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Lay all your love on me

What would it mean to theorise love as a form of labour? How can we think of our emotional dependency on other people in political terms, rather than as expressions of individual and interior subjectivity?

Alva Gotby13 February 2024

Louise Bourgeois’s The Good Mother, 2003.

In a world characterised by market rationality and endless commodification, emotion has long been seen as a sphere of freedom. Seemingly spontaneous and anarchic, our emotional lives are constructed as external to the sphere of production – the opposite of work.

But as many cultural critics have pointed out, our feelings are organised in particular ways. Raymond Williams’ term ‘structure of feeling’ describes the ways in which emotions are deeply social and political, rather than inhering in the subjects’ authentic personality.[1] Yet there is something intriguing in the persistent notion that feeling should ideally be separated from economic relations. Especially when it comes to love, that most valued feeling, we sense that it is the antithesis of capitalist relations.

Love is supposed to do a lot of work in the world today. Raise healthy and happy children, compensate for draining and stressful work, provide meaning in otherwise empty lives. Family, based on romantic coupledom, is not only a form of sociality but an aspiration, something that can supposedly meet all of our needs and desires. Love is asked to do a lot, but often fails to live up to its promise.

Heterosexual women, in particular, tend do be disappointed by actual coupledom and family relations, finding that their male partners are likely to withdraw emotionally. In her 1975 pamphlet Wages Against Housework, Marxist feminist Silvia Federici writes: ‘They say it is love, we say it is unwaged work’.[2] What would it mean to theorise love as a form of labour? How can we think of our emotional dependency on other people in political terms, rather than as expressions of individual and interior subjectivity? I want to propose the concept of emotional reproduction as a way of addressing how social reproduction is intimately tied up with emotion and intimate affective bonds.

Just as people need food, water and shelter, we all have emotional needs. In order to keep functioning, and importantly, keep working, those needs have to be met in some way. Yet the extent to which such needs are actually met are a question of one’s position within various social relations and hierarchies.

In typical fashion, those at the bottom of social hierarchy often survive on the bare minimum, while those higher up tend to have their need for emotional comfort catered to by others. Most of us can only aspire to having a life in which our emotional needs are fully met – where our work is enjoyable and fulfilling, where we have enough time to relax and enjoy ourselves, and where other people can satisfy our desires for intimacy and emotional warmth. But this aspiration, to an emotional ideal which is never quite fulfilled, has an important as a political function in itself.

I use the term emotional reproduction to name the processes through which emotional needs are constituted, normalised, and satisfied. Emotional reproduction is the maintenance of emotional wellbeing and the reproduction of emotional investment in dominant ideologies. As emotional needs are satisfied only through ideological forms of some kind, these processes are usually one and the same.

In this world, one can often only feel truly comfortable when investing in the dominant ideological framework of society. Starting from the point that there is nothing natural or inevitable in the organisation of our emotional lives, I want to challenge how certain needs and desires are constituted as key to ‘the good life’ and how some people’s emotional satisfaction is seen as more important than that of others.

Feminists have long been aware of how women are often made to sacrifice their own desires in order to attend to the needs of others – in particular husbands, children, and other family members. But we might also think about how particular feminised emotional needs are already constituted as the need to attend to others, and what emotional rewards women might experience from being ‘love’s experts’ – doing the work of tending to and caring for other people. In this way, we can think about the subjective investments that emotional reproduction might require, and how reproductive labour shapes and naturalises certain forms of subjectivity.

Taking emotional needs as historically variable rather than naturally given or expressions of authentic subjective interiority, we might begin to theorise how emotional needs, and the relationships that are meant to satisfy those needs, are historically specific. In the transition to capitalism, with an increasingly marked distinction between work life and private life, the family became strongly associated with emotional satisfaction – our haven in a heartless world.

During the 19th century, the ideological justification for marriage became based on love rather than status and connection. Parents, and mothers in particular, were increasingly expected to form emotionally intensive bonds with their children. Emotion became strongly feminised, as the ideal of (white, bourgeois) femininity entailed creating a sphere of love to which men could return at the end of the day, in which the outside world of depersonalised relations of competition could fade away, and the individual was valued for himself. However, the relations of the home were erased in the bourgeois construction of the implicitly masculine possessive individual, who as CB MacPherson writes is seen ‘as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them’.[1] In this way, the fact that those capacities were dependent on the work of women within the domestic sphere was socially erased.

As bourgeois family norms became more generalised in the early 20th century, these ideals came to impact working class families as well, although in an uneven fashion. While many working class families couldn’t fully live up to these ideals, they nonetheless created an aspirational horizon, where ‘the good life’ of emotional satisfaction was increasingly imagined to reside solely within the domestic sphere.

