Outsourcing Emotional Labor

Al Heystek

No, outsourcing emotional labor is not some geo-political strategy by corporations to improve profits. This is a reality that women have been aware of for a long time.

Simply put, outsourcing emotional labor is a description of how men often leave the emotional work in relationships to their partners. Similarly to the way in which business executives outsource jobs they think can be completed more cheaply or efficiently elsewhere, many men have learned to delegate more emotionally demanding tasks—like caring for the children, sorting through family conflicts, or planning weddings or get-togethers—to their partners.

Working Man

A Real-Life Conversation

In one of our ongoing men’s therapy groups, a participant recently brought up a conversation that he and his significant other were having about emotional labor.

In the group, we discussed how we men know plenty about labor. After all, the major way we have demonstrated care for our families over the generations has been to provide by means of our labor. We also acknowledged, of course, how women bear the incredible labor of carrying and birthing children.

But emotional labor is a subject we men are simply not accustomed to thinking about or discussing. Or even realizing is a thing.

What’s So Hard About Emotional Labor?

Unfortunately, many men struggle with empathy, or putting ourselves in the emotional shoes of another. We struggle with this, because male socialization has not often given most men much permission to identify and express the vulnerable emotions of sadness, hurt, loneliness, or fear.  And because we cannot readily accept those emotions within ourselves, we have difficulty identifying when someone else has those emotions and that they deserve to have those feelings validated and accepted.

Doing that validating and accepting, of course, requires listening, empathizing, and more listening, which takes a lot of emotional energy. In other words, a lot of emotional labor. And we men have so often learned that this is women’s work.

A Matter of Practice

Many of us men would at times rather stay late at work or shovel the sidewalk than be involved in those thorny conflicts with the children or the in-laws. And when we do come in the house and our spouse or significant other wants to discuss the children or the in-laws, we’d rather turn on the football game. We feel more capable of installing the air conditioning unit than doing the heavy lifting of holding our partner’s frustration or sadness. Not that all men feel this way, but we know this is a common pattern for men.

As we discussed in group, if we want our significant others to listen to our stories about the workplace, we need to be open to hearing their stories, and to recognizing that those stories are also, oftentimes, very much about work. We also need to be open to discussing ways in which we can be more supportive of bearing the emotional labor associated with our relationships. By outsourcing less and “insourcing” more, we can gain a better understanding of our partners, ourselves, and our relationships.

–From the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan