A brief breakdown:

  • event: I broke your vase.
  • event: I bought you a gift but then left it at home
  • event: I want to go to a (privately valuable event) on our (relationship important day)


  1. I wanted to save you the effort of thinking about the thing and so I decided not to tell/ask you before it was resolved.
  2. I wanted to not have to withhold a thing from you so I told you as soon as it was bothering me so that I didn't have to lie/cheat/withhold/deceive you even if I thought it was in your best interest


what is a better plan of action?

1 would be doing emotional labour in the form of:

I thought about the event and how you would feel about it and modelled how I thought you would feel and then acted according to what I thought was best for you feeling better.

2 would be to put an emotional burden on the other person but carries with it more honesty, more expectation that the other person is autonomous and able to make choices for themselves.

I didn't want to withhold anything, but instead burdened you with making the choice about what to do about the matter by telling you about my conundrum.

I used to do 1, but now I do 2. The relationship books tend to suggest 2.

All of the things my brain ever conjured up used to tell me 1.  

Brain: Make the martyr choice for people.  Don't tell them, suffer in secret.

I made a lot of relationship mistakes doing 1's in various situations and now I do 2s.  I don't know why this works but it lines up with everything I ever read - NVC, Daring greatly, Gottman institute research. I don't have much to add other than - I wonder if you do 1's or 2's.  

I would prefer people do 2's not 1's around me. (A little more on emotional labour)

Original post: http://bearlamp.com.au/emotional-labour/


New Comment
11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:03 PM



I've also noticed this pattern and don't have a great name for it, and perhaps no one will be surprised that I am willing to categorize this behavior in correlation with psychological development.

Kids often start off doing something like 2 (let's call it 0) but in a way that's very much not empathetic. Kids are then develop, often in this case it seems to be with directed training, towards 1. Adults then stay at 1 unless they find problems with it and learn to do 2. The difficulty seems to be that it's hard to learn to do 2 without accidentally doing 0 or still doing 1 but wrapping it up in 2-style language. I suspect this reflects the complexity demands of 2 for cognitive empathy, specifically the ability to build a sufficiently complex ontology of other people that it is able to make reasonable enough predictions about the behavior of others when imposing emotional demands on them that your behavior does not end up producing outcomes that violate your preferences.

For me 1 is the kind of stuff I'm trying to "forget" in my own life so I can be filled with 2, or more properly not the 2 cluster necessarily but whatever is both compassionate and satisfies my preferences. I think the 1 strategy makes a lot of sense though if you both want to not hurt other people/make them do emotional labor and don't have strongly predictive models of other people. Learning the 2 stuff fully requires developing fairly complex cognitive empathy.

I think it's also worth pointing out here because I can easily see the objection being raised that this is not a male-only pattern. Although 2 stuff is more emphasized to girls than boys in Western society and girls are encouraged to feel affective empathy while boys are encouraged to not, the development of cognitive empathy seems a different skill that may be aided by affective empathy making confusion salient but does not actually play much of a role in success at 2. What 1 looks like in male-typed and female-typed behavior is slightly different but in both cases lacks the complex ontology of others' minds necessary for 2, with female-typed behavior being perhaps more prone to masquerading as 2 and male-typed behavior more prone to being obvious not 2.

Two counter-examples involving my SO in cases where we both chose option 1 and both felt it was the correct decision.

Event + option 1: I became aware I was pregnant with your child right before you left in order to visit your parents over the Christmas and New Year holidays. I kept it from you during all of your vacation because I knew it would screw up your whole stay with your parents and friends. I predicted you'd prefer to deal with it later and in person.

Event + option 1: I (not known to be paranoid about personal health) found a very suspicious lump in a very suspicious place in my body. I immediately went to get it checked, but since I predicted you'd be extremely worried about me I did not tell you about it until after my second check-up months later, so you would not have to worry about losing me to cancer like you recently did one of your parents.

