Unseen Labor

Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, CGT

Table of Contents

Letter from Liz #1 - Ledgers

Dear Reader,

A few weeks ago, I was visiting my cousin in New York. One of my favorite parts of being in New York is the strange juxtaposition that people are both anonymous and fully exposed. This became glaringly clear when I was stuck on a small elevator in a tall building…right beside someone’s apartment who just happened to be having a therapy session. Fully exposed and yet, anonymous.

And as I listened, I imagined the faces of countless couples I have worked with over the past decade. Couples who have come to me to manage one of the most common issues I see in the therapy room - “who has more responsibility in the family? And, if it’s me, do you even care how it makes me feel?”

As I listened to this couple rehash who has washed more dishes, picked up the children from school more often, and knows the most about the financial system of the home, I knew that they were struggling with a few issues:


In relationships we consciously and unconsciously give and take. When I clean the dishes, you can take a clean bowl from the cabinet. When you pick up the kids from school, I take the extra free time. This is just how it works. It’s the point of partnership. Give + take.

Within this system of giving and taking, we create “entitlements”. We start to believe we are owed and that we’ve earned specific things - “I cleaned the dishes, so you owe it to me to vacuum the living room” or “I get the kids from school every day, so you owe it to me to give me a break in the evening” or on the flip side “I work so hard all day, you owe it to me to pick up the kids from school”. This isn’t such a big deal - it’s in many ways human to feel this way.

When things feel fair in a relationship, there is balance. No one really argues over what is or isn’t owed to them. However, when things feel unfair, people start to create a ledger.

A common internal monologue.

A common internal monologue.

If one or both people in the relationship believe the ledger is uneven, they start to get angry about debts that are owed. “You OWE it to me to take out the trash!”

Now, onto what brought up these ledgers in the first place…

Unappreciated + Unfair Labor

Whether it’s the mental load or the financial burden, when labor is *perceived* as unappreciated and *perceived* as unfair, people start tallying up everything they do. And they start to see their relationship as an overdrawn bank account.


And when bank accounts are overdrafted, the bank expects more than you even had in the first place. It becomes demanding. “You took out $1000, so now you owe me $1000 + $30”

That's what had happened to New Yorkers A + B. As I listened to them during the 10 or so forced voyeuristic moments beside them, I knew exactly the issue.

Over time, they both had felt completely unappreciated for everything they were both doing for their family. They believed their partner hadn’t a clue how hard they worked. How much they had to do to keep it together. Both of them desperately wanted to be seen.

Notice, I didn’t put helped.

The interesting thing about give + take and unseen labor, is that fixing the resentments that result from it don't always have to do with someone helping. Usually the first step towards improving the relationship is validating the issue in the first place.

As I listened to New Yorkers A + B, I could hear they weren’t yet capable of doing that. It was important to them to be the one most put upon. To be the one in the most pain. To be the one who truly is owed. I’m confident though, that their therapist will help them to do this:

  • Slow down the conversation.
  • Listen to each other and believe what the other person is saying is absolutely true for them.
  • Empathize and validate with what that must be like for them.
  • Figure out how to get out of debt by being clear about role expectations.
  • Learn to individually set limits with each other so that they don’t build resentments and ledgers over time.
  • Build in a culture of appreciation in which both people are letting each other know that they see how hard their partner is working.

What can you do?

So, what can you do to avoid being like New Yorker A + B?

Let your partner know you see how hard they work + that you appreciate them.

Even the most basic “thank you” can increase feelings of recognition. Want to lay it on thick (I think you should as much as you can :-))? Let the person know how their efforts positively impact you or others + what it is about them at their essence that allows them to have that impact. For example “Thank you so much for everything you do for the kids. You are such a thoughtful and kind person and it really shows through”.

Empathize and validate with them when it comes to frustrations.

Most of the work we do individually isn’t seen relationally. The hours you spent on the budget, the entire Saturday you spent cleaning the grout, the quiet moments in the middle of the night getting your sleepless child back to bed - they just literally aren’t seen. So, if your partner brings up a frustration about how hard they are working, believe that it’s true. Validate it. Let them know you care. Get curious.

Have boundaries - don’t offer things you aren’t willing to let someone take.

A lot of resentment in relationships comes down to our own overextensions. While it would be nice for other people to recognize when we are overextending and put boundaries in place for us, the reality is that most of the time they don’t. Instead of waiting for someone to notice how frustrated, overworked, or overwhelmed you are, be clear. And, “put your foot down” (with love) when you need to.



PS: A book I love on this is Fair Play by Eve Rodsky

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