When talking about emotional labor, articles frequently describe women’s romantic emotional labor in a relationship. This is a real and prevalent problem, and there is no denying that, but emotional labor isn’t only present in heterosexual and romantic relationships. Family members, friends, coworkers and others can demand emotional labor from you, or you from them. Learning how to recognize when someone is asking too much of you, or vice versa, and slowly shifting behaviors can go a long way in strengthening and prolonging your platonic relationships.
Recognizing emotional labor
We’re often not taught how to establish healthy boundaries with friends. This only leads to people being taken advantage of and is not a foundation for a successful long-term relationship.
According to Glamour magazine, “It’s hard to be a good confidante when you’re burning the candle at both ends and then brooding because of it. The empathy I had for my friends is what psychologists call emotional empathy—that is, feeling the weight of others’ experiences, both good and bad.” This one-sided weight can lead to resentment, and if healthy boundaries aren’t established, it’s easy for friendships to disintegrate.
However, it’s not only friends that can demand emotional labor of each other; family members, coworkers, classmates and other platonic relationships are often fraught with the same problems. Women in particular are expected to perform emotional labor, which includes keeping track of schedules, deadlines and their household as well as managing the emotions of others, for nearly everyone in their lives on top of any other responsibilities they may hold.
All of this adds up and can quickly lead to burnout, which has real, lasting health consequences. In a 2018 study on emotional labor and burnout, researchers found “continuous exposure to stress due to excessive emotional demands might activate the stress system, including the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system. Furthermore, excessive and long-lasting emotional demands could contribute to depression or anxiety and behavioral problems, such as alcohol abuse or physical inactivity.”
Combating emotional labor demands
The first step is to evaluate your relationships: understand how much emotional work you’re putting in and determine if there’s an equal balance.
If after evaluating your relationships, you’ve seen that you benefit from others’ emotional labor more often than you put work in, think about ways you can shift the balance. Philippe Leonard Fradet of The Body is Not an Apology magazine lists a few ways that men in particular can take on more responsibility in relationships: “Understand that the labor is necessary…Learn to listen, instead of having an answer for everything…Take responsibility for your emotions—and your actions…Learn to be comfortable with being vulnerable.” This can start with reaching out to friends to hang out more often and handling the scheduling yourself instead of expecting others to do it, or other tasks that may seem small but are exhausting when piled up.
Another way to combat this is to learn to say no and take care of your own time and boundaries. Relationships are a two way street; if you’re not willing to tell someone you don’t want to talk when you’re not up for it, the other person is going to end up taking advantage of your time and energy, regardless of their intentions. Psychologist Dr. Christina Hibbert suggests framing saying no in a different way. “I have learned that saying ‘no’ to someone else is really saying ‘yes’ to something that’s more important to me,” she wrote. “It’s easier to do this when I’m clear on what really matters to me. And, I am clearer on what matters most to me when I honestly check in with how I feel.”
Changing the way you approach conversations, in addition to explaining this concept to the people in your life, can go a long way in making your platonic relationships healthier and longer-lasting. Relationships that are unbalanced emotionally can be incredibly frustrating, but putting some of the responsibility on yourself to set boundaries and equalize the relationship is freeing and sets an example for others in your life about what healthy communication looks like. It takes some time and work, as all relationships do, but it’s worth it in the end to have relationships with a solid foundation you feel you can trust. And, as therapist Ellen Hendricksen points out, if those in your life aren’t receptive to these changes, it could be a red flag for an unhealthy relationship, one you might be better off without.