Have you ever noticed that there’s something almost invisible and intangible that interferes with our ability to connect with our spouses sometimes? According to a lot of research, it affects women more than men. It’s about the mental load we carry, how our minds are constantly buzzing with all the things that need to get done. Couples that develop the skill of “bearing one another’s burdens so that they may be light” find more room to connect and find greater happiness in their relationships. So exactly what is the mental load, and how can we learn to share it with our spouse? And how can this help our relationship grow in every aspect?
What is the Mental Load?
The mental load is something that many women are very familiar with. This is the running to do list that typically women carry around with them all the time. One of the key defining features of the mental load is that it is invisible, it is hard to define. Have you ever been talking to your partner and asked her what was stressing her out and she replied with “it’s just all the things!”? “All the things” are the mental load. It’s the researching, finding out what the least toxic body wash is or what preschool is best for your kids. It’s the managing of the social calendars and the planning of your life and vacations. It’s the capturing of moments or the emotional worry work for your family. The mental load is all of these things that tend to occur on the inside of the mind that weigh her down and take up a ton of space and energy.
Realizing what is taking up this space and energy in your life is extremely helpful to learning to share your mental load. In psychology, this is called insight. A lot of women have a hard time asserting what they need and asking for the help that they need when it comes to the mental load. Women are natural caretakers, and that is a wonderful thing! We may do all the grocery shopping, make all the meals, and do all of the cleaning as we fall into gender roles that we’ve been taught and also because we love our spouse so much. But in years to come, we may become angry that we are the only ones doing the dishes. We do this all the time! This can be called “piling on precedence”, and it is something that adds greatly to our mental load.
How to Share the Load
Understanding the process of piling on precedence is beneficial for those moments you and your spouse argue over who does the dishes or manages the calendar. Challenge yourself to ask for help. A lot of women will fight back and will say “I shouldn’t have to ask for help, he should know that I need it.” However, if you have piled on all of these things over the years without talking about them, they’ve been invisibly assumed by you, then it is out of his awareness. We have to rebrand asking as involving, instructing, teaching, and bringing them back into a better distribution of responsibilities in the home.
If you aren’t requiring or asking your spouse to do things, they aren’t going to learn how to do these things. It’s not your fault, but it’s not all his fault either. If you lay out how things go and what you do to get things going, then your spouse can join in and be an equal partner. If you imagine a continuum, on one side you have a resistant partner. On the other side, you have the initiative taker that notices things and just gets them done. Most couples have someone in the middle. This person is passive and agreeable. They are willing to do things, they just have to be told what to do. Women typically don’t like this, but this is a good thing! They are willing, they just need to be nudged towards being more initiative taking. When we view our partners as resistance when they are not, we end up facilitating a tone in our relationship that is not conducive to them stepping up more and taking on more responsibilities.
It’s difficult at times to say no to things that may not have priority in the moment, but it will be so beneficial. Working hard to consciously say yes and no to different household items will help you lift your mental load. You will need to work to be mindful of what you are saying yes to and what you are saying no to all the time. We have to-do lists, but now we may need some to-stop lists to help us through this!
For the Husbands
What about for those husbands who have been reading so far and feel like they really want to help her with the mental load? You may know there is something going on, but since the mental load is invisible, it is hard to know where to go and what to do to help take initiative to lighten your wife’s mental load. One thing that husbands tend to do to try to help that isn’t helpful for women, is say “just tell me what to do!” This isn’t something women tend to find very beneficial. A much better way to have this conversation is saying something along the lines of “I’ve noticed you have a lot on your plate. I don’t always know what to do to help you, but I really want to help you. Can you give me a couple of things that I will take on as my responsibility?” That question hits on so many levels. First, you will take something off of her plate which will make a huge difference in her life. Second, you will be showing that you understand her world which she often feels very alone in. This will be incredibly meaningful to her.
The easiest question to ask to help in sharing this load is “tell me what your day looks like tomorrow”. Then you can see what you can do to help take something off of her plate to lighten her mental load. There may be a lot of things that you can’t do, they are things she needs to do. But perhaps you will be able to help empty the dishwasher, or make breakfast for the kids before school. There will be seemingly small things you can do to help that will mean the world to your wife.
Sharing the Load in the Bedroom
In the 50’s, they started looking at research on relationship satisfaction after kids. A lot of it shows that relationship satisfaction goes down after having kids. Now, realize that there are many other factors that increase after having kids, so take this all into consideration. However, when you look at men versus women, you find that satisfaction is related to different things. For women after having kids, you find that the decline is related to increase in responsibilities (what we’ve been talking about), change in roles, and loss of freedom. For men, it is related to increased stress around providing financially and change in their sexual relationship. In relationships, things all start to flow together.
In your sexual relationship, you have a dual control model. Brakes and accelerators. In women, the brakes are much stronger, and your responsibilities and how much is going on in your mind, really strengthens your brakes. Helping her load be lighter will help her be able to tune in to what she is wanting and even have space in her mind for a sexual relationship. It is hard to have sex when you are resentful and feeling things are unfair. So splitting up these responsibilities fairly will make a huge difference in her ability to open up sexually and enjoy the sexual experience you are creating together.
How to Have the Hard Conversations
Asking is a little thing. It is a small shift. You can ask in the moment when you’re frustrated cleaning up, but you have to be careful when doing that. If you are going to ask in the moment, you need to be sure to ask in a way that will be received well. An example of this is saying “woo, I’m exhausted. I made dinner and did all of these things, would you mind taking over the dishes?” Another way to have this conversation is asking in anticipation. An example of this is “hey, tomorrow is a busy morning. I would really appreciate it if you would pack lunches for the kids so I don’t have one more thing to worry about it.” This is a type of pre-planning to help lift the load on a specific day.
If you are truly struggling with load distribution in your marriage, this can be a very big issue for you, that will take more than one or two simple conversations to work through. One way to figure out how you are carrying this burden and where in your life it is affecting you is to carry around a little pad of paper and pen for a couple of weeks and write down all the things you are doing. You might not realize that you are folding the throw blankets 30 times a day! There are a lot of little moments. Feeding the dogs, giving him his medicine, calling the dentist. Then come together and look at the lists! Find a balance. It doesn’t need to be equal in the tasks at the home, it simply needs to feel fair for your home life. Look at the list and think “what are things we like to do? What are we good at?” And use that to divide up your household responsibilities fairly.
Consider things like what can you hire out? For instance, you can order groceries online. Most of the time you only have to pay a tip. Think, is a tip worth not having to take the kids to the store? Also, think about what things you can take off of your plate forever or for a season. If you are taking it off only for a season, decide who will take it on when it comes back into play and when you want it to be a thing again in your marriage. Scheduling out items to do in your marriage will really help lift the mental load when everything has a time and assigned person.
Combatting these things and having these conversations takes courage. Be brave with your conversations and lean into that vulnerability. You will hopefully see positive changes come about in your relationship as you work to apply what we have been talking about today.
We are so glad we had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Morgan Cutlip, a psychologist who specializes in relationships and sharing the mental load this week and learn some new techniques to help us share this load in our relationships. If you enjoyed what you learned here today, go listen to our podcast episode with her here for more tips and tricks to share your mental load! You can also find Dr. Morgan Cutlip on Instagram @mylovethinks or at her website at www.mylovethinks.com. Now go and Get Your Marriage On!