The Invisible Work In Your Relationship
Recognizing the unseen effort that goes into maintaining a happy relationship and family
There is a lot of work involved in maintaining a strong relationship (don’t we know it!), and much of that work is invisible. If one person is putting in most of the unseen effort, the result is not good for the person or the relationship. Learning to recognize and shift the invisible workload can be tough, but there are some practical steps you can take to help you and your partner feel connected and fulfilled in your relationship.
How do we know what’s invisible?
“Invisible labor” is a term for work that is unpaid, unseen and unacknowledged. This could include a few different types of work in the relationship: physical work like doing household chores and keeping the home cosy and comfortable, mental work like remembering everyone’s schedules and making appointments, and emotional work like supporting someone when they’re sad and bringing up difficult conversations. There are also responsibilities like managing the family finances, planning vacations, and maintaining intimacy in your romantic relationship that can often be invisible as well. Invisible labor is often only noticed when it’s not done - it’s hard to ignore a sink overflowing with dishes, or kids that never got taken to school - so it often goes unacknowledged. If one person in the relationship is doing the majority of the invisible labor, it tends to negatively impact their mental health and satisfaction in their relationship, as they don’t receive gratitude or support for their necessary efforts.
The weight of gender roles
Countless research studies have shown that in heterosexual couples, the majority of the invisible labor is done by women, even when there is an intention of equality. Women spend six more hours than men every week on household tasks (SCB), women take the initiative to start difficult conversations 80% of the time (The Gottman Institute), and when it comes to remembering what tasks need to be done for the family, men tend to only keep track of tasks that directly affect them (Ahn, J.N., Haines, E.L. & Mason, M.F.). The research is not painting the most ideal picture! All of these imbalances of physical, mental and emotional labor can really weigh on women, especially if their efforts are unacknowledged. Regardless of your gender and the gender of your partner, gender stereotypes can play a role in your relationship.
Being responsible vs. helping
One way to check to see how the division of labor is structured in your relationship is to think about the language you would use if you were going to do a task together. Would you “help” your partner with the dishes? Would your partner “help” you plan weekend activities with the kids? If you’re in a mindset where one person would usually automatically be in charge of a task, and the other would simply help, that might be an indication that only one person is considered responsible for the majority of the work.
Thinking that we’re doing it all
The “availability bias” is a concept that can impact our impression of who does what in the relationship. It’s easy for you to think of the many ways you are contributing to the relationship, because you are keeping track of and experiencing everything you’re doing. But when it comes to the work your partner is doing, it’s a mystery because you’re usually not there experiencing it while it’s happening. You might have a vague sense that they vacuumed sometime last week, or that they took the kids to soccer practice, but you have no idea how much time and energy they have put into their different responsibilities. Being able to easily see your own efforts, and having a lack of clarity around your partner’s efforts, can lead to you overestimating and overstating the work you’re doing, and underestimating the work your partner is doing.
Should we aim for total equality?
If you are wanting the work to be “fair,” you might be aiming for a 50/50 split. Having a mindset of fairness is a common way for couples to aim for an even division, but it can actually create more distance in the relationship. When you’re each trying to do exactly half the work, it can be really obvious when one or both of you don’t live up to your end of the bargain. Since it’s nearly impossible for the split to actually be that even, it will likely always leave someone feeling like they are doing more work than the other person. A new book called The 80/80 Marriage tells us that a mindset of fairness can also prevent us from doing nice things for our partner. If all we’re doing is trying to be fair, taking care of our 50% of the work and no more or less, then we’re less likely to put in more effort even if we can.
Five steps to a more connected partnership
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to invisible labor. However, our five-step model to a more connected partnership could help you and your partner feel more appreciated in your relationship, working together as a team.
Step 1: Consider your assumptions. Spend some time reflecting on why your expectations and mindset are what they are. How did you see your parents divide the labor and express gratitude? What societal messages do you both receive about gender roles and responsibilities? What are you each naturally drawn to or skilled at when it comes to tasks and invisible labor? What is most important to you when it comes to dividing and acknowledging the work of maintaining your relationship and home?
Step 2: Make the invisible visible. When invisible labor is seen and acknowledged, it can make a big difference for the person doing the work. Ask your partner to tell you all the things they have done for the relationship and family this week. See how much time and energy it took them to do each task. And you can do the same, helping your partner see your efforts. You can check out this list of tasks as inspiration to start exploring the work you both are doing for the relationship.
Step 3: Shift from fairness to generosity. This is a key element in the book The 80/80 Marriage, suggesting that both partners aim to contribute 80% of the work instead of 50%. That allows you to take opportunities to be generous towards your partner, beyond what’s simply fair. You are leaving behind the competitive nature of a 50/50 split, and embracing the idea that you both can contribute as a team.
Step 4: Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. It can’t be emphasized enough. Try thanking your partner for everything you notice them doing for your relationship, big or small. It will feel great for invisible labor to be seen; it will feel even better to be thanked for it.
Step 5: Find your unique rhythm. Life comes with ebbs and flows, and there might be some times when one person is more able to contribute to the workload than the other. If you can remain flexible in our ever-changing world, it won’t feel like as much of a betrayal or failure when one of you can’t put in as much work sometimes. You can also figure out ways to divide the work that work for you; you might each have tasks or responsibilities that come more easily or naturally to you, but try mixing it up sometimes anyway to really share the load. Talk about it, try things, change things, pave your own way.
Want to take action?
Check out the awesome new micro-habits feature in the app Coupleness, which can help you develop fun and meaningful habits in your relationship. One of the micro-habits you can try is about invisible labor, with daily tools and tips for noticing and changing the way you view responsibility in your relationship.