The Difference Between Emotional Labour and Mental Load, and How to Discuss Both With Your Partner

The Difference Between Emotional Labour and Mental Load, and How to Discuss Both With Your Partner
Photo: Goksi, Shutterstock

It’s almost Labour Day — a holiday that the U.S. Department of Labour describes as “an annual celebration of the social and economic achievements of American workers.” Regardless of whether you take that claim at face value, or see the day off as a government scam, it’s not a bad idea to take the opportunity to consider all the work people do that doesn’t come with a paycheck, and largely goes unnoticed: invisible labour.

Invisible labour is often thought of as all the chores that a member of a household does to keep it running, while their partner and/or rest of their family is blissfully unaware that they are tasks that need to be done. (Or maybe they are aware, but don’t care — which is a whole other issue.)

But that’s not the only type of invisible labour: There’s also emotional labour, and mental load. And while these terms are often used interchangeably, there are certain distinctions. Here’s what to know about the difference between emotional labour and mental load, and how to discuss both types with your partner.

What is emotional labour?

When sociologist Dr. Arlie Hochschild first introduced the concept of emotional labour in 1983, it referred to “regulating or managing emotional expressions with others as part of one’s professional work role,” according to Penn State’s Weld Lab.

But since then, the definition has expanded significantly beyond the workplace, to include personal relationships with friends, family members, and romantic partners. For instance, do you have someone in your life that always comes to you with their problems — or simply to complain — but never has the time or interest in doing the same for you? In that situation, you’re performing emotional labour.

What is mental load?

Mental load, on the other hand, encompasses a lot more: basically, all of the invisible and non-tangible tasks required to run a household, a post on Healthline explains.

So, maybe it never occurs to your partner that they should do the laundry on occasion, but they can see/feel/smell their newly cleaned clothes, so they should have a clue that something has to happen in order for those to appear.

The task of physically doing the laundry is one type of invisible labour. But all the thought and planning that goes into it — including remember to do the laundry in the first place — is mental load. The Healthline post provides a long list of other examples.

How to discuss emotional labour and mental load with your partner

Regardless of which type of invisible labour you find yourself bearing the brunt of (it may be all of them), this isn’t something you should be dealing with on your own. But, for a variety of reasons, this isn’t an easy conversation to have with a partner.

Or, maybe you’ve tried bringing it up in the past, and your partner counters with either: “I said I’m happy to help, if you just tell me what to do,” or “But I do X, Y, and Z every day!” (In case it’s not clear, figuring out what needs to be done and then assigning someone tasks is itself a type of mental load.)

Either way, here are some tips for approaching the subject that Dr. Melissa Estavillo, a licensed psychologist in Phoenix who specialises in couples counseling, shared with Healthline:

  • Use “I” statements to frame the situation in terms of your own feelings and experiences, rather than “you” statements, which could make your partner feel like they’re being blamed for something (and then tune out or get defensive).
  • Let your partner know ahead of time that you’d like to talk. Make sure to set aside time for the discussion, and find a place to have it that’s free from distractions.
  • Mention that you know that your partner is committed to equality in your relationship, and go from there. That could involve saying something like, “I know you value contributing equally to our relationship, and I think you may not realise I have more responsibilities that go unnoticed.”

The conversation may have to happen multiple times for it to stick, and in some cases, a person’s partner may simply be unwilling to give up their position of privilege in the relationship (in which case a different conversation needs to happen). But if you think your partner is coming from a good place and genuinely doesn’t realise the extent of your labour, bringing it to their attention (in a kind way) may help.

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