Loneliness and Emotional Labor

I got walloped by a cold this week and decided to focus on resting and recharging, so I do not have much original content to offer. In lieu of that, here are some links to things I’ve been reading and thinking about. Folks who follow my professional Facebook will have encountered a few of these:

How Loneliness Begets Loneliness – An interview with John Cacioppo about the physiological and social consequences of loneliness. His book on Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection is an excellent read that provides an accessible survey of his clinical research on loneliness, as well as his suggestions for working through it. This interview provides some of the high-level takeaways from the book.

Emotional Labor: What It Is and How to Do It – This is an excellent article by Miri explaining the concept of emotional labor and providing clear definitions of what it looks like and how it largely falls to women and femmes to do it. This is really instructive to pair with the Loneliness article, as so much of emotional labor is about relationship tending and repairing, skills that are necessary to avoid loneliness. Emotional labor, however, may be taken for granted and exploited by less savvy partners and friends, leading to loneliness for the laborer.

Emotional labor is often divided along lines of privilege and marginalization, with the less socially powerful position expected to do the emotional labor for the more socially powerful person. Thus in heterosexual relationships, women are expected to do the labor for men. In other kinds of relationships, people who are working class are expected to do emotional labor for upper class people (such as always being smiling and happy in your customer service job!) and people of color expected to do emotional labor for white people (such as, don’t do your activism in a way that causes me to feel upset or ashamed!).

In relationships where one partner does all the emotional labor, the non-laboring partner is running a huge risk. Should they lose that laboring partner to death or other causes, suddenly they are alone and bereft of social connections, leading to worsened outcomes around mental and physical health.

Romantic relationships are not the antidote to loneliness, as I often say to disbelieving single people. We can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely, if we live with shame and the fear of authentic connection. We can live with someone and feel lonely, if we feel they do not understand or see us. Cacioppo offers a useful framing in his book around the kinds of loneliness and connection, which I will paraphrase as: connection with self, connection with intimate partners, and connection with community.

One might look at emotional labor as a skill to break out of loneliness. According to Cacioppo, one path out of loneliness is to offer altruistic service to another person, extending one’s self without expecting anything in return. It is not simply receiving attention but also meaningfully participating in other’s lives that helps us to feel less alone. I think pairing these concepts, Cacioppo’s thoughts on loneliness and Miri’s thoughts on emotional labor, helps me to see where my loneliness might be coming from an imbalance. Perhaps I am lonely because I am extending myself too much and not receiving anything back, or perhaps because I am not doing enough to extend myself and am too focused on what I’m getting. There are more options, but this is simply a place to start with reflection.

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