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The psychological toll of emotion work

Emotion Work Exacts a Psychological Toll on the Emotion Worker in Both Same-Sex and Different-Sex Marriages, But the Toll is Highest When the Spouse is a Depressed Man

Debra Umberson, Mieke B. Thomeer, Amanda M. Pollitt, and Sara E. Mernitz

Emotion work, or devoting effort toward assessing and managing another person’s emotional needs to support their emotional well-being, is a common dynamic in intimate relationships that helps foster intimacy and closeness between spouses. 

Emotion work is generally understood to benefit the well-being of the recipient. However, providing emotion work can be stressful and might undermine the emotion worker’s psychological well-being. Previous research on different-sex couples suggests that emotion work is a gendered process in which women provide more emotion work than men and that women are more concerned with the importance of emotion work within their relationship. For these reasons, emotion work may more strongly undermine psychological well-being for women than for men. Finally, prior research also suggests that when a spouse has depressive symptoms, emotion work may be more stressful.

This brief reports on a recent research study [1] which explored the psychological toll of emotion work in contexts often overlooked in family studies, namely same-sex compared with different-sex marriages and marriages in which a spouse has depressive symptoms. 

The authors analyze daily experiences data—based on questionnaires completed daily for 10 days—from both spouses in same-sex and different-sex marriages (n = 756 cisgender women and men, 378 married couples). Using these data, the authors employ a gender-as-relational perspective in which gendered relationship dynamics reflect one’s own gender in relation to whether one is interacting with a woman or a man. They do so to explore how the association between emotion work and psychological well-being may differ for women and men in same-sex compared with different-sex marriages and to address how having a spouse with elevated depressive symptoms may affect this association.

Key Findings

  • Emotion work appears to negatively affect the worker’s own psychological well-being.
  • The provision of emotion work, in general, is associated with lower levels of well-being for both women and men and in same-sex compared with different-sex marriages, with two important exceptions.
    • The provision of emotion work may be more psychologically taxing when one’s partner is a man, perhaps because men are less likely to be aware of, or to reciprocate, emotion work exchanges.
    • The well-being of women married to women, compared with women married to men, seems to be less negatively affected by emotion work.
  • Whether the emotion worker is in a same-sex or a different-sex marriage, the provision of emotion work seems to undermine psychological well-being more when the spouse:
    • has elevated depressive symptoms or
    • is a man rather than a woman. See figure below.
  • In sum, not only is it more challenging to provide emotion work to a spouse with elevated depressive symptoms or to provide emotion work to a spouse who is a man, it is particularly more challenging when that spouse is a man with elevated depressive symptoms.
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Policy Implications

These findings imply that a more nuanced understanding of the marital dynamics that influence the psychological well-being of both partners in a relationship—with potentially different costs and benefits for women and men in same- and different-sex relationships—is needed to ground effective policies and interventions to support couples and their mental health. The strain of emotion work likely takes a toll on marital quality as well as the health behaviors and health of both partners. Moreover, given that emotion work is more taxing if it is given to a male spouse who has depressive symptoms, it is important for mental health professionals to pay more attention to the marital context when treating both the providers and recipients of emotion work.


[1] Umberson, D., Thomeer, M.B., Pollitt, A.M & Mernitz, S.E. (2020). The psychological toll of emotion work in same-sex and different-sex marital dyads. Journal of Marriage and Family, 82, 1141-1158. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12686

Suggested Citation

Umberson, D., Thomeer, M.B., Pollitt, A.M & Mernitz, S.E. (2020). Emotion work exacts a psychological toll on the emotion worker in both same-sex and different-sex marriages, but the toll is highest when the spouse is a depressed man. PRC Research Brief5(7). DOI: 10.26153/tsw/9563.

About the Authors

Debra Umberson (umberson@prc.utexas.edu) is a professor of sociology; Christine and Stanley E. Adams, Jr. Centennial Professorship in Liberal Arts; and director of the Population Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin; Mieke Beth Thomeer is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham; at the time of publication Sara Mernitz and Amanda Pollitt were NICHD postdoctoral fellows at the Population Research Center. Amanda Pollitt is now an assistant professor in the department of health sciences at Northern Arizona University. 


This research was supported by grant R21AG044585 from the National Institute on Aging (awarded to Umberson) and grant P2CHD042849, Population Research Center, and T32HD007081, Training Program in Population Studies, both awarded to the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. This study was also funded in part by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism grant number F32AA025814 (awarded to Pollitt). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health