WRITTEN BY Felicia Kashevaroff

What is the Mental Load? A Guide to Explain It to Your Partner in 6 Steps

The Mental Load is a term that comes up again and again in my work with couples who want to build balanced, equal partnerships. Managing the mental load is one of the most common areas where many, many couples start to get off track. 

what is the mental load?
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It’s really hard to get your partner to agree to make changes when they don’t understand what you’re talking about. So, what is the mental load and how do you explain it to your partner? Here are six steps to help you and your partner get on the same page.

Hate Reading it all? Watch Felicia Deep Dive into Mental Load in Guide to Explain it to you Partner

1. What is the Mental Load?

A study in the American Sociological Review defines the mental load as “anticipating needs, identifying options for filling them, making decisions, and monitoring progress.” In a nutshell, this means, seeing an issue, figuring how to address the issue, and then addressing the issue.

But we can dig even further into what the mental load is by splitting it into two distinct areas; cognitive labor and emotional labor. 

Cognitive Labor means all of the things we think about that need to be done, scheduling doctors appointments, following up on paperwork, remembering what you have in the fridge, meal planning, etc.

Emotional labor is tending to the emotional well being of your child, partner, friends or family. This might mean noticing if your partner’s energy is off, or if they are withdrawn. It might be reflecting on whether your baby is getting enough tummy time, or too much screen time and then making adjustments to meet their anticipated needs.

2. The Mental Load is a Necessary Part of Being an Adult

Part of becoming an adult is moving away from having your parents anticipate your needs and meet them, to anticipating your own needs and meeting them yourself. This is commonly referred to as executive functioning, which is defined as the ability to initiate and stop actions, to monitor and change behavior as needed, and to plan future behavior when faced with novel tasks and situations. Pretty similar to the definition of what the mental load is, right?

Even though the mental load is often thought of in relation to gender dynamics, the truth is that we ALL have a mental load. The mental load we all experience is challenging enough in these difficult times and if you’re neurodivergent, you may have extra challenges with your personal mental load.

However, when you add more people to your care like children, pets or extended family members, you add much more complexity to the management of the mental load. If both partners in a relationship don’t pick up their share of the mental load, it becomes a huge burden on one partner, leading to anger and resentment.

3. The Mental Load is Hard to Share

The physical work of caring for a household and a family is well understood, because it’s visible. It’s easy to see if the dishes have been washed, or the laundry has been done, and it’s easier to share those tasks more equitably because the work is tangible. That doesn’t mean that couples don’t need help balancing those chores, but it’s easier to SEE when the work has been done.

On the other hand, what is it about the mental load that makes it an area where many couples struggle to find balance? There are three factors that contribute to how difficult it is to understand what is the mental load.

  1. It’s invisible, meaning the work takes place internally, so it can’t be observed as it’s happening
  2. It doesn’t have boundaries. The worry and planning follow you everywhere, spilling over into work, rest, and leisure time. 
  3. It is never-ending because the work of caring for ourselves and loved ones is constant.

4. The Mental Load Will Ruin Your Relationship If Not Addressed

This one comes from my own personal experience and the experience of millions of couples. An unbalanced relationship is one of the most toxic influences on relationship health and there are lots of statistics to back this up.

  • We’ve all heard of the approximately 50% divorce rate in the US, but did you know that another 10% of married permanently separate and never divorce, and another 7% live with a chronically unhappy marriage? That means that only ⅓ of marriages are happy and healthy.
  • Women initiate 70-80% of divorces, typically because they have been carrying too much of the mental load for too long and their partner doesn’t think change is important, or is simply unwilling to help carry the load.
  • Marital satisfaction takes a huge hit when couples become parents. A number of longitudinal studies have shown declines in relationship satisfaction following birth. One study showed a “precipitous” drop in 70% of couples. Another study showed that almost one-third of partners fall into the clinical range of marital distress during the first 18 months after birth.
  • Researchers at the University of Melbourne published the results of two studies of women who were partnered with men and had children. The researchers found that performing a large proportion of household labor was associated with significantly lower sexual desire for a partner.

5. All Genders are Equally Capable of CarryingThe Mental Load

There is no biological difference in the ability to manage the mental load. Men, women, and gender non-conforming folks are all equally capable of anticipating needs, providing quality care and emotional support. 

But this requires practice! The reason it SEEMS that women are better at managing the mental load is typically because they are spending more hours doing it. When men have equal opportunities to provide care, they are equally capable. This means that in a heterosexual relationship, women need to step back to allow their partners to take on equal responsibility and the male partner needs to step up fully, without seeking guidance and support for daily, routine activities.

6. The Mental Load Must Be Shared Equitably to Have an Equal Partnership

If you want to have an equal partnership, you must find a way to balance the mental load equitably. 

The good news is that a balanced relationship has tons of amazing benefits, including: 

  • A more harmonious home life. When both partner contribute, your life runs more smoothly and there are less pain points that can lead to conflict.
  • No manager/employee dynamic. When both partners are capable and empowered to do necessary tasks, you see each other as equals, which is more mature and satisfying for each of you.
  • Enhanced communication and understanding of one another. Sharing what the mental load is with each other increases your opportunities for healthy communication and allows you to understand your partner’s strengths and weaknesses better.
  • Better intimacy and connection. Studies show that egalitarian couples have better and more satisfying sex lives.

But what do you do if your partner isn’t receptive, even though you’ve clearly shared what the mental load is to with your partner?

I often have people come to me, eager to share the what is the mental load of caring for their household and their family. Typically when clients come to me, they know the dynamic in their relationship is unsustainable, but they don’t know how to change it. They’re desperate for their partner to hear their frustration, see the impact of their work, and engage with them to do things differently.

When I ask what is holding them back from sharing the mental load, I usually hear some variation on the following: My partner would never agree to this. They don’t think this is a problem. They already think they’re doing enough, they think I’m being unreasonable, this is temporary because the kids are little.

Well, I’m here from the future to tell you that this issue does not resolve itself. An unbalanced relationship does not just get better without an intentional intervention. 

To help couples get to the starting line, I created a mini-course to using evidence-based tools to give you everything you need to get clear on why change is important, to communicate that effectively to your partner, and to set you up to take action to make real, tangible change in your relationship. 

This course is inexpensive and takes under an hour to complete. Here’s what you can expect:

In the first lesson, you’ll explore your personal reasons for wanting change. It’s not just about feeling overwhelmed; it’s about seeking a partnership where both parties contribute equally. You’ll learn to articulate these reasons compellingly, creating a vision that highlights the benefits of sharing the mental load.

In the second lesson I’ll equip you with exceptional communication skills so that you can clearly articulate what is the mental load and why it’s important to share it. This lesson equips you with the skills to express your needs clearly and empathetically. You’ll practice active listening to ensure mutual understanding and respect, preparing you to handle common objections and misunderstandings.

The final lesson offers a roadmap to transforming your relationship. I’ll outline all of the tools available to achieve a more balanced partnership, so that you and your partner can move straight from understanding to action. 

Enrolling in the mini-course, How to Get Your Partner On Board for a More Balanced Relationship, is a proactive step towards addressing what is the mental load in your relationship. It’s an investment in your partnership’s future, laying the groundwork for a more balanced, harmonious, and fulfilling life together. Let me know how it goes!