One of the more common conflicts I hear about in my office as a relationship therapist is “The One About the Mental Load.” It goes like this:

My client, let’s call her Rachel, sits across from me and shares about a fight last week with her husband, let’s call him Ross. She explains that once again, she found herself doing almost all of the party planning— organizing, decorating, and hosting—for their daughter Emma’s 10th birthday party. 

When Rachel expressed her frustration to Ross, he admitted that he didn’t realize she needed him to step in. Instead of being upset with him, Ross suggested that Rachel just ask for help. He even made the naive request: “Just make me a list next time!”

This might seem like a neutral enough request on the surface, but it ignited Rachel’s built-up contempt at that moment and only added fuel to the fire: “You’re a parent too, Ross, not a child! I shouldn’t have to give you a list. You should be able to look away from your own selfish needs once in a while and notice all of the many things around us that need to get done.” 

What is the mental load?

Let’s unpack why this conflict escalated so quickly and delve into the specific dynamic Rachel found so frustrating: the mental load. The mental load is the invisible mental and emotional burden that includes the cognitive tasks, planning, and emotional labor required to keep a household and family functioning smoothly.

Elizabeth Earnshaw, licensed marriage and family therapist and author, describes the mental load as meaning “‘always having to remember.” Partners may help with chores and errands, but they often don’t have to remember everything that needs to be done, like buying new soccer shoes for their teenager, scheduling a plumber, or restocking the Bluey Band-Aids. This can create a dynamic where one partner feels like the manager and the other like the helper. 

For many women in straight relationships, the mental load is a burden that often goes unnoticed by their significant other. A 2022 study conducted by Harvard University revealed that women tend to shoulder the majority of cognitive household labor, a whopping 70 percent, whereas men typically assume responsibility for 30 percent. This 40 percent gap is double that of the gender gap observed for physical household labor. When you’re more aware unequal distribution of mental workload in your household, you can make better decisions about how to share responsibilities more fairly and prevent unnecessary conflict, resentment, and disconnection.

What are some examples of the mental load?

The mental load involves remembering things like doctors’ appointments, researching things like which schools we should send our kids to, noticing things like when the toilet paper is running low, delegating things like scheduling the housekeeper to come before having company over or reminding the kids to clean their rooms. The mental load also involves a category coined by author of Fair Play and mental-load expert Eve Rodsky called Magic. Mental load “Magic” involves prioritizing and organizing special memories.

For example, this might involve putting together Easter baskets and an egg hunt, planning anniversary dates, or keeping up an Elf on the Shelf tradition during the holiday season.

What does the mental load feel like?

For many, the mental load can feel overwhelming, isolating, and deeply unfair, contributing to the build-up of resentment and disconnection. 

We asked a few clients to describe what the mental load feels like to them:

  • “I’m terrified of getting sick because when I’m out of commission, our household completely falls apart.”
  • “I’m mentally and physically exhausted from constantly planning schedules and anticipating every imaginable contingency. When I talk to my partner about it, he just tells me I should quit my job. He doesn’t get me or this situation at all.”
  • “I’m beyond frustrated that I have to ask my husband again and again to get on the same page. I’ve tried everything I can think of to include him on school emails and on our calendar of events, but it’s like he just lives in a constant state of confusion or apathy when it comes to our family’s to-do’s.”
  • “My partner seems empathetic to the mental burden on me and other moms but when it comes down to stepping up and taking things off my plate, he’s clueless! It’s easier to just keep doing it all myself than to hold his hand throughout the whole task.” 

Many clients who ask their partner for help and support with their mental load are often met with confusion, resistance, or defensiveness. Or, like in Rachel and Ross’s example, many women are doubly tasked on their mental load to create a list explaining in great detail exactly what needs to be done.

To put it succinctly, an unchecked, uncared-for mental load can feel rage-inducing.

What contributes to the mental load dynamic? 

If you’ve personally experienced the burden of the mental load in your relationship, you may have asked yourself, “Does my partner intentionally avoid these tasks? Do they truly not know what needs to get done? Or do they actually not notice the mountain of work that goes into keeping the household running until I point it out?”

Dr. Tracy Dalgleish, a clinical psychologist and author, shares her take on why men struggle to understand their partner’s mental load. She explains that it often isn’t an intentional weaponizing of incompetence, but instead closer to an automatic default due to:

  • Deep socialization of gender norms and cultural conditioning
  • Avoidance as a coping mechanism
  • Core feelings of shame and fear of falling short of expectations

To avoid burnout, resentment, and disconnection in your relationship, both partners must share the mental load equally. By acknowledging and addressing the mental load head-on, you and your partner can foster a deeper understanding and a more sustainable division of labor. 

