Invisible Labor and How It’s Affecting Your Relationship
Perhaps this is the product of my recent “binge-watch” of Desperate Housewives, but nonetheless I find myself fascinated with the phenomenon of “invisible labor”.
Invisible labor is an umbrella term for household maintenance, child-rearing, and pet-care. These are tasks that are unpaid, and often unrecognized, but require a great deal of time and effort.
What does this look like in action? Let’s paint a picture.
It’s Wednesday night – dinner was great, dishes are done, kids are bathed, and you’re catching up on the latest episode of The Crown ¬¬when you get an email from your boss that you’re needed in the office early tomorrow morning. Oh sh*t.
Your mind is moving a million miles per minute: It’s your day for carpool, you should pack lunches tonight, you probably need to grocery shop soon… Your partner notices your sudden stress and offers to “help out” so you can be at work bright and early.
…Here enters invisible labor. You write down the address for carpool pick up and explain how the drop-off loop works at school. Your partner asks a series of questions: What time is drop off? What should I pack them for lunch? Can you remind me of ____ before you leave in the morning? Is there anything else I need to do?
Your partner is being helpful right? They offered to pick up the slack!
The catch is, you still ended up delegating tasks, explaining basic the protocol, and fielding questions from your partner who is capable of managing these parenting and domestic duties on their own.
This is just one example of what invisible labor looks like. Invisible labor is not necessarily a product of a “lazy” or “incompetent” spouse.
Your partner could be incredibly sensitive to the stressors of everyday life and capable of performing domestic tasks, while still only performing them when asked to do so.
Invisible labor might look like both partners working full-time jobs, but only one partner comes home and starts a load of laundry, schedules appointments into the calendar, or puts dinner in the oven. The other partner might use this time unwind, play with the dog, or call a friend to catch up.
Invisible labor can sound like asking your partner, “Could you…”, “Did you notice____ needs to be done?”, “Would you mind…”. These acts of delegation feel “naggy” and can be met with responses like “Sure, how do I do that?”, “You’re better at it than I am”, or “Where’s the ___?”.
This dynamic causes one partner to feel like a manager, or even a parent, to their partner and leads to stress and burnout, anger and resentment, and low sexual desire.
Open up a dialogue with your partner about sharing both invisible labor and relaxation in your relationship. These opposite but very necessary elements of life should be an equal and mutual experience. By creating balance in your partnership, you may find yourselves stepping out of unhelpful roles and patterns and discovering a shared sense of appreciation for one another and the life you’re building together.
Need support in navigating the conversations that can support you to a deeper connection and more balance in your relationship? Our couples therapists at Love Heal Grow are here to help—I’d love to meet you.