Emotional Labor: A discussion guide for partners and roommates

Are you about to enter a house-sharing relationship with someone? Would you like to reboot the divisions of emotional labor in your existing house-sharing relationship? Between getting married, living with roommates or extended family, we should discuss how we will divide up the non-paid work of keeping the household running.

Without cooperative discussion about how divide household labor, we may find ourselves falling into inequitable default modes. We might automatically do it the way our parents did or give a “pass” to the higher wage earner. We may fall into gender-role stereotypes of who should do what rather than consider individual talents and preferences for the task.

The term emotional labor includes the process of noticing, remembering and completing the tasks that benefit the individual or collective members of the household. The person doing the emotional labor of a task is the one holding mental space to make sure the task gets done, often by doing it themself.

There’s no one way to divide.  A healthy relationship will have ongoing dialogue so everyone’s needs can be met in the best way, and regular changes might be part of the solution.

Here’s a way to have that conversation.

1. Establish that all partners/roommates want:  

To show love to the other

To cooperate

To help bear the other’s burdens

To raise their children in love

A fair and equitable house sharing relationship

2. Clarify expectations and acknowledge contributions

“What do you see as your contributions to our home, family and interpersonal relationship? What do you see as my contributions? Are you satisfied with the division and balance of tasks? Am I? Are you willing to work together to recalibrate the division of tasks? Have we fallen into any inequitable default modes that should be changed?”

 Especially ask this question: “What do you do that I don’t even know about?”

3. Identify needs and resources

Needs: housing, food, childcare, transportation, finances, etc.

Resources: working adult’s income(s), stay-home partner’s time, part-time income, free family babysitting, etc.

Suggestions: agree that money earned by either spouse is the “family’s money” and tasks required to keep the house running are the “family’s tasks.” Just because Dad is at work all day and Mom is at home all day, doesn’t make it “his money” and “her chores.”

If there is a separation of bank accounts, assign each partner/roommate specific expenses to cover or pool money equally to pay bills.

4. Improve your ability to NOTICE

Things get done after being noticed. Noticing is a powerful relationship tool. Even inattentive or scatterbrained people can learn to notice when something needs to be done or when someone does a kind deed on their behalf.

5. Discuss the process of Emotional labor, and what to do when you’re the recipient of someone else’s labor.

The Emotional Load Bearer will:

Notice the need

Do, delegate or automate the task so the need gets met

The Emotional Load Bearer’s Partner should:

Notice the need/completion of the task

Express gratitude/acknowledgement

Reciprocate effort

“The sink was overflowing with dinner dishes. I quickly rinsed and loaded them into the dishwasher before sitting down with my book. My partner acknowledged, ‘I noticed you took care of the dinner dishes for us. Thank you! I’ll take our trash out to the can.’”

*A special note for partners who struggle to notice or follow through on tasks: it’s emotional labor for your partner to nag or remind you to notice or follow through. Do what it takes to accept responsibility for the tasks you have agreed to cover and find a way to do them in a timely manner. This will build your partner’s confidence and trust in you. Set an alert on your phone, use a list or to-do app, but do whatever it takes to assume the emotional load for the work you do. When your partner trusts you to follow through, it relieves their energetic burden and allows them more mental space for their own tasks. When tasks are shared and accomplished equally, it leaves more time to have fun together.

5. Now you’re ready for the household tasks inventory. Try to list every single possible task you and your partner can imagine doing in your household.

For each task, discuss:

Who strongly enjoys this task?

Who strongly dislikes this task?

Who is the fastest or best at doing it?

Is it worth it for the other partner to learn how to do this task, even if they are slower or don’t do it with the same quality as the other? (Beware of “learned helplessness” and the misogyny of incompetence)

What is the importance of this task?

What is the worth or $$ value of this task?

How much would it cost to outsource it?

What is the consequence if this task goes undone?

Do you have a preconceived notion of which partner is best suited to each task? Did you assume that they would do it without discussing it?

A partial list of possible household tasks is attached to this post as a PDF. You may find it useful as a springboard for discussion. There is a blank sheet at the end for you to include any additional tasks.

6. Divide up the task inventory in a way that will work for everyone. Let each person do the tasks they like. Be generous in taking on the task your partner hates. Be open-minded to learn how to do new things, even if it’s something your partner usually does faster. Treat time as your most valuable resource. Notice when your own tasks need to be done, but ask for help when necessary. Be flexible about covering for each other. Notice and acknowledge your partner’s work. Take collective ownership for house jobs: “our laundry. our dirty toilet.”

When one spouse works full-time and the other stays home, the trade of paid work for non-paid work is a tricky exchange. A common assumption in this situation is for the stay-home spouse to assume all responsibility for house upkeep and childcare while the working spouse shoulders all financial burdens. Even with only one adult wage earner in the family, the amount of non-paid household work is too much for one person.

There are creative ways for the working spouse to share some of the emotional load with their stay-home spouse. (Order groceries from the office and have them delivered to the house, email the kids’ teachers, make a dentist appointment, call the plumber, etc.) Be generous and understanding to each other, as you’re both under pressure and deadlines. Cover for each other when your partner gets overbooked. When things are quieter at work, take on extra tasks at home. Make sure the at-home partner also gets an occasional chance to have a full night’s sleep and a few energetic, wakeful hours of the day for creative output or personal development. The working spouse should aspire to a work-life balance which allows them time at home to help keep the household running and to facilitate their stay-home partner’s growth and ambitions.

When both spouses work or go to school, the same discussions about diving emotional labor should happen. Be sure to include ways to outsource or automate tasks neither partner can cover.

How have you negotiated division of labor in your house? What are effective ways to communicate and cooperate to meet everyone’s needs? What other tasks also belong on the inventory list? 

 Emotional Labor Inventory


Violadiva is an oxymoron, a musician, a yogi, a Suzuki violin teacher, a late-night baker of sourdough breads, proud Mormon feminist, happy wife of Pianoman and lucky mother to three.

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5 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    This is a great discussion list, Violadiva. I especially appreciate your special note: “A special note for partners who struggle to notice or follow through on tasks: it’s emotional labor for your partner to nag or remind you to notice or follow through.”

    Realizing this point has been particularly helpful to me, I think, in that it prods me to take ownership of getting a thing done, rather than just doing it when asked.

  2. Emily U says:

    This is all so good. It reminds me to try to have these conversations before little resentments build up. It’s easy to let things go until you’re so irritated that it becomes hard to have a productive conversation about this stuff!

  3. Jason K. says:

    This is a great list. The key, I think, is recognizing that the sorting of emotional labor is an ongoing conversation instead of a once-and-for-all event.

  4. Liz says:

    This is absolutely fabulous, Violadiva. I’ve recently returned to school and we’ve been having a lot of these conversations, although not as adeptly as this. I will probably be using this guide in the near future – thank you!

  1. April 15, 2019

    […] and discuss Emotional Labor: A discussion guide for partners and roommates for ideas on how to better divide emotional labor, instead of defaulting to gender […]

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