What comes to your mind when you think of gender inequality? Common answers to this question include a variety of inequitable phenomena that take place at the institutional level, or even at the level of the group. All of these answers are completely valid. However, what if I told you that gender inequality in its most common form, can also pervade something that many consider, at their core, pure and unconditional—one’s romantic relationships? It certainly seems astonishing to consider, since many of our social environments have inevitably constructed grand-standing ideals of the romantic. From gargantuan “gestures” to show someone that you love them, to having a rendezvous with your partner in the secluded countryside, our notions of intimacy and romance present an imagination that considers such relationships “untainted” by the rest of society.
However, the reality surrounding particularly emotional dynamics, particularly in heterosexual romantic relationships is quite drastically different. To really understand how these emotional dynamics can also mirror societal inequalities, it is imperative to think of the idea of “emotion work”. Colloquially put, “emotion work” refers to the the work an individual does to maintain their own feelings, and sometimes those of others as well. The phenomenology of “work” associated with emotions here may seem puzzling to many—after all, aren’t we expected to pour everything we have to support the ones we love?
Thus, while the idea of “unconditional love” is glorified in the media, at the same time, it becomes important to understand what this idea really demands of us—are we unconditionally expected to give, or receive? While it may not be “work” exactly, it does present to us a picture of the minutiae that go into building and maintaining stable relationships—communication, empathy, adequate attention and support, to name a few, which remain quite obscured from the roadmaps that one is commonly presented with. To have to engage with, and cultivate these skills, therefore, is a mammoth task in itself. James (1989) even goes so far as to say that the “social expression of emotions is regulated by a form of labour”, particularly in the domestic domain. He then argues that the forms that emotional labour takes and the skills that it involves are primarily taken up by women, who are then unfairly stigmatized as “emotional”.
One psychological study by Horne & Johnson (2018), analyzed data from 1932 heterosexual couples in Germany, and found that female partners’ emotion work was the strongest predictor of relationship satisfaction for both partners. However, the researchers also analyzed their results from a gendered lens, stating that more often than not, the quality of emotion work provided by female partners was notably different, which presents a glaring discrepancy between the degree to which interpersonal relationships in a heterosexual context tend to imagine affective care. They also mention that women also tend to provide more emotional support than men, which also further feeds into an inequality of the interpersonal kind. With this discrepancy also comes the understanding that this can often severely undermine the mental health of the individual who is constantly supposed to be “giving” or putting in this emotional work. As the brunt of this mammoth task presented in the cultivation of emotional skills within intimate relationships, more often than not, falls on non-cis-heterosexual men, it further also delineates that the realm of “emotions” is only something particular genders are relegated to and responsible for. A certain performance of gender roles is invariably associated with this inequality, which makes matters starkly concerning.
All of this isn’t to say that love as a construct deserves our admonishment, rather it is to provide a deeper insight into the many ways in which affective inequalities subtly pervade interactions that we couldn’t possibly imagine them pervading. The solution is simple—cultivating and creating more mental-health spaces that allow for all individuals, irrespective of gender to practice emotional skills, such that the stigma and gender roles around “emotions”, can then be eradicated.