Dear Kiki: WTF is emotional labor?

Dear Kiki,

I know there are all these stereotypes about how women are more emotional than men, and men show their feelings with actions, not words, blah blah blah. But last night my girlfriend (I’m a guy) and I got into a fight and she said she was tired of doing “most of the emotional labor” in our relationship. WTF is emotional labor? And how can I start pulling my weight?

Heavy Lifter

Dear Cupcake,

When you order a coffee, does your barista say “have a nice day”? If “she” does, this is an example of emotional labor, or fulfilling expectations by showing acceptable feelings. A third-grade teacher is not supposed to scowl at or favor your children, a bartender knows not to tell you your problems bore them, a sex worker knows there’s a penalty for letting on you’re not getting them off, etc. Sometimes expectations for showing acceptable feelings are explicit and sometimes they are implicit: when they are implicit they are more likely uncompensated and nonconsensual.

This type of emotional labor is what people — and particularly women and/or people of color — get upset about. Although it may be spelled out in her job description that your barista must generally be nice to you, she is not being paid for nor has she consented to, for instance, being flirted with or propositioned throughout the day and placating you. Sometimes this kind of coerced emotional labor can spill out into more personal life as well. For example, often when a white person insists that a person of color explain why something was racist, or chastises them for showing negative feelings that make the white person feel bad, this is demanding uncompensated emotional labor.

Cupcake, I don’t know what kinds of emotional labor your girlfriend is performing in your relationship or what she meant by the phrase. You didn’t tell me—did you ask her? Asking and taking her answer seriously are the first steps toward “pulling your weight.” Also, although some relationships have built in emotional labor—see: “wife bonuses” on the Upper East Side, apparently you may want to ask yourselves to what extent you want your relationship to be one of those.

Listening and looking out for your partner is also a lot of work — perhaps empathic labor or care labor — but it’s not the same as emotional labor. Why are only a certain range of feelings acceptable to show or share between you? Discussing this and whatever else she may have meant by “emotional labor” will bring you closer, if not to each other, then at least to your most authentic selves. Try more empathic labor and less emotional labor and get back to me.


Questions about love and sex in the city of Iowa City can be sent to Questions may be edited for clarity and length, and may appear either in print or online at


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