Family life thus became infused with emotional meanings, and imagined as the sole site of emotional need. At the same time, non-domestic relationships were constructed as less important and even harmful – threatening the sanctity of the nuclear family and the exclusivity of its emotional bonds. Under capitalism, emotional reproduction is a highly privatised affair, in the sense that mainly intimate and exclusive romantic and family relations are seen as leading to an emotionally satisfactory life.

Emotional ties are constructed as a zero-sum game, where the intensity of emotion is marked by the exclusivity of the relation. One loves only one’s own partner, one’s own children. Love appears as a finite resource, which is diminished and devalued when spread outside of its proper domain.

This construction of the domestic sphere closely related to the reformulation of femininity during the Victorian era, where women increasingly were made to aspire to the ideal of ‘the angel of the house’ – a figure who could be a mother for both her husband and her children. While this ideal has been significantly changed over the course of the 20th century, elements of it remain in contemporary constructions of the family. Contemporary femininity is marked by contradictions, as women are increasingly asked to be both feminine nurturers, tending to the emotional needs of others, and possessive individuals who are the owners of their own capacities.

What constitutes ‘family’ has to some extent been made more flexible over recent decades, as unmarried cohabitation, divorce, and lesbian and gay partnership have become increasingly acceptable and women have achieved higher levels of financial independence. Yet the fact that more people get divorced might not suggest that people are less invested in marriage so much as the fact that marriage often fails to live up to its promise of living happily ever after.

Especially women often become aware that the promise of emotional reciprocity within marriage is difficult to realise in practice. Instead they tend to be made responsible for the general wellbeing of the family, and the work of maintaining intimate emotional relations. Because of how capitalism has structured work and family life, making them difficult to combine, one partner within a couple is often made to assume a disproportionate responsibility for the physical and emotional wellbeing of the family, while the other partner spends more time doing waged work.

While many contemporary relationships start out with an ambition of equality and emotional reciprocity, divisions tend to sediment along gendered lines, especially if there are children in the family. Women’s supposedly ‘natural’ skills for emotional management and relationship maintenance is complemented by men’s seeming incapacity for emotion. Within heterosexual relations, men often appear as emotionally deskilled – as too emotionally immature and out of tune with the emotional needs of others to take responsibility for the wellbeing of the family.

Gendered identity is thus closely related to forms of skilled work, even when it is not experienced as such. A key aspect of modern constructions of ‘love’ is that it is understood as the opposite of work. To call the maintenance of people’s relationships and emotional wellbeing ‘work’ seems to imply that those relations are not genuine. The people performing emotionally reproductive work must therefore also perform the additional effort of hiding their activity as work, instead presenting it as the naturally existing emotional state of love – a state of being rather than doing.

But the borders between the private and public worlds of capitalism are always unstable. In many cases, nannies and childcare workers spend more time with children than their parents do. Lonely elderly people are looked after by volunteers and care workers. After the decline of the housewife as a normative work role, there is just not enough time to spend with one’s family members – especially since emerging ideals of ‘intensive mothering’ requires that children are looked after by an adult 24 hours a day.

Emotional care in particular is notoriously work-intensive and often hard to make more effective. We cannot easily meet our emotional needs more quickly, and while technology might increasingly meet our need for entertainment, it has not yet been able to fully replace face-to-face human interaction. It takes time to try to undo some of the effects of the often harmful and emotionally draining conditions under which we work and live.

Many theorists have pointed to the contemporary prevalence of commodified services containing emotional labour – such as care work, therapy, sex work, and customer service. Women are often the people who are called upon to commodify their supposedly natural feminine skill for attending to the emotions of others. In this way, many women who left the domestic sphere for the sphere of waged work found themselves carrying out the same type of work for customers, bosses, and colleagues as they had previously performed for husbands, children, relatives, and friends.

In commodified emotional labour, the feminised workers are often encouraged to create a general sense of niceness and emotional warmth, and suppress any anger or other negative feelings. This might set an ever-higher standard of emotional performance that customers, colleagues, patients and clients expect from service workers. The absence of such performance (frequent smiles, warm voice, friendly body language, soothing words) is often interpreted as rudeness or anger.

Companies want to hire workers who possess ‘naturally’ friendly personalities, yet they tend to codify what type of behaviour is expected from their employees. As emotional labour in customer-oriented roles becomes more common, the need to exploit these capacities increase, so companies now demand that their workers display ‘genuine’ smiles and ‘real’ friendliness.

