By: Rebecca Horne, MSc., P.H.Ec.
“A marriage does not exist merely because a ceremony has been performed, nor does a family arise merely through the birth of a child—there is work that goes into the achievement and maintenance of both.” – Rebecca Erickson (1)
It is commonly believed that “relationships are a lot of work,” but what kind of “work” sustains an intimate relationship? Is it always beneficial to put a substantial amount of work into relationships? And does the outcome of this work depend on the relationship context itself? In response to these questions, relationship scholars have recently explored the concept of emotion work, which refers to engaging in supportive behaviours that foster a partner’s positive emotions. Some examples include listening attentively to a partner’s thoughts and feelings, acknowledging his or her emotions, and expressing appreciation (2).
So far, what we know about emotion work in relationships is mixed. Studies show that engaging in emotion work is linked to both positive (e.g., better relationship stability, higher feelings of commitment) and negative (e.g., higher relationship conflict) outcomes (3, 4). We know less about how emotion work plays out over a longer period of time (say, one year) or how having certain attributes will shape the way your emotion work impacts relationship quality (e.g., if you are a man or woman, if you perform emotion work with certain motivations).
Let’s work to understand emotion work!
Given the mixed evidence, my Master’s supervisor and I asked three questions to better understand emotion work’s impact on relationship quality (5). First, is emotion work beneficial or detrimental to partners’ relationship satisfaction one year later? Second, are there gender differences in the way that emotion work and relationship satisfaction are linked? Third, does one’s level of autonomy—or ability to maintain one’s sense of self and resist external influence—change the way his or her emotion work efforts impact relationship satisfaction?
To answer these questions, we drew on data from a large-scale study called the German Family Panel. This study began in 2008 with nearly 4,000 (!) romantic couples and surveys them annually about how their relationships are faring across a wide range of domains.
Emotion work as a (gendered) “labour of love”
We found that providing emotion work was linked to higher levels of one’s own relationship satisfaction one year later, and this link was stronger for women than for men. In addition, women’s emotion work boosted their male partners’ relationship satisfaction, but men’s emotion work had no bearing on their female partners’ relationship satisfaction. In other words, women’s emotion work benefitted themselves and their partners, while men’s emotion work only benefitted themselves (but did not impact their partner). Although it may appear that emotion work prospects are glim for men (or partners of men), we did find a beacon of hope: when men provided high levels of emotion work and were also high in autonomy, their female partners were more satisfied in their relationship.
Take away messages
Our findings suggest that emotion work may be a “labour of love” because although it might be time consuming and psychologically demanding, it seems to boost (not undermine) one’s own relationship happiness over the long haul. Nevertheless, there is diversity in how emotion work processes impact our partners. While men benefit from emotion work irrespective of their partners’ underlying motives, effort alone is not enough for women—rather, their partners’ emotion work must be accompanied by autonomous motivations to strengthen their relationship satisfaction. Perhaps men’s self-motivated affective efforts are appreciated by partners when they endure even in the face of opposition from conventional standards of masculinity that pressure men to be non-emotional and stoic.
Overall, when managing the emotional climate of a relationship, it seems as though women’s emotion work yields important relationship dividends, but men who “phone it in” with their affective efforts will not be remunerated!
(1) Erickson, R. J. (1993). Reconceptualizing family work: The effect of emotion work on perceptions of marital quality. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 55, 888-900.
(2) Erickson, R. J. (2005). Why emotion work matters: Sex, gender, and the division of household labour. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 337-351.
(3) Curran, M. A., McDaniel, B. T., Pollitt, A. M., & Totenhagen, C. J. (2015). Gender, emotion work, and relationship quality: A daily diary study. Sex Roles, 73, 157-173.
(4) Strazdins, L., & Broom, D. H. (2004). Acts of love (and work): Gender imbalance in emotional work and women’s psychological distress. Journal of Family Issues, 25, 356-378.
(5) Hot off the press! Horne, R. M., & Johnson, M. D. (2018). A labour of love? Emotion work in intimate relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advanced online publication.