We agree that in both cases these were good decisions, but those are rather extreme cases with a very high emotional cost to the other person compared to breaking a vase or something in the low range of suffering.

My suspicion: Preferring option 2 over option 1 across all applicable cases seems too generalized and wrong. I suspect there is a point of magnitude in emotional cost to another person, after which you might also feel that option 1 would be preferred by both parties - what do you think?

Another real-world-example I'm personally familiar with that feels very related to this one, but without the intention to ever let the emotionally impacted person actually know (i.e. direct lying) is this situation: Dear god-fearing bed-ridden grandma, your poor son died peacefully of a heart attack. (As opposed to slit his wrists in the bathroom while drunk).

These are really great examples - I tried to pick generic examples of events which is why they seem dry of emotion (vase).

Being able to use option 1 depends on your ability to keep something secret without anything feeling off. I am impressed that you seem to report success doing so. But on top of that it also takes the risk that you can successfully model your partner and predict their next move in an unknown situation. (knowing that the risks of failure are catastrophic)

With your cancer event - how could you be sure that the partner would not want to talk about it or be involved in the situation?

I get a lot of closure by being in control of the situation. As much as it's not possible to control cancer - the information can deliver closure or a sense of knowing, or known unknowns.

With your cancer event - how could you be sure that the partner would not want to talk about it or be involved in the situation?

She was under a lot of stress due to an ungodly amount of near simultaneous university exams and under high pressure of failing her course if she didn't ace all of them (luckily she pulled through). She had also lost her father to cancer about a year before this event and was still suffering the effects. In fact, with the death of her father she had lost both her parents and next to her brother I'm her "only real family" and we had been together for about five years at that point.

My prediction of how she would have reacted to the possibility of me having cancer was that she would not have been able to focus on her studies and exams very well, possibly fail an education she had invested years of her life and a huge sum of money into and generally have an unbelievably miserable time during the weeks until anything conclusive about the lump would have been found. I on the other hand was actually fairly fine during the whole affair and didn't even have trouble falling asleep. Either it was going to kill me or not, and if there was something I could do then I'd do whatever it takes, but I was not going to lose sleep over something that to me felt maybe like a 40 - 60% chance of it being cancer or nothing. A rational / stoic mindset about differentiation what you can and what you cannot control in your life and the knowledge to clearly separate those two helped me a lot with that I think.

To me it was not even remotely an option to tell her, I did what I think any good partner should have done in the situation I described above: Suck it up and don't let anything show. When I eventually told her afterwards she did get somewhat mad about it but conceded it was the right decision...

How could I even face myself in the mirror today if I had simply told her about it and she had failed her education as a result of it - especially after it turned out to be nothing (though even if it was cancer I think the same would apply)? I think I did precisely the right thing, what she would have wanted was irrelevant, the only person who really had "a choice" in this scenario was me.

I'm reminded of an incident in Richard Feynman's "What do you care what other people think?" involving his then girlfriend, later wife, Arline and her illness. Her family chose to go with (1) both Feynman and her where rather annoyed when they found out. I don't remember the exact details right now and don't have the book in front of me.

I think you are reading a lot more kindness into 1 than is usually there. Like, if I don't tell you I scratched your car it is because I'm planning on acting like I don't know how it happened, or it is a 'maybe the horse will learn to sing' situation.

Not sure I understand the question. Let's say I broke your vase, or decided to go somewhere else on our anniversary. I have to choose between telling you now or later when the situation is "resolved"? Resolved how?


  1. I withhold the information like, "I didn't want to tell you about the vase because I didn't want to upset you". "I already have tickets to this other thing and I didn't want to tell you because I didn't want to hurt your feelings"
  2. I didn't want you to find out suddenly so I told you right away. I didn't want to hide anything from you so I told you right away.

Later when you find out that the vase is broken. Or later when you find out that I have other plans for the anniversary, rather than fretting about it between now and the anniversary.

Then I pick 2.

I'm happy to do emotional labor in other situations though, when it's more clearly a net positive.