How to delegate some of your mental load 

Acknowledge the imbalance to your partner outside of a stressful moment with a soft start-up:

Rachel: “Hey, Ross, I’ve been feeling disconnected lately because our schedules have been all over the place, and I think we need to chat about it. I feel like I’ve been carrying a huge load at home, and it’s been really stressing me out. I feel like I don’t have time to take care of myself properly. Can we talk about this?”

It’s also essential to get comfortable with your partner accomplishing new-to-them tasks differently than you. They will have a learning curve, so try to avoid taking over or correcting them. Give them space to learn and build confidence in their new responsibilities.

How to take on more of your partner’s mental load

Social influences, societal norms, and family experiences may have caused you to detach emotionally and live on autopilot, making it easy to overlook important tasks. It’s crucial for you to learn how to tune into your emotional and physiological states, enabling you to be more aware of your partner and your surroundings. 

Shame also may hinder your ability to engage with this often cyclical issue in your relationship, as societal expectations can make some feel inadequate or reluctant to seek help. To overcome feelings of shame, focus on staying emotionally grounded and separate your self-esteem from your partner’s expectations. This will help you feel more engaged and present as you work together to improve your relationship.

4 steps to fairly distribute the mental load with your partner 

Step 1: Get organized

Consider using a system like Eve Rodsky’s in Fair Play. In her book, she organizes a discussion for outlining and dividing more equitably all the tasks and responsibilities that keep your household running.

Together, you can use her card deck system to build and divide your deck of cards (responsibilities) based on your relationships’ needs and values. Rodsky’s card categories include:

  • Home: household management tasks like dishes and laundry
  • Out: tasks outside of the home like automobile care, and kids’ extracurricular activities
  • Caregiving: people management tasks like kids’ bedtime routine and pets’ vet appointments
  • Magic: tasks that make life special, like helping your kids learn to ride a bike or sending birthday and holiday cards to loved ones
  • Wild: unplanned-for tasks like plumbing issues, unexpected deaths, or moving 

Step 2: Take responsibility

Assign specific cards (roles and tasks) to each partner, considering each of your strengths, preferences, availability, and capabilities. When you clearly define who is responsible for what, you can reduce ambiguity and prevent tasks from falling through the cracks.

Research shows that you don’t necessarily need to have all tasks divided completely equally, but more that you each perceive it as equal. Every relationship is different, with unique needs, dynamics, and resources. Let the division work for you, whatever that looks like.

Remember to be open, accepting, and fair with the daily grind tasks like dishes, diapers, laundry, and waking up in the middle of the night with your kids.

Step 3: Own your tasks

When you have taken responsibility for a card (role or task), you are responsible from the beginning to end of the task: conception, planning, and execution. Be thoughtful about the creativity, research, and all the planning required for a thorough execution of your task.

Ensure you and your partner agree on the minimum standard of care for each task to avoid misunderstandings and unrealized expectations. For example, one partner’s minimum standard of care regarding dishwashing might be loading and running the dishwasher every night. For another partner, dishes in the sink for a day or two may not bother them. 

Step 4: Be respectful and flexible

When you get stuck in disagreements about how a task is being executed, avoid getting caught in a perspective battle. Instead, pause to share with your partner why a certain standard of care is so important to you, and make sure to listen to their reasons as well. Then, try moving toward flexibility or compromise.

If you’re still getting stuck, try alternating certain daily grind cards every other week or every other month. 

Are you ready to take on the mental load in a new way?

Understanding the nuances of the mental load is crucial for fostering equitable partnerships. Open communication, empathy, and a willingness to adapt are essential to navigating this complex dynamic. Embracing systems like Eve Rodsky’s Fair Play and committing to a fair division of tasks, you can work towards a more harmonious and sustainable relationship.

It’s not just about completing chores—it’s about recognizing and valuing each partner’s contributions and ultimately strengthening the foundation of your connection. 

Remember, you’re not assigning blame or keeping score—it’s about supporting each other and sharing the load. The mental load isn’t going away soon, so let’s keep learning how to come together to create a fair relationship so that your family can thrive. 

If you’d like help learning how to navigate the mental load in your relationship, individual therapy can help. We have availability for in-person sessions at our Charlotte, NC office or virtually for residents of NC and SC. 

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