In most relationships – even modern, progressive ones – one person typically spends more time doing most of the thinking work or what’s known as carrying the mental load.
Mental load is a term that refers to the invisible work done to manage and oversee a household and family.
Known for his research on relationships, Dr. John Gottman discovered a “magic ratio” of positive to negative interactions in every relationship. Five or more expressions of appreciation for every negative interaction keep a relationship strong.
Since the mental load is unseen by others, the time, effort, and energy of managing this ongoing work goes unnoticed and unappreciated. This lack of gratitude can unbalance the “magic ratio,” resulting in a build-up of resentment and frustration.
A study published in the American Sociological Review describes mental load as the responsibility of “anticipating needs, identifying options for filling them, making decisions, and monitoring progress.”
Being responsible for this mental or cognitive load is a lot of work. It entails keeping comprehensive lists of what needs done, all of the various steps to achieve each task, doing or delegating each task, and ensuring completion of each.
In a recent episode of the “We Can Do Hard Things” podcast with Glennon Doyle, mental load was likened to carrying a heavy backpack around that no one else in your family can see.
This running tally of “to do” lists for every aspect of your home and family includes (but isn’t limited to):
- Doctor, dentist, and other wellness appointments
- Planning meals
- Planning vacations
- Extracurricular events for children
- Birthdays, anniversaries, and other special holidays
- Bills and finance
- School and homework
- Taking care of pets
- Household chores and maintenance
- The well-being of elderly parents and family members
- Planning social events and gatherings with friends
Mental load disproportionally affects women. It is taxing and exhausting. Bearing this unseen and unappreciated labor leads to many women feeling resentful. Even though others may be helping with the physical tasks, women are typically burdened with the full cognitive load of running a home and having a family.
Lucia Ciciolla, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Oklahoma State University who has researched the impacts of invisible labor on mothers. Her research shows that mental load negatively impacts the well-being of mothers and decreases relationship satisfaction.
Even if you have a partner who asks, “How can I help?” or says, “You should’ve asked – I would have helped out,” they aren’t relieving your mental load. However, those comments expose that you are viewed as the manager and overseer of all things relating to the household.
What any woman (or anyone) who, as Glennon stated, holds up the sky for her family needs are others to share the mental load.
Most women experience the burden of the mental load, but many may not know that “it’s a thing.” It’s not just you. You are not alone in feeling the resentment, exhaustion, and angry overwhelm of bearing this invisible backpack.
If this is true – that women are just now discovering that mental load is a burden most of us bear – then men aren’t privy to this female phenomenon either.
So, how do we hand off some of the weight of that invisible backpack we’ve been lugging around? How do we gain a partner who takes equal initiative without being asked?
Educate your partner about the mental load concept
It will probably take some time and patience for your significant other to fully grasp that you’ve been carrying an unseen heavy load.
Start by mentioning that you recently learned about what’s called the mental load. Let your partner know it’s something they should also understand.
Then, share the comic titled You Should’ve Asked by artist EMMA.
Once they’ve read it, send them a link to the article, Women aren’t nags, we’re just fed up by Gemma Hartley.
Ask your partner to keep an open mind while reading it. It’s a detailed unveiling and an eye-opening, behind-the-curtains perspective.
Then, request that you and your partner sit down and discuss your mental load and what it looks like by sharing examples.
Finally, request that your partner help carry some of that mental load.
You may need to consider in advance some of the “items in the backpack” that you want to hand off.
Say you want your partner, who’s quite the cook, to take over meal planning and lunch prep, and they agree. Run through with them what that “mental load” entails, such as:
- Deciding and planning out lunches and dinners for the family for the week.
- Taking inventory of what food you have in the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer.
- Making a list of what items are needed.
- Going grocery shopping.
Handing off this household process is not simply your partner going to the market with the list you’ve created. Instead, it’s taking on all aspects and making sure they happen.
When handing over some of your mental load, recognize that your partner may find alternate ways of managing the process. In fact, you can bet that their way will not be exactly like your way.
But that’s part of the deal of the unburdening process: letting go.
Let them figure it out or ask for help if they need it (or even stumble.) Be patient as you both navigate this new frontier of you not shouldering all the work and your partner realizing how much you’ve been doing for so long (and how hard it is!)
Ultimately, you’ll each have smaller backpacks. The mental load will still be there but will be shared. It will be visible, and you can each appreciate the work the other person puts into making your home and family function.