Emotion work – Let’s get you back to work
With the arrival of COVID-19 and the resulting isolation measures in place, all Canadians have felt some impact on family dynamics. This means that parents have been managing their children more of the time and engaging in what researchers call family work. This family work generally takes on three forms: housework, child rearing and emotion work. While housework and child rearing can be easily observed, emotion work is done covertly and is not easily seen or measured.
In 2018, Dr. Rebecca Horne and Dr. Mathew Johnson conducted research to determine how emotion work impacted relationship satisfaction. They defined emotion work as engaging in supportive behaviour that fosters a partner’s positive emotions. Practically speaking this means the things we do to connect to our partner. Asking how our partner’s day is going, listening attentively, expressing appreciation, or even initiating conversation about topics that are sensitive can be considered emotion work.
Most people, if asked, would suggest that women do the majority of emotion work. There may be many factors that explain this expectation, but researchers would generally agree. While this is generally seen as a positive contribution some research noted by Dr. Horne suggests that it is not always evaluated positively. For some men, commitment and love fluctuate more when their partner is continually responsible for emotion work. While some women find it onerous to engage in emotion work most women feel as though they are happier in their relationships when they take on the emotion work for the family and the relationship. This was the result from the research of Horne and Johnson that prompted the title of their research project called A labor of love? Emotion work in intimate relationships.
The study also investigated the impact of men’s emotion work on themselves and their mate. The finding was that while men’s emotion work benefited them it did not benefit their spouse unless these men were highly autonomous in their approach. Dr. Horne suspects that when there is an egalitarian approach to relationships it is reflected in a view that spouses are partners. They see each other as equals and this is the differentiating factor.
In my practice, I see couples who are very traditional in their relational structure and I also see couples who are more modern and share many of life’s tasks including finances, child rearing, decision-making and planning. In these relationships there is an expectation of knowing the other person’s needs well and that each partner contributes to the emotional satisfaction of their spouse. The research indicated men’s efforts did not impact women’s relationship satisfaction the question was raised about the quality of men’s emotion work.
“In my experience I think that couples do not share enough about what matters to them in a calm way. In the absence of conversation how does your spouse know?”
Again, in practice, there are instances when both partners reflect on their behaviors. I see that men at times need coaching and guidance around how to be emotionally present and available for their wives. Wives too need to be able to allow their partner’s space to contribute to their emotional needs. It is usually unhelpful when both partners’ feel the other should just know what that means. In my experience I think that couples do not share enough about what matters to them in a calm way. In the absence of conversation how does your spouse know?
It is not uncommon when a couple enters the therapy office that women have become emotionally self-sufficient. They may have tried to get their emotional needs met but have been unsuccessful and have then become less likely to do the emotional work for the couple. This is one of the factors that lead couples to feel isolated and lonely in the relationship. As a marital therapist it is important to re-establish and grow this emotion work from both partners.
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