One of the more common arguments I see in my office is something I like to call the “why didn’t you ask?” fight. It occurs when one partner is frustrated, overwhelmed, and resentful because they feel that they’re tasked with handling a greater share of the mental load in the relationship. That is, they take on most of the appointment-making, the party-planning, the meal-prepping, and other such work it takes to run a household. When they express their frustration, a common response I hear from partners is something along the lines of “why didn’t you just ask?”
Here’s an example: Several years ago, I was sitting in my office talking to a particularly lovely couple, let’s call them Lucy and John. They deeply respected and cared for each other and yet argued all the time. And in those moments it seemed like they didn’t respect or care for each other at all.
The trigger could be something as small as seeing a sock left on the step, a light bulb that hadn’t yet been changed, or a call that needed to be made to the doctor. These small tasks of daily living would turn into explosive arguments.
One day, Lucy and John were telling me about an argument that had happened the night before.
“I am so incredibly frustrated,” Lucy said. “I am literally the only person who did anything for Samuel’s birthday party. All of the invitations, all of the calls, all of the decorating…right down to picking up the cake the morning of.”
“Well…I didn’t know all of that was going on,” John replied. “All you had to do was tell me and I’d have done some more for the party.”
Lucy turned red, and uttered, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Then, she looked at me and bit her tongue.
Had they been at home Lucy might have said things like: “Why do I need to tell you what to do? I’m not your mother!” or “What is wrong with you? Why can’t you know what to do for a simple birthday party?’
Lucy’s contempt in that moment led to John’s defensiveness and the fight continued. On and on they went go until one went a little too far and said something a little too mean. And then they’d come to couples therapy and talk about it.
So how can couples in such situations break what seems to be an endless cycle? While the way forward isn’t easy, there are things both of them can do to share the load.
Why Are Mental Load Arguments So Common?
Although in most U.S. households couples share financial burdens, the role of Director of Home Life Operations still is mostly taken on by the identified woman in the relationship. According to research, women spend 37% more on unpaid household work than men. However, this statistic only covers the visible work — laundry, cooking meals, or cleaning up the living room. It doesn’t account for the mental load that women also primarily carry, often described as “the remembering to remember.” The burden of this work became more apparent when 900,000 women left the workforce due to the COVID-19 pandemic because it just wasn’t possible for them to fit all of the homework and work work into one day.
In general, the mental load describes work that has to be done in order to keep a household running. This includes:
- Researching. Which doctor should be seen? Which school the kids should go to? Can you take a car seat on the plane?
- Remembering. When it’s time to update the car registration, how long it’s been since changing the filters, and when a permission slip needs to be sent in.
- Noticing. For example, that a lightbulb is out, that the washing machine is making a funny noise, and that the youngest child has seemed a bit more lethargic lately than usual.
- Delegating. For example, calling the lawn person to come re-mulch the garden, letting their partner know which type of cake mix to pick up, and reminding the kids to put their lunch boxes away
- Magic. This is my particular favorite category which was introduced to me by author and mental-load expert Eve Rodsky. Examples of “magic” are making sure that the tooth fairy leaves the dollar, that the Christmas lights are up in time, and that the family’s favorite record is playing at dinner time. This is the mental work that makes life special.
When Lucy and John fought, it was because they were arguing about the mental load. Lucy was feeling completely overwhelmed working a full-time job in and out of the home and was increasingly resentful of the role. Whereas John was mostly unaware and surprised at the ire he was receiving.
What Are The Short-Term Solutions?
Interestingly, research has shown that the mental load doesn’t need to be equal. It’s actually more important that it’s perceived as fair. All relationships are unique and because of that, your relationship will need its own formula for navigating the mental load work in the relationship.
The reality is that the mental load exists. To keep life moving, people have to take responsibility for it. The key term here is people rather than one person.
In order to begin to make the shift in your own relationship and avoid long-term resentment and relationship burnout, here are some things to do:
1. Share this article with your partner and ask them for their thoughts.
If you identify with the person carrying the mental load, avoid bringing it up with criticism. Instead of saying “You never help with any of this stuff! Read this article jerkface!” try, “I just read this article and I can relate to what’s being discussed. Can you read it and let me know what you think?” Asking a question shows curiosity and opens up a conversation that can lead to problem-solving.
If you think your partner might identify with this article let them know you read it and that you would like to know their thoughts as well.
2. Sit down together and make a list of the mental work that keeps your lives running.
Just find some time together to go through everything. Big. Small. You name it. In Fair Play, Rodsky offers discreet categories that make it easier to discuss the mental load together:
- Out (things we manage outside the home, for example taking kids to extracurricular activities)
- Home (things we manage at home, for example, cleaning the dishes or taking care of the lawn)
- Caregiving (things we manage for the people we take care of, for example picking up medicine)
- Magic (the things we do to make life special, for example sending birthday cards)
- Wild (unexpected issues that need to be managed, like a pipe bursting)
As you have this conversation, remember to work together to solve the problem rather than taking a judgmental stance about your partner. This isn’t about pointing out who’s better than the other, rather about creating a life that feels more fair.
3. Talk about what currently feels fair in your relationship and what does not.
What works? What doesn’t? Be honest. For the things that do not feel fair, you’ll need to decide:
- Do we switch roles on this? For example, if Lucy took a role that feels unfair to her, should John take it now?
- If we can’t switch roles, do we outsource? For example, if Lucy and John both can’t take something on, do they need to hire someone or ask for help from family or friends?
- If neither of you can take it on and we can’t outsource it, does it need to somehow be removed as a task in your lives? Should we let it go?
4. Make temporary agreements with each other to work towards making it feel fairer.
When you decide which changes you’d like to make, it’s okay to agree to them temporarily. As you try it out, you might find it doesn’t work. And that’s completely normal. Regroup and discuss.
What’s the Long-Term Solution?
Once you’ve taken a look at the mental load tasks within your household, you’ll need to commit to the long-term project of distributing it more fairly within your relationship. Making the list and having conversations will get you started on this process, but you’ll also need to work towards radical self-responsibility.
While you might recognize on paper that things need to change, it’s easier said than done. It takes time to break a habit. The most important thing, however, is awareness. So, here’s what you each need to be mindful of:
For the person that tends to take on all of the mental load…
Your habit to break will be jumping in too quickly. You’ll need to learn how to let your partner take over and sometimes you’ll need to let them do it in their own way — yes, even if that is different from your way. This requires building an awareness of your reaction to mental work and being able to take a pause before taking over.
For the person learning to take on more of the mental load…
You’ll need to make a commitment to build awareness for the things you’ve taken for granted. It’s likely you were socialized to not “notice” the mental work and that part isn’t your fault. However, it is your responsibility now to work towards building that muscle so you can save your relationship and your partner’s sanity.
Here’s the thing: our world is busy and full of never-ending task lists. Try not to allow the business to make you enemies of each other. Rather, come together to create a relationship that feels fair so that your family can thrive.