, making space for someone’s pain. Sometimes emotional labour takes the form of educating others, of drawing on painful lived experiences to offer up important knowledge. Sometimes it takes the form of creating the conditions for others to speak their truth. For those of us who do emotional labour frequently, we can be very good at it without having ever articulated what it is we are actually doing. It is only when emotional labour fails to happen and things start to fall apart that we begin to notice how essential this work is.

In other words, relationships require emotional labor. There’s no avoiding it. The question is not whether it needs to be done, but who is going to do it, and whether each partner will notice and acknowledge the emotional labor that the other does. Seen this way, learning to do emotional labor is an important part of keeping our baptismal covenants to bear one another’s burdens. I’m not saying that men never do emotional labor; what I am saying is that our culture trains women to do emotional labor in a way that it doesn’t train men, and that this imbalance hurts all of us. Elder Zwick is right that relationships need forgiveness to thrive, but making sure that forgiveness benefits the relationship as a whole instead of mostly favoring one partner takes work, and that work is hardly likely to produce the desired result if one person carries the primary responsibility for doing it.

I still have a ways to go in developing my emotional labor skills, but my life is better for trying, and I believe that attention to this relatively unheralded work can set us all on the path to living more abundantly. Can we work on this together?

Notes

[fn1] It’s important to acknowledge that men can suffer abuse, too. I’m talking here about broad social patterns, not essentialized gender characteristics. We can acknowledge the pattern while also taking the exceptions seriously.

[fn2] I can hear the rejoinder now: “My wife doesn’t need to find her voice; she’s nagging me all the time!” I’m going to suggest that this response may indicate a crucial failure to hear what’s she’s saying about the division of emotional labor in your relationship. The problem has more to do with your ears than her voice. Keep reading. (See, however, fn1 as necessary.) [fn3]

[fn3] Although this post originated in a discussion begun by women, fn2 is why a guy had to write it. Process that as necessary.

[fn4] As evidence for which, my awareness of this issue owes entirely to women, especially the women of BCC. Thanks, friends, for your willingness to invest the time and energy in me.

Comments

  1. Jason, this is great. It’s also kind of black-and-white to think that the alternative to keeping a list of grievances is to simply ignore those grievances, instead of talking them through with your spouse. That doesn’t seem super healthy, long-term.

  2. Thanks for finally giving me a better description of how/who I am than I have ever been able to give. Emotional labor is a skill set that came with me. It is beautiful when it helps and hurts deep when it doesn’t. And sucks when it gets twisted to door mat phase. I was angry with the talk. Angry that she needed to just let it go. If she is so noble, can we ask some of the top leaders to “let go” of the lists they make for us?

    Obviously my emotional labor has been spent today. Great piece. Thanks again for a description I can carry with me.

  3. Yes. And thank you.

    Although I think you are conflating the Mental Load with Emotional Labor – both of which are forms of invisible feminized labor, but in my experience it’s easier to encourage and support efforts at de-gendering these types of labor when they are treated as distinct from one another. The mental load is all of the things that have to be remembered and noticed (all.the.time.) whereas emotional labor is anytime you have to alter or suppress your own emotional responses in order to better support or meet the needs of another person. (Which is why male fragility becomes such an issue… if there’s never a time when a man can refrain from airing his hurt-feelings at a woman’s expression of criticism, then when does she ever get to have her own emotional needs met or prioritized?)

  4. That’s a fair distinction, Em F. Thanks for clarifying.

  5. This isn’t the first story of its kind. There is the grapefruit story (https://www.lds.org/ensign/2011/01/the-grapefruit-syndrome?lang=eng),
    the bishop’s wife and the ruined date night(https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2002/10/called-to-serve?lang=eng),
    and also the dirty windows (https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2010/10/charity-never-faileth?lang=eng).

    And for me, a woman, there is more than just an uneven distribution of emotional labor going on here. I’m hearing a reoccurring and troubling theme with these stories. “Shut up. Swallow it. You don’t REALLY understand. You are being petty.”

    I am tired of these stories that frame women as so silly for wanting attention or wanting time and space to talk with their husbands about stuff that matters to them. These stories belittle my feelings. Frankly, they make me want to scream. Because talking about stuff that bugs, rather than just swallowing it all and “letting it go,” means that my feelings will be heard and validated. But the message is always all or nothing. Zwick’s heroine did not tell her husband the top three things that bugged and really need to be addressed. Nope. All of it was bad, so “select ALL” and delete.

