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I Said 'No' to Unpaid Emotional Labor By Saying Goodbye to This Word

Doing the lion's share of unpaid work at home? One way is to change perception is to change our language.

by Dana McMahan /
Men are doing more around the house than ever, but women continue to do more home labor and child care than men. sorbetto / Getty Images

There's one four-letter word that's banned in our house. My husband and I have been married for 20 years and while certainly this one little thing isn't the entire secret to eternal marital bliss, banishing one word from our vocabulary has been a game changer.

The word is help.

“Honey, will you help me with the dishes?” is never heard in our house. Neither is “help me with the laundry,” or any other item commonly found on a chore list.

Why? That tiny word packs a wallop of a meaning. Say “help me” with this and you may as well be planting a flag and claiming that task as your responsibility. Is it my job to do laundry? Nope. It's not his either. It's ours. We both wear the clothes, we both take responsibility for that tedious job (except for that brief yet glorious time when we hadn't yet bought a washer and dryer for our new house and dropped it off at wash-and-fold service. Oh, those were the days!)

Words matter, and this word matters big time. While I feel fortunate to have a partner who agrees there's no such thing as default task assignments by gender, it's still far too easy to slip into the trap of assuming a historically female responsibility like laundry. I've even caught myself with the word ready to tumble off my lips as I faced a mountain of things in need of folding (we're both happy to put things in the washer or drier but neither are great at the part that comes next), but I catch myself in time.

Instead, “Will you work with me on this?” I might ask. And likewise if we're engaged in a divide and conquer approach to tidying the house, “will you work on the downstairs while I work upstairs?” he'll ask.

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And since we made a conscious decision to stop saying 'help,' oh, a few years ago, the word grates like fingernails on a chalkboard when I hear it or any of its ilk; there's also “dad's going to babysit,” which, translated, means, “it's not dad's job to take care of his own child; he's helping mom.”

How did the word get so ingrained? And what are we doing about it as a society? Clearly it's time.

A recent essay by Gemma Hartley for Harper's Bazaar struck a nerve when she wrote that “emotional labor is the unpaid job men still don't understand.” Partway through the compelling piece, which leads with her frustration that her husband failed to understand what she wanted – needed – for her Mother's Day gift was for him to do the emotional labor of finding and hiring housecleaning help, she writes:

He said he’d try to do more cleaning around the house to help me out. He restated that all I ever needed to do was ask him for help, but therein lies the problem. I don't want to micromanage housework. I want a partner with equal initiative.Gemma Hartley

Even today, in 2017, the best of husbands are still waiting to be asked for help.

But some are catching on. A blog post titled I don't help my wife and you shouldn't either went viral last month, the idea resonating with readers.

It's no surprise many of us are reacting so strongly to such a little word.

“We know that people have emotional responses to certain words,” relationship expert Terri Orbuch, Ph. D., author of "5 Simple Steps To Take Your Marriage From Good To Great," tells NBC News BETTER. And certainly, “'help' can be an emotionally reactive word.” (It's also so deeply embedded in our lexicon that the therapist herself used it several times during conversation before catching herself.)

Can removing this word from our vocabulary be the answer to relationship woes?

Well, it's a start, says Dr. Orbuch. “One way is to change perception is to change our language.”

The perception at question, of course, is whose responsibility home labor is. Ahh, the never-ending battle.

“When we add up these great time surveys … we know men are doing more than ever,” Dr. Orbuch says. “Nonetheless, women continue to do more in terms of home labor and child care than men. [And] regardless of division of household labor women still do the emotional responsibility … they're still responsible for organizing who does what around the house or saying to partner will you do x, y, or x?”

True. I may not be using the word 'help,' but that's still what I'm asking for when I request my husband's presence in the laundry room.

And it just takes one look at the response to the Harper's Bazaar article or the viral Facebook post to see many people are ready for a change.

So ditching the word help might be one step, but how do we get to the next level, the one where, semantics aside, it's not necessary to ask for anything? Deleting a word won't change anything “unless we also have a discussion about how women feel when [their partner] says help,” says Dr. Orbuch, “and about how women do a disproportionate share of emotional labor.”

“Language is one important thing to change perceptions and improve relationships,” Dr. Orbuch goes on, “but the other, probably more important one, is that we have to share our expectations and beliefs and feelings.”

Deleting a word won't change anything unless we also have a discussion about how women feel when [their partner] says help and about how women do a disproportionate share of emotional labor.

Deleting a word won't change anything unless we also have a discussion about how women feel when [their partner] says help and about how women do a disproportionate share of emotional labor.

And we can get there. The dream of an equitable relationship with both partners shouldering their fair share of the burden isn't just a dream. “We know that when boys grow up in families where they're expected to do around the house or they see fathers doing around the house as much as mothers that they also do, they grow up doing,” Dr. Orbuch says. “Men are not wired genetically not to do home labor or childcare. In different cultures and ethnicities men do more around the house and with childcare.”

So, yes, conversations are in order. But please, let's start with digging in when it comes to that four letter word. We don't need help, we need partners.

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