Sharing the mental load in a relationship


 Sharing the mental load in a relationship

If it feels like you carry an unequal portion of the domestic duties and mental load around them, then you’re not alone.  Inequality between genders was a key finding of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in the UK – with Women bearing the lion’s share.

Domestic duties are all the things we do to keep the household and family going. The cooking, cleaning, picking up and dropping off the kids, medical appointments, homework, the list goes on.  While not equally shared between genders in most UK relationships, couples today are better at splitting domestic duties than previous generations.  The unequal mental load however – knowing what needs to happen and when, and communicating that with your partner – remains a common complaint for many women.

When recently interviewed about the inequality in mental load, we attempted to answer the five key questions women [1] ask about this issue.

Does an unequal mental load put pressure on my relationship?

Yes.  Feeling overwhelmed, unsupported and/or unacknowledged fuels resentment.  People who avoid this issue in their relationship often find themselves with anxiety, sleep difficulties and getting less exercise.

A conversation with your partner about sharing domestic duties and mental load is usually needed to change this.

What is holding me back from having these conversations?

Concern about the defensiveness of a partner or uncertainty about how to raise the issue are common reasons to avoid talking about the unequal load in relationships.  If you and your partner are in the habit of point-scoring, it will be also difficult to navigate the conversation successfully.

How do I start the conversation?

  • Pick your time – Have this conversation when you can remain calm and your partner can listen non-defensively. It’s preferable to have it when you are well rested, not hungry, and preferably when the kids aren’t present.
  • Start Slowly – You might preface the conversation by saying that you’d really like the conversation to go well, and ask your partner to tell you if you come across as aggressive or critical, so you can say it again in a more caring way. You might also agree to focus on solving the problem rather than grinding over each other’s grievances.
  • Acknowledge your role – open up the conversation gently. An approach that tends to work is to acknowledge how you have inadvertently taken on too much of the mental load in the relationship and it has become overwhelming. You’d like some help.
  • Acknowledge your partner’s contribution – your partner will probably think that their brain is equally as full as yours and that they too carry a mental load. Acknowledge their contribution.
  • Ask and then Listen – the key to helping your partner stay out of defensiveness is to really understand their perspective. If your partner reacts defensively, they are probably hurt or angry (perhaps on an unrelated matter), or perceive the conversation as a criticism or attack on them. So ask if they’d be willing to help, and then really listen for their perspectives and hesitations. Navigating excessive defensiveness can be tricky.
  • If things escalate – say something like “I feel like I’m getting defensive, can we take a break”. Try having the conversation again. If it still doesn’t go well, you might consider seeing a relationship therapist to help moderate the conversation.

How do I actually address the issue of inequality with my partner?

  1. Agree on a list of tasks -Write a list together and find common ground on what needs to be done.  Attribute tasks by specialising and working to your strengths.
  2. Owner defines the task – You will have different standards and expectations for tasks.  So discuss these up front and if you’re not comfortable with how your partner will do the task then you’re not ready to relinquish it.  Hold on to that one.
  3. Allow the ball to drop – If you don’t want to do the mental load – then you need to stop doing it (your partner can’t stop you doing it).  Anything you hand over should be handed over completely.
  4. Flexibility in roles over time – revisit your specialisations over time to make sure you both agree it is working for both of you.

Would it be easier to just change relationships and find someone that is better at doing their share?

Not necessarily.  Unequal mental load is a very common complaint for women in today’s society.  Our busy lives mean that we often feel overloaded without time for ourselves.

It’s also quite common for couples to go through this exercise only to find that both would actually prefer returning to their old roles – but with one small change that can make all the difference – that the mental load you are carrying is acknowledged and appreciated, rather than being taken for granted.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that we are not suggesting all action for equality should look like this.  Change at a societal level has required more forceful action to shift structural inequalities.  However, in an intimate relationship the request for change must be the opposite – gentle, and loving.  Remember, you are intending to have a long-term loving relationship with this person.

[1] It should be noted that is it not always women in this situation, but it is the most common scenario and that is why these questions and answers are framed the way they are. You can substitute the relevant gender for your relationship.

If you need help in your relationship, please get in touch to find out how Relationship Counselling can help you.

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