    For reals, I get that forgiveness is an important part of marriage, I am just tired that this message to let stuff go is constantly directed at me, a woman.

  6. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    One thing that every management course will tell you is that when people screw up, you need to tell them as soon as is reasonably possible, and then develop a plan for corrective action together. This applies to coworkers, as well–and the coworker model is a very appropriate one when dealing with household management and especially child-rearing. (Obviously it has the difference that in escalated disputes, co-workers can take the word of a manager as final, but nobody can compel a recalcitrant spouse with nearly the same power.)

    I’ve had more and less effective managers of both genders, and the more effective ones uniformly have been willing to call out mistakes when they’re made, as well as issue praise in a timely fashion. Not coincidentally my wife is an MBA and has been a manager for much of her adult life, and our marriage works because we are willing to call one another out and accept each other’s criticism.

  7. My husband, who is great at making sure he never leaves fingernail clippings anywhere, brought this video to my attention. In a few short lines of dialogue it brings the issue home. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1_QTm-wpsY

  8. Jason, Thanks for articulating these thoughts so well. I think all my life I haven’t even realized that I’ve both invested in and spent considerable amounts of my life taking on both a mental load and an emotional labor. I enjoy this work, but also seems fair to give myself more credit for doing it and also let the men in my life know that I’d also like them to carry the burden alongside me.

  9. stephenchardy says:

    Being in an un-even relationship can be grinding and discouraging. But it will be made even worse if one partner stews and simmers about every slight. Sometimes each “slight” seems small and petty. Leaving carrot shavings in the sink, or not picking up a piece of junk mail that fell on the porch, or leaving hair in the shower drain all can be annoying, but by themselves doesn’t add up to much. When each slight is small it can be hard to bring it up and explain why it is so irksome, because the irksome-ness is really due to a grand pattern of repeated slights or miscues. But writing each slight down and hoarding it against a great day of judgment when the slight-ee will triumphantly show the slight-er that s/he is a insensitive troll is likely not helpful and possibly destructive. Mostly to slight-ee who will hoard the list, dwell on it, and come to resent everything that their partner does, even kind things. What is challenging in every relationship is trying to figure out when and how to discuss things that aren’t working. A huge challenge.

  10. I appreciate your sensitivity to your spouse’s feelings, and your willingness to “walk in her shoes.” This brand of compassion, demonstrated by both spouses, will only increase the learning we share with each other, as it is a process! When I heard the talk my first thought was, and what did the husband have on his list, though not written down? A relationship is of course ongoing work, but reaps great rewards as our skills at improved communication, empathy, and patience grow together.

  11. I’ve been thinking more about Em F’s comment. Her definition of emotional labor seems pretty solid to me. Would it be fair to say that not talking about the mental load counts as emotional labor? Other comments seem to be suggesting that this is the case, and it might help explain my conflation of the two terms.

  12. This topic hits close to home for me and I admit I haven’t figured it out. My wife is a full time mom and we have three kids 11+ at home (and two pets). She has a reputable college degree and could earn a fair wage working but insists she never wants to work outside the home. I have a white collar job and work about 45- 50 hours a week and am able to provide financially. I have a church calling that requires 20+ hours a week, equivalent to a part time job.

    I feel like I’m pulling my weight with emotional labor and I do my level best to help around the house and with the kids. The problem is that my wife’s 100% and my 100% only add up to about 90% of what needs to get done. At least once a week my wife reminds me how hard she works which makes me think I’m not doing enough.

    I’m willing to be there are many here whose 2×100% add up to 90% of the work being done. I wonder if this is where Elder Zwick is coming from. Acknowledge that we’re both doing our best and sometimes nail clippings happen.

  13. “When I heard the talk my first thought was, and what did the husband have on his list, though not written down?”

    That was my reaction as well. I didn’t read into it that gender was a major factor.

    There was a morning last week when while I was cycling into the office and I was thinking about how upset I was with my husband over a bunch of little things. He seemed to care more about his church callings than me, he was late to an appointment, and so on. I thought about calling him to discuss but then work hit, and I did not call.

    That afternoon, I suddenly got sick. Really sick. There was no way I could ride a bicycle home.

    I called my husband and he was incredible. He picked up the OTC stuff I asked for, put my bike on the bike rack, drove me to the urgent care and then the pharmacy. The next day he continued to take care of everything.

    I was kinda glad that I had not made that phone call. A long-term relationship can be a see-saw over time. He had clearly proved that I was his priority, so the importance of other stuff faded.