Yet these services cannot fully compensate for work done by family and friends. The capitalist dichotomy of money and emotion dictates that if we have to pay for it, it’s not real love. We continue to aspire to finding our havens, even as they continue to disappoint us. The strong emotional investments in the very relationships that facilitate the exploitation of women’s unwaged work make it much more difficult to struggle against the current structure of feeling.

That is, the very form of the labour relation, and our attachment to it, obstruct struggle on the terrain of emotional reproduction. This is despite the fact that the current system is not very successful in achieving its supposed aim of creating good feeling – many people are in fact lonely and unhappy. Nonetheless, there is a widespread sense that we all could be happy if we just tried a little harder, or arranged our emotional relationships in a more equitable, reciprocal manner.

Against such emotional reformism, I and many others are seeking to abolish the family as the centre of our emotional lives, thus opening up the possibility of new ways of satisfying our needs, and of creating new needs entirely. While many people have correctly pointed to the possibility of broadening the sphere of those relationships currently reserved for family, I think it is also important to point out that our current notions of family relations are constituted through the exclusion of other forms of bonds.

Family relations cannot simply be made more inclusive. The family as we know it is constructed through its constitutive exclusions – the people we see as non-family. Part of the problem is that some people are entirely excluded from any family bonds, and are therefore likely to suffer a lack of emotionally satisfying relationships unless some other form of sociality takes the place of family. But there is currently very little material, legal or ideological support for alternative organisations of emotional life.

For those who are (partly or fully) included in the family form, emotional neglect and even abuse are so frequent that we cannot understand them as exceptions, but rather patterns inherent in the family form. Perhaps the fact that emotional reproduction is so deeply feminised has something to do with these forms of neglect. It is simply very difficult and tiring for one person to sustain the intimate bonds of a family and tend to the wellbeing of all its members. When this becomes the work of one sole individual, the mother-wife, instances of neglect are likely to occur – as well as feelings of bitterness and resentment, leading to abuse.

Not only people are excluded from the family form. The structure of feeling of the family itself is one of ‘niceness’, perhaps the central bourgeois family value. This means that other feelings are suppressed, and cannot be explored without threatening the continuation of the family. The isolation of feminised emotion workers within their families also means that struggles against the family form tends to be read as purely individual discontent. As Federici suggests, women are ‘seen as nagging bitches, not as workers in struggle’.[1] Bad feelings appear as discontent with one’s own family rather than the family form as such. The normalisation of serial monogamy is an expression of the individualised resistance to the romantic couple and the family. Yet the problems with emotional discontent, neglect and abuse do not lie within the individual couple or the nuclear family themselves, and a change of partner thus cannot solve the contradictions of emotional reproduction as we know it.

Too much of our desires and needs are currently invested in relationships that do not have a capacity to support all those needs. This leads to a situation in which both those who aspire to the ideal of the family, and those who are excluded from it, are likely to suffer from a lack of emotional wellbeing and a scarcity of emotionally satisfying relationships.

Like capitalism more broadly, the current organisation of emotional reproduction cannot meet the needs to which it was purportedly set up to respond. Instead, wellbeing accumulates at the top of social hierarchies, where people are sheltered from the suffering of others, while those permanently excluded from family relations are stigmatised as carriers of bad feelings.

We keep trying to look after one another in a world that is often so hostile to forms of emotional satisfaction outside of the most normative relationships – that is, outside the forms that simultaneously reproduce emotional investment in ideological, material, and legal structures.

The notion of emotional reproduction tries to name some of the ways that we are all dependent on each other, but how such dependencies are currently tied up in structures that continue to harm most people. Only by remaking these structures can we develop systems of care that would reconstitute the ways in which we care for one another, and allow us to reformulate our needs and desires.

– Alva Gotby is the author of They Call it Love: The Politics of Emotional Life.

Enjoy 40% off select titles on love, sex, desire, and more for one week only! Add any three books from this list to your cart and the 40% discount will extend to any Verso title site-wide and will be applied at checkout, up to three per order.

This essay is part of a series of pieces that we are running this Valentine's week, looking at love, desire and relationships at the intersection of capitalism, the state, and politics. See them all here.


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[1] Raymond Williams, Marxism and literature, Oxford University Press, 1977, 132.

[2] Silvia Federici, Revolution at point zero: Housework, reproduction, and feminist struggle, PM Press, 2012, 15.

[3] C.B. Macpherson, The political theory of possessive individualism: Hobbes to Locke, Clarendon Press, 1962, 3.

[4] Silvia Federici, Revolution at point zero: Housework, reproduction, and feminist struggle, PM Press, 2012, 16.


They Call It Love
They Call It Love investigates the work that makes a haven in a heartless world, examining who performs this labour, how it is organised, and how it might change. Drawing on the thought of the femi...

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