Unpaid Emotional Labor

A new phrase captures neatly a dilemma that many good friends face: when are they
being taken advantage of, being asked to provide unpaid emotional labor?

I was talking with a very thoughtful young man who has two good friends who have been going through a lot of emotional turmoil for the past year. He has been trying to be a good friend throughout, but he has  begun to wonder where are the “boundaries’ that distinguish between what a good friend ought to do and what should be the domain of a paid therapist. In other words, when is he being asked to give an unpaid therapy hour, even though he doesn’t have the training and availability of consultation or supervision that a therapist has. And when is he being asked to do something that even a therapist would not do.

Therapy and Friendship Relationships

One thing about both therapy and friendship is that these are relationships that are voluntary and there is some kind of reciprocity and agreement about the nature of the relationship.

A therapist is paid to devote him or herself to the client and pay attention to the client’s needs rather than his or her needs. But the purpose of the relationship is to help the client to learn how to cope on his own. The therapist does not agree to smooth out all of life’s road bumps 24×7. People who need that kind of support may need more intensive treatment.

When the visits no longer seem to meet this description, as with all voluntary relationships, the therapy relationship can be ended. Ending a therapy relationship, however, is something that needs great care, to avoid client abandonment. Often a referral is made to another therapist or to more intensive treatment.

Friendships are Voluntary Relationships

Friendships also need to be voluntary relationships. When they no longer seem to be voluntary, when you find yourself feeling that you can’t take a break for fear of some terrible consequence, you are at risk of going from unpaid emotional labor to unpaid emotional slave labor.

You know you are entering the domain of emotional slave labor when you find yourself spending hours trying to come up with just the right way of saying something so that the other person won’t  have some kind of extreme negative reaction.

If you find yourself feeling as though the other person needs you to do something or take care of some emotional problem in a very specific way, or if you find yourself worried that if you are not available at all times, and are not always perfectly empathetic, your friend may harm him or herself (or someone else) then you are entering the territory of  emotional slave labor.

A certain amount of this may be called for when a good friend of many years has a brief crisis and seems to need the care for a short period in order to restabilize.

But if this need extends beyond a short period of time you need to really reconsider the relationship and encourage the person to get additional professional help.

Friendships are Reciprocal

Another aspect of a friendship relationship is that it is one that is reciprocal. A relationship in which both people are interested in each other’s experiences and feelings.

This has many implications, but one of them is that a friend is interested in knowing when you are upset about something related to the friendship relationship. If you have a concern that you’re being taken advantage of and are feeling upset about that, but feel that there is absolutely no way of raising the concern to your friend, you are either being overly concerned about upsetting your friend or that friend is conveying to you the message that they don’t really care about your feelings as much as about getting their needs met, and that is not healthy in a good long term friendship relationship.

In summary, friendships are reciprocal relationships, over time the relationship ought to be roughly symmetric in terms of support and concern. And friendships should not seem to be coercive or to put it in another way they should be voluntary relationships. It should be okay for a friend to “take a break” from that relationship without putting it at jeopardy. You know that you are at risk of leaving the territory of friendship if you find yourself feeling too much that the other person “needs” you and your support and you feel trapped.

For More Information

Friends: Who to Tell and Who to Keep – Lyndsey


On the Borderline