    The OP raises some points about the risk of being in an abusive situation, but in my experience, the role of the Spirit in important. I have had some “discussions” with people where I spoke up somewhat forcefully, but did not balk at the conflict because I felt the Spirit strongly and knew I was speaking truth. Elder Zwick was clear about the spiritual damage to that woman. Based on my own experience in feeling the Spirit during times of contention, I assume that if she had been in an abusive relationship, the list would not have had such a negative affect on her.

    I admit I could be wrong about that, but I did not see the talk as generalizing the idea that women should overlook their husband’s faults.

  14. I suspect this post will be shared in more than a few homes. I have four teenagers, and I think it’s an excellent platform for a more mature FHE.

  15. Naismith: I didn’t see the talk that way, either, at least not at first. Some of my female friends noticed it instantly, though, and I’ve learned to pay attention when they notice things like that.

    Tracy: I’m honored that you think so.

  16. Aaron Brown says:

    Is there a way to block this post from my wife’s phone so that she doesn’t ever see it? :)

    Just kidding. (Or am I?)

    Aaron B

  17. Personally, I think marriage should be a two way street of calling one another on our bull—t. I agree that making a private list isn’t helpful, but not because those things should be let go. They should be dealt with at the time and then let go.

    If I have to hear myself tell my teens one more time to put away their clothes that I had told them to fold, but they didn’t, so I did it, and then they didn’t put them away after I reminded them 3 times . . . I’m seriously ready to go on a three state killing spree. I realize that I am the only one who gives a crap about ensuring that we don’t live in a clutter-ridden hovel.

    I know my husband also does plenty of emotional labor in our relationship since I had such a travel-intensive career, and the reason I know that is because the school still called me for things (papers that needed signed, desserts for a class party, did we pay for the bus fees yes?), even when he was the one at home, the primary contact listed, often while I was in another part of the world trying to get some sleep. On one occasion, I had a father call me in the middle of the night in Sydney from the US to arrange a sleepover with my daughter (he was the SAHP) instead of calling my husband who was in the right time zone. He kept our teeth from falling out by arranging dental appointments, he kept the kids’ medications refilled, he handled holiday arrangements and put together awesome travel itineraries.

    He did all the things in our personal life that my amazing personal assistant did at work. I once noted that I felt like a twig in a stream, being shuttled around by an invisible stream beneath me, my travel Visas to various countries magically ready for me, my travel papers and itineraries organized neatly in a folder, my meeting presentations ready, and a cold case of diet cokes awaiting me in whatever office I visited.

    That invisible stream of water moving the twig around is a person (or team) doing a lot of work.

  18. I’m confused why this is a feminist issue. Surely women can be guilty of this, too. And there are men who are conscientious and helpful. Why are we saying this only affects women?

  19. Nobody’s saying that it only effects women—only that it tends to affect them disproportionately. The caveats in fn1 apply here as well.

  20. Jason K, emotional work is a very worthwhile topic, but I am not sure that it is fair or helpful to link it to some people’s interpretation of Elder Zwick’s talk. I did not get the impression that he WAS recommending that women learn to overlook their husbands faults and not the reciprocal. But reading this, someone may come away with the impression that was Elder Zwick’s recommendation.

    I may be overly defensive because I thought that Elder Zwick’s talk was one of the best I have ever heard.in conference in my 40 years in the church. I loved that he freely admitted his failing as a mission president.

  21. As for the talk: I wonder if maybe the solution for list-makers is to make two lists: maybe yes, a list of shortcomings is not uncalled for, but maybe also a list of strengths and positive things. If the former list is much more intense than the latter, then we start worrying about things like abuse. But in a healthy marriage the latter should be at least as long and as intense as the former.

    (I’m a little biased towards Zwick because it turns out my mom keeps a list of how her daughters have failed her, and refers to it sometimes to remind herself of whatever slights she has against us, because otherwise she’d forget them. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad. Hopefully she saw that talk.)

    On emotional labor: I do most of the emotional labor where the kids are concerned, particularly Kid #1, who has Asperger’s and who therefore needs a lot more scaffolding than a typical child with respect to (for example) maintaining parental relationships with other parents so that they will be willing to hold playdates with my child. But anyway. I worry a lot about how to train Kid #2, who is male, in these kinds of emotional labor tasks. I wish there were a manual for it!

  22. I don’t think that Elder Zwick made a recommendation either way. He just told the story. The conclusions are ours to draw, and people are going to come to differing ones.

