Mental load: What it is and how to explain it to your partner

March 16,2021

Pop quiz! 

Name 10 things that your household needs from Amazon right now. 

If you can easily rattle off a list, it’s likely that you’re carrying a lot of mental load in your relationship.

Every time we talk about mental load on Instagram, our DMs go absolutely nuts because a lot of people don’t even realize it’s “a thing” or they’ve never heard the term “mental load” before. (It’s also sometimes referred to as “worry work” or “cognitive labor.”)

Mental load refers to the invisible labor that goes into running a household and family. 

There’s some household labor that’s visible, like taking out the trash. 

And some that’s invisible, like remembering that you need to buy new trashbags the next time you go to the drugstore.  

When you’re the one who carries the mental load, you have a never-ending to-do list in your head that you’re always adding to. 

You’re constantly doing complex mental gymnastics – anticipating everyone’s needs, figuring out who needs to do what and when, making a game plan and assigning tasks, and ensuring sure things get done. (Let’s be honest: you usually just do everything yourself to make sure it gets done.)

Your brain is a warehouse for unending amounts of information about every little detail of your household and family. 

You remember that the laundry needs to be done on Friday this week because you’ll be too busy on Saturday. You remember that the kids hate the strawberry fruit snacks that are on sale at Whole Foods.

You could write a manual in your head of exactly how to run your household. You could pass that manual off to a total stranger, and they would be able to run things smoothly, because you’d be able to provide them with such detailed instructions.

We all carry some amount of mental load, but the frustrating reality is that women in particular have been socialized to carry the mental load. 

Even if you rationally don’t want to have stereotypical gender roles in your relationship, it’s still far too easy as a woman to take on the mental load. This definitely happens in Xander and my relationship! 

The bottom line is this…

Mental load is exhausting. 

It literally feels like you’re moving through your day with a 400-pound gorilla on your back. (Yes, I Googled how much an average gorilla weighs!)

You feel like you can never think straight because you have so much on your mind. You can never rest because there’s always so much to do. You can never have a moment to yourself because there are so many other needs to take care of. 

And it feels even worse if you’re doing all of this work, but your partner is blissfully unaware of it. 

The “mental” part of mental load is what makes it so dangerous; your partner literally can’t directly see everything you’re doing. 

In fact, if you do a “good job” with your mental load, your partner will never see it! It will just look like your household functions perfectly and effortlessly on its own!

Most people don’t want to carry so much mental load, but they don’t know any other way of functioning. 

But today I want to show you a way out of this trap. 

I want to show you how you can relax, prioritize yourself more, and put down some of that weight! 

First, your partner needs to understand mental load and see how much you’re carrying. 

And you need to know how much your partner is carrying too! 

One of the other tough things about mental load is that we can get so frustrated and resentful about our partner not seeing the load that we’re carrying, that we neglect to see and appreciate the load they’re carrying. 

Here’s how to explain mental load to your partner:

Step 1

Read this email with them, so they can understand what mental load is too! 

Step 2

Give them specific examples from your own life, so they can see mental load in action. 

For example, “When I read this email, I realized that one of the ways I carry mental load is by keeping track of all of the kids’ homework assignments. I think I’ve somehow wound up taking on responsibility for them doing everything properly and on time.”

Step 3

Tell them what it feels like for you to be carrying that load. 

Be careful with your words here! If you’ve been carrying the majority of the mental load in your relationship, it’s likely you have some amount of resentment towards your partner. But remember that your partner may be completely unaware of what “mental load” even means, or how you’ve been carrying it!

It’s understandable if there’s a part of you that wants to blurt out, “It’s so fucking unfair that I’m the one who manages EVERYTHING!” 

Instead, try something like, “I never realized how much responsibility I’ve taken on, without us actually agreeing that that would be the dynamic between the two of us. I’m glad I now understand what ‘mental load’ means, and I’m hopeful we can have a conversation about a healthier way for us to manage it as a team.” 

Step 4

Ask your partner to share with you the mental load that they’re carrying. 

Even if you feel like you carry the vast majority of the mental load, your partner is definitely carrying some too. 

Mental load has a way of making partners feel like opponents, but don’t let it do that to you! 

Say something like, “I’m curious to know the weight that you carry for us/our family. Is there anything you do that you think I don’t see?”

Step 5

Make a plan for how you want to split the load in a way that feels fair to you both. 

This is a complex process! So complex, in fact, that we’re working on a YouTube video where we go more in-depth on our specific advice for dividing mental load.

But I wanted to share this step now so you and your partner can start thinking about ways to share the load more evenly. 

Check out our Mental Load Workbook!

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HI THERE!

I'm Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist and writer specializing in helping you have more fun in the bedroom.

I have bachelor’s degrees in human sexuality and sociology from Brown University, and a master’s degree in counseling psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. I’m also a licensed psychotherapist. I’ve been working in the sex therapy field since 2002 and have been featured by The New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, and many more.

If you’re interested in improving your sex life, you can work with me via my online courses or personal coaching sessions. I look forward to supporting you in creating the sex life you’ve always wanted!