Ever feel exhausted by the sheer number of responsibilities on your plate? After a full day of work, you have to find time for chores, exercise, meal planning, grocery shopping, social activities, picking up prescriptions, making vet appointments, and more.
The demands of day-to-day life can be draining enough when you only have yourself to consider. Add in a partner or kids, and you might find yourself overwhelmed by the weight of burden.
The mental load, also called cognitive labor, refers to the invisible, non-tangible tasks involved in running a household.
One bonus commonly associated with live-in romantic relationships is a division of labor. Partners might divvy up duties to share the load, so to speak.
But if one partner has to constantly remind the other to uphold their end of the bargain, make to-do lists for them, or maintain a chore chart, that’s still work.
When your burden goes unshared and the issue isn’t addressed, it can become an elephant-sized point of contention in your relationship — one that may leave you frustrated, distressed, and on the edge of burnout.
Here’s what to know about the mental load — and how to bring it up with your partner.
Is it the same thing as emotional labor?
You might have heard the mental load referred to as emotional labor. Some people use these terms interchangeably, but there are a few important distinctions.
Dr. Arlie Hochschild introduced the concept of emotional labor in 1983. She used this term to describe the way people regulate emotional expressions in the workplace, typically to put clients and customers at ease.
Some examples of emotional labor are:
- retail workers and baristas smiling and making cheerful small talk throughout their shifts, even if they just broke up with their partner, had a fight with their best friend, or lost their dog
- teachers remaining calm and friendly, even as parents berate them or accuse them of neglecting their child’s needs
- flight attendants keeping up a friendly disposition in the face of demanding (and sometimes demeaning) passengers
Along with this idea comes the gendered expectation that women naturally have a great capacity for empathy, caregiving, and emotional support.
Consequently, they should find it easier to set aside their own emotional distress to tend to others.
Emotional labor also shows up in personal relationships.
- You’re always on call as the friend who listens to post-breakup rants or helps others through crises.
- Your partner depends on you for support but has little time to listen to your concerns.
- You live with a family member who loses their temper easily, leaving you in the position of going above and beyond to make sure nothing upsets them.
Common examples of mental load
Mental load comes in plenty of shapes and sizes.
This list highlights a few situations people carrying a heavy load will likely recognize:
- having to ask a partner for help (Does a refrain of “Just tell me if you need me!” or “Let me know if I can help!” sound familiar?)
- giving reminders to schedule bill payments or handle other essential tasks
- needing to offer praise or pats on the back for handling necessary chores around the house
- keeping track of parenting-related daily details, including after-school plans, permission slips, library book due dates, or pediatrician appointments
- checking in on kids’ physical and emotional needs
- making to-do lists, grocery lists, or chore charts
- purchasing and wrapping gifts for friends and loved ones
- scheduling date nights, vacations, and visits to family or friends
- lacking the time to pursue leisure activities when your partner does have time to relax
Here’s a look at some more specific examples.
Facing an upcoming deadline for an important work project, you ask your partner to quietly entertain the kids for a few hours.
When you take a break for lunch, you leave your office to find the kitchen counter and table covered with dirty mixing bowls, utensils, and baking ingredients and the sink full of dishes.
When you ask about the mess, they say, “Oh, you need me to clean up, too?”
You ask your partner, “Could you please clean up after dinner while I run to the store?” They agree.
You return to see the remnants of dinner still lying on the table, with one difference: Their dishes are now in the dishwasher.
You mention the still-uncleared table, and they say, “Oh, I thought you meant put my dishes away. You should have told me you meant the whole table.”
Using the last of something
While making breakfast, your partner finishes off the milk and all but one egg. They put the cartons back into the refrigerator without mentioning these ingredients are almost gone or adding them to the shopping list on the fridge.
The next day, when you to make dinner, you find yourself without necessary ingredients.
Does it only apply to women?
Anyone can find themselves carrying the mental load in a relationship, regardless of gender.
Men who grew up in households with one parent or without traditional gender roles might carry more of a load in their adult relationships, particularly if they had to take on responsibilities or care for siblings.
Some parents assign specific chores without encouraging kids (of any gender) to consider other elements of household management, such as paying bills, scheduling appointments, making a budget, or filing important documents.
These kids might then grow up willing to take on delegated chores and responsibilities, but without any underlying initiative to look around, see what needs to be done, and get started on it.
They might also assume things will get handled, because they always have, with or without any effort on their part.
Research suggests, though, that it’s usually women who find themselves overburdened:
- A 2019 study of 35 heterosexual couples found that the women in the relationships tend to take on more of the cognitive labor. They found this particularly true when it came to anticipating the needs of others and monitoring progress.
- According to a 2019 study of nearly 400 married or partnered mothers in the United States, nearly 65 percent were employed. But 88 percent also reported they primarily managed routines at home and 76 percent said they were mostly responsible for maintaining regular household standards and order.
Same-gender couples, however, tend to share household responsibilities more equally. They do so by dividing tasks up based on things like preference and work hours, according to a 2015 report.
For more insight on gender and mental load we reached out to Dr. Melissa Estavillo, a licensed psychologist in Phoenix, AZ who specializes in couples counseling.
