Friendship Is Always Emotional Labor

The strongest relationships are the ones that recognize that

Closeup on two people’s hands, one person’s holding the others’.
Closeup on two people’s hands, one person’s holding the others’.

“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 least a little bit conditional.

But what would these commenters say if, in the midst of their own crises, someone else needed help that they couldn’t give?

Reading through Fabello’s tweet thread and the many responses, there’s a saying that comes to mind here: “Bitching is bonding.”

Scientifically, that’s true. Venting, and listening to others vent, typically doesn’t make us any less angry, says Jaimie Krems, an assistant professor of experimental psychology at Oklahoma State University. “But it also seems to increase, at least for females, friendship quality.” And research has shown that co-rumination, an extreme form of venting that involves the mutual rehashing of problems, can lead to “adrenocortical attunement,” a biological bonding mechanism in which two people see their levels of hormones like cortisol sync up.

“Bitching is bonding,” Krems says, “but bonding is also labor.” The cost of listening to venting is real. Venting and co-rumination have been shown to increase depression and anxiety symptoms in both parties. Whenever you listen to a friend vent, you make a sacrifice, conscious or not, to accept the negative effects of helping someone you care about. Being a friend means taking on that burden when you can. But being a person means you won’t always be able to.

“People want to think that affection is infinite,” Krems says. “And that’s a lovely idea, but it’s just not the reality.” Friendships are the product of effort. They require the investment of time and energy.

That’s true even, or maybe especially, for our closest friendships. “We only have so many people we can pick up the phone and call like that,” says Krems, referring to the tweet thread. Psychologists call this our “support clique,” the small subset of our network that we’re likeliest to turn to in times of distress. Outside that inner circle, it becomes more difficult to find people willing to offer support in a crisis. Even within it, though, support is never an immediate guarantee — and the strongest friendships are built on that understanding, rather than the romantic notion Krems describes.

What seems to have gotten lost for some people in this recent discussion of emotional labor — what often gets lost in any online discussion — is an acknowledgement of the middle ground. There will be times when you choose to put your own needs before the needs of your friend, and vice versa. It’s only when one of those things happens consistently that it can become a toxic pattern.

“Friendship theory is often built on kind of economic principles,” says Suzanne Degges-White, the author of Toxic Friendships: Knowing the Rules and Dealing with the Friends Who Break Them. Friendships develop from mutual giving, with participants matching each other in the things that sustain a relationship: trust, favors, self-disclosure. “For relationships to be healthy, there has to be a mutual and shared level of self-disclosure, shared trust, and shared investments and being there for the other person,” she says.

Some friends will always consume more of your emotional energy than others, whether it’s because of their personality or life circumstances. Even when we love those friends and want to be there for them, we can’t do it all the time. When friendship imbalances like this veer into toxic territory, Degges-White suggests sitting down with your friend to talk about boundaries. Use “I” statements, own your feelings of overwhelm, and remember to express your care for them.

“Friends who are going to judge you because you need to take care of yourself are not really going to be friends who want to stick around for the long term,” said Degges-White. “Friends should understand that sometimes people do get overloaded.”

Friendship isn’t friendship if it doesn’t go both ways. Maintaining healthy boundaries, and a healthy understanding of each other’s lives and limits, is as much a part of friendship as being willing to help out in times of crisis. When you have all of those things, Degges-White says, you will reach a point in your friendship when you no longer keep track of your “bank balance,” the running tally of who does what for whom.

So the text that sparked Fabello’s Twitter thread didn’t depict a transactional relationship. It depicted one close enough to be utterly unconcerned with tit-for-tat. To extend Degges-White’s metaphor, we only worry about our bank accounts when they’re close to empty. The same is true for your emotional well-being. Emotional labor won’t always be evenly split in a friendship, but with a good one, you trust that it will always eventually get back to equilibrium.

Being friends with Nikki has taught me this. Sometimes it seems like she does more for me than I do for her: She’s the person I call when I need a good cry, and the person I call when I need to brag about a success. She doesn’t pick up all the time, but that means it’s okay when I’m busy sometimes, too. With Nikki, my friendship bank account is full because of the boundaries we keep, not in spite of them.

“Let me know when I can return the favor,” I text Nikki after she agrees, yet again, to drive across town to feed my cat.

She texts back: “You know I’m not keeping score.”

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

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