Friendship Is Always Emotional Labor

The strongest relationships are the ones that recognize that

Rebecca Renner
Forge
Published in
6 min readNov 27, 2019

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Closeup on two people’s hands, one person’s holding the others’.
Photo: LaylaBird/E+/Getty Images

“Do you have a second to listen to me vent?” I recently texted my friend Nikki.

It’s a text I’ve sent many, many times before. Nikki, who I’ve known since we were both in graduate school together, is my go-to for messages like those. She’s always there for me, ready to listen to any of my drama when I’m desperate for an ear — except for when she’s not.

Nikki is one of the busiest people I know: She’s got a husband, three kids — one each in elementary, middle, and high school — a career as a poet, and a job as an adjunct professor. She’s also an artist, and lately her art has started to garner attention and gallery shows. She barely has time to balance all of her obligations. And even though she loves talking to me, those venting talks can use up a lot of emotional energy for both of us, especially if we’re worked up. (We’re often worked up.)

Life can get overwhelming, and we all need help sometimes. But, for the same reason, we also need to learn to cut our friends some slack. It’s possible to be too overwhelmed to help out — no matter how close you are.

I didn’t think of my message to Nikki as emotional labor until a few days later, when I saw a viral tweet from the writer Melissa A. Fabello containing a screenshot of a text. “Do you have the emotional/mental capacity for me to vent about something medical/weight-related for a few minutes?” the text reads.

In a thread stemming from the original tweet, Fabello argued for the value of checking in before starting difficult conversations. “Asking for consent for emotional labor, even from people with whom you have a long-standing relationship that is welcoming to crisis-averting, should be common practice,” she wrote.

As the thread made its way across the Twitterverse, a backlash built, with many commenters saying the sentiment Fabello expressed made them feel burdensome. Others said it might prevent them from getting the help they need. (Fabello did not respond to requests for comment.) And it’s not hard to understand what they’re balking against: the idea that friendship can be broken down into a series of transactions, and that love from a friend is always at…

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Rebecca Renner
Forge
Writer for

Journalist and fiction writer. Bylines: the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Paris Review, Tin House, The Guardian, National Geographic, etc.