The Cost of Emotional Labour on the Military Spouse

The image of the Stepford Wife – well turned out, bakes like a demon, keeps the house in perfect order while having dinner on the table for her beloved husband – is one that we would rather put away into a satirical film and laugh at the robot like character.

But the premise of the obedient, dutiful wife isn’t too far from life in the military. Perhaps the more formal expectations of the military wife have diminished somewhat, but there remains a general expectation that we are the principal carer, the one who manages the house, the one who ensures children are settled into their new school…all the while working hard to maintain our careers.

This expectation isn’t isolated just to military spouses, rather to the wider female population, but the prevalence within our community appears far greater and far harder to change.

This is called emotional labour – a form of suppressing our emotions in order to keep the status quo. And its impact means we often focus on looking after others to the detriment of ourselves. We suffer loneliness through a lack of control over key areas of our lives. And our emotional labour is often overlooked or undervalued.

That is not say we are meek bystanders in our own fate. We have more strength and resilience than any other group of people (in our opinion). But we cannot escape the fact that the larger proportion of emotional labour (if not all of it) falls on us to pick up and manage. In a recent online poll, over 75% of respondents said as military spouse, it has been their responsibility to pick and manage the majority of household work during the COVID19 pandemic.

And it’s not just military spouses who struggle with this unbalanced life. Facebook COO and Founder of ‘Lean In’ Sheryl Sandberg recently published research that found women in full-time jobs, a partner and childcare spend 20 hours more on childcare, elder care and household chores a week then men. That is the equivalent of a part-time job. And in the current pandemic, women are carrying an even heavier load in keeping their households running and as a result are experiencing higher levels of stress and burnout.

Says Sandberg “We know that when things get hard, women get hit the hardest. The double whammy of what happens in the workforce and then what happens to demands on the home has never been higher.”

A study in 2016 found that women were responsible for over 60% of the unpaid work in the UK – that’s the equivalent to some trillion pounds worth of household work that isn’t paid (Office of National Statistics).

Mary Portas (Work Like A Woman) suggests this ‘mental load’ is highly detrimental to women who blindly pick up the emotional labour in their 20’s and as they get older, the responsibilities grow to include childcare, parents, even sending birthday cards to both sides of the family.

Clearly not all gender and relationship issues are tied with emotional labour, and in some instances, you may thrive on the role of homemaker and find it fulfilling.

But it cannot be ignored that as a military wife, the expectation that we; pack up, move house/county/country, perform the larger share of childcare, do the larger share of household chores, try to keep a job that challenges us but also lets us see the kids Christmas play, be supportive and encouraging of our partner while he deploys/exercises/socialises while putting a smile on our face and telling people how great everything is, is exhausting.

In today’s society where we are fighting for gender equality and mental health issues surrounding loneliness, stress and fatigue are key talking points, now is the time to bring this to the table. To challenge the status quo that suggests the majority of emotional labour sits on our shoulders.

Time to rebalance

So how do you get started on rebalancing the load? There is not really a policy fix for the long-ingrained ideas about gender roles and partners who aren’t eager to help out. We need a cultural shift in terms of our expectations of men. And as long as women have a double shift (or a double double shift right now) and men have just one, we are never going to get there. Change is required at a Government level, a corporate level and an individual level.  And it is the last one that you have the greatest ability to change.

Don’t assume you’re easy to read

As with all relationship matters, it starts with communication and recognition. Communication from you and recognition from your partner because being understood helps us to feel secure and supported (oneplusone.com) and is the key to a stable and happy relationship.

How many times have you been disappointed that your partner didn’t do what you thought he should do based on what you were thinking? Perhaps he isn’t a mind reader after all.  Be clear about your feelings and expectations.

Keep calm and focused

It is easy to let emotions overrun and dictate the conversation but nothing will get resolved that way. Instead, take a breath and ensure you are explaining yourself in a way that can be understood. This isn’t the time for point winning or a competition of who took the bins out last. This is about working together to get to a solution you can both get on board with.

Don’t forget the positives

It might be hard work, frustrating and emotionally exhausting, but there is value in what we do. We provide, we develop personally and we garner support and respect from our peer group of amazing military spouses. For all the negatives associated with emotional labour, the sense of community from our peers is one which cannot be matched and should not be underestimated.

Here at Recruit for Spouses, we work tirelessly to address the imbalance for military spouses. We celebrate, we advise and we encourage military spouses while continuously challenging those who are in positions of power to change the outdated perception of who we are and what we want. If you want to join us in our ongoing campaign, register today at recruitforspouses.co.uk

If you require any further advice or information, visit the relationship experts, OnePlusOne.