She explains that, while there’s been some improvement in the division of the mental load or emotional labor, women still bear more of it. “This is a common complaint among women who show up in couples counseling,” she says.
Estavillo also notes caregivers often carry a heavier mental load. “Illness can limit a couple’s ability to maintain an equal emotional load. The person with the greater load may realize this happens due to necessity, rather than choice or lack of insight. But this can still prompt feelings of loneliness, depression, and exhaustion or burnout.”
How to bring it up
Before you can start finding ways to share the mental load, you’ve got to talk about it. And that can be much easier said than done, especially when your partner readily responds with, “I said I’m happy to help, if you just tell me what to do,” or “But I do X, Y, and Z every day!”
Maybe they do X, Y, and Z, but you do A through W — they just can’t see most of your efforts. Carrying the mental load in your relationship can have a big impact on your well-being over time.
“When couples don’t feel as if they’re on the same team, working toward the same goals in ways that seem fair, this can result in relationship distress,” Estavillo explains.
Here are some tips to get the conversation rolling:
- Consider the time and space. Choose a time when you have privacy and no distractions. Prepare your partner by letting them know you’d like to talk about something important.
- Find common ground. Estavillo recommends opening with a shared value: equality in your relationship. You might say, “I know you value contributing equally to our relationship, and I think you may not realize I have more responsibilities that go unnoticed.”
- Use “I” statements. This means framing things in terms of your own feelings and experiences instead of blaming the other person. Instead of “You hurt me,” for example, you’d say, “I feel hurt when you…”
Breaking the ice
Not sure how to find the right words? Here are a few examples that might help:
- “I love that you cook dinner when I work. But I still plan the menu, make a grocery list, and do the shopping. I wonder if you could help with those things, too.”
- “I feel frustrated when you ask for a task list when there are dishes in the sink, laundry overflowing from the hamper, and pet hair all over the floor. Making a list of what needs to be done and delegating those responsibilities makes me feel like your manager, not your partner.”
- “I appreciate your willingness to help around the house, but I wonder if you could try jumping in to help instead of saying, ‘Just ask if you need help.’”
You might also find it helpful to have the other person read a bit about the concept beforehand.
Some good primers to consider:
- You Should’ve Asked
- Women Aren’t Nags — We’re Just Fed Up
- How Couples Share “Cognitive Labor” and Why It Matters
If you’re unsure how to start the conversation, consider sharing one of these links and say, “I’d like to talk about this.”
Sharing the load
Once you’ve had the conversation, and you feel like the other person understands the issue, it’s time to figure out how to create a more balanced load.
These strategies can help you see real change.
Talk through concerns stopping you from sharing the mental load
In some relationships, certain circumstances may leave one partner carrying more of the mental load.
Someone who is experiencing physical or mental health issues or other serious life challenges may have a harder time keeping up with everyday responsibilities, like remembering to do laundry, buy groceries, or pay bills.
In a committed relationship, you might accept that it’s temporary and help pick up the slack to make things easier for them. Even if you do this willingly, it’s still important to have conversations and identify ways you both feel supported.
For them, that might involve attending therapy sessions or doctor’s appointments regularly to work toward improved health. For you, that might involve reaching out to loved ones when you need some help.
Account for management and cognitive tasks when divvying up responsibilities
Some couples split up certain household tasks, like cooking, vacuuming, and laundry, while taking turns with others, like bathing kids or walking dogs.
Yet, when you talk through who’s going to do what, it’s important to recognize all the unseen work. This isn’t to keep score, but to make sure the division of visible and invisible labor remains fairly equal.
It’s normal to feel a little stressed from time to time, particularly when life throws things like pandemic distance learning your way, but neither partner should feel regularly overwhelmed and unsupported.
So talk about things, like arranging play dates, checking homework, or planning Zoom chats with extended family. Switch off handling sibling squabbles, shopping, and meal prepping.
Above all, emphasize that you’d like them to notice things that need to be done and contribute to the task of managing your shared home. Encourage them to use a scheduling app or set reminders on their phone to remember important tasks.
Make it clear you’d like to incorporate these as long-term changes, and proceed with regular check-ins to make sure you both feel satisfied.
Recognize they might do things their own way
Sharing the mental load requires giving up some control.
Let’s say your partner chooses to handle all aspects of the laundry, from buying detergent to folding clothes and putting them away. Maybe they prefer a different detergent, or they fold towels into quarters instead of thirds. As long as the clothes are clean and folded, you might choose to let this go.
When something really matters to you, like washing clothes in cold water or choosing sustainable household products, explaining why may encourage them to make similar choices without feeling micromanaged.
Doing something their way doesn’t mean doing it poorly. If they consistently put away dishes still speckled with food and soap, this might be worth a mention.
But if you resentfully redo it yourself, this only reinforces the cycle by teaching them that you’ll come along and clean up after them.
The bottom line
It’s not in your head. Invisible tasks — like keeping a mental inventory of your pantry, remembering who needs to be dropped off where, and delegating chores — are exhausting.
Carrying all the mental load in your household or relationships can take a big toll on you, so it’s important to be open about where you need more support. An open, honest conversation can go a long way toward restoring the balance.
If you don’t see many changes after a conversation or two, reaching out to a couples counselor may be a helpful next step.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.