    I also appreciated Elder Zwick’s talk, for the reasons you mentioned. I tried in the post to honor the spirit of what I took him to be saying about forgiveness while taking a look at some of the challenges that go with putting that into practice. I mean to be critical in the positive sense, not the negative sense.

  23. I’ve written in the past that, within the church, stories about couples where one person learns to overlook the other person’s (perceived) failings are always about a woman overlooking her husband’s failings. I’ve never seen the reverse.

  24. Let me just say that I’m glad to have you commenting here, Starfoxy.

  25. Thanks, this is a really great post.

  26. When I worked with domestic violence, one thing we had to do was teach the couple how to settle differences in a healthy way. We taught all kinds of communication skills, as well as a list of what not to do during an argument.

    One thing not to do was “kitchen sinking” where you throw everything at your partner at once, including the kitchen sink. This list the sister was keeping was saving up for a good session of kitchen sinking. She was saving up grievances to throw at the poor man all at once. This is a good way of solving exactly none of the problems.

    Another poor tactic was gunny sacking. This is when you stuff each problem in a gunny sack. You carry the gunny sack around for years, until it gets too heavy to carry, and you leave the relationship to protect yourself from the heavy gunny sack. Then as you are telling your spouse you want a divorce, and he says, “why? I thought you were happy,” you lose it and kitchen sink him.

    The only way to have a happy and healthy marriage is that when something comes up, you ask yourself, “is this worth fighting about?” If it is not, then you forget it. Really forget it. If it is something you can’t just forget, then it is worth bringing up. Take care of it as soon as possible. Don’t let issues stack up because it is impossible to solve multiple problems at once.

    So, neither this sister’s list, nor deleting the whole list are healthy. What she needed to do was pick one item, either the most recent, or the most important, and set up a time with hubby to have a discussion and tell him how his behavior makes her feel. Then as additional issues come up, she needs to deal with them right away.

  27. That’s well said, Anna.

  28. Anonymous Today says:

    Seconding Starfoxy’s observation. Church discourse generally perpetuates the notion that marriage problems are a woman’s to deal with.

    In addition to the many fine observations above, it’s worth noting that listing grievances can be abusive. I have a male relative who keeps very long and meticulous accounts of all of his wife’s shortcomings, and periodically takes these long accounts into his bishop, requesting that the bishop chastise his wife and subject her to church discipline for failing to keep her temple covenant to obey him.

    Excellent post, Jason.

  29. So many true doctrines can be abusive when they are twisted from their true meaning. Perhaps the woman needed to learn to correct sharply shortly after the offence. After all betimes means in a short time, not keeping a list to be brought up long after the fact, but correcting the problem quickly.

  30. It strikes me that in a church as patriarchal as ours, men are often given a free pass on emotional labor. Men preside, women nurture. Men hearken to God, women hearken to their husbands. (Whether that means ‘obey’ or simply ‘listen to,’ it’s explicitly laid out as being unidirectional.) I mean it’s great that my husband holds the priesthood, but 98% of the time that’s a passive thing. He can give a sick kid a blessing, but who is making the doctor’s appointment and figuring out the right dose of Children’s Tylenol and scrubbing the puke out of the carpet?

  31. I guess I haven’t gotten the message at church that some do. When we were at the height of child-rearing, this article was in the Ensign
    https://www.lds.org/ensign/1995/01/work-enough-for-two?lang=eng
    and it helped us appreciated the importance of sharing all the work, emotional and physical.

  32. Great post, Jason. Thanks for identifying the gendered nature of the “drop it” story in Elder Zwick’s talk, and for connecting it to the larger issue of emotional labor. Like you, I’m a man trying to do better on this issue.

  33. Whenever my dad drives he half whistles. It is completely tuneless and automatic. My mom hates it but since my dad doesn’t mean to do it in the first place it is impossible for him to stop completely, even when my mom (gently) points it out. That’s what I thought about when Elder Zwick mentioned the woman’s list.

    On the topic of the emotional/mental load, a podcast I listened to on the topic suggested finding something that you pledge to let go. But it has to be something that you are OK if it doesn’t get done. For me it was to stop assigning my husband chores on the weekend. I trust/hope my husband will eventually notice the toilets are gross and we can work on that together instead of me ending up as a task master.

  34. Anonymous, that male relative of yours sounds like a complete tool.

    I mean, maybe he’s a really nice person aside from that, but that’s at least borderline abusive and certainly jerk behavior. Not to mention, squarely in unrighteous dominion territory.

    Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you think that this or that church doctrine, teaching, policy, whatever, compels or permits you to act like a jerk to another person, you need to rethink your interpretation.

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