French comic artist Emma illustrates what feminists refer to as the “mental load” in her cartoon “You Should’ve Asked.” It shows a heterosexual couple in which the woman is responsible for organizing and delegating household and childcare tasks. She is shown in several scenarios working, planning, and scurrying about while her male partner sits idly by, only springing into action when directly assigned a task. But by that point, she is exhausted and frustrated, and he is uncertain what the problem is and why she did not ask for help sooner.
This scenario likely feels familiar to many couples and families. The mental load has been discussed and written about in feminist culture, but is gradually becoming more widely accepted and understood in the mainstream. There is a push to make the invisible work of the wife/ mother/partner more visible in order to balance the responsibility of the household within families.
The Mental Load Takes A Toll On Individuals And Couples
In my NYC therapy practice, I see the mental load take quite a toll on the health of many individuals and couples. In the relationship, when one partner acts as the “manager,” it can causes multiple problems. The manager can feel underappreciated, left alone, and as if their contributions are not being seen. The “delegatee” might feel perplexed by the manager’s feelings and as if they are being bossed around by them. This can leave couples feeling confused by each other, angry and resentful, and very disconnected.
This can also cause quite a toll on the couple’s sex life–nothing is less sexy than an unequal power dynamic (unless you are into that sort of thing). I have heard many “managers” describe feeling like the delegatee’s mother, which does not feel sexy or comfortable for either person.
For the individual who is the manager, having to worry, plan and keep track of so much manifests as anxiety. The mental load causes the brain to feel like it is overflowing with logistics, which causes stress and makes it nearly impossible to be present in the moment. An overtaxed brain can harm sleep, memory, and overall ability to enjoy life.
How Do You Lessen The Mental Load? Participate
To end this pattern, both partners need to participate. It is the responsibility of the manager to be more transparent about their experience and all of the work they are doing. Ideally, the manager will have some patience with the delegatee when certain work they are doing that feels obvious, in fact, isn’t. They may need to really spell it out.
And it is the delegatee’s responsibility to take seriously this invisible workload and understand that their partner’s frustration is not coming out of thin air. They, then, need to work to balance the workload and cease relating to their partner as the manager of the family. This can be done by splitting up areas of the household so that each partner is in charge of multiple areas.
Through more open communication and not making assumptions about the other partner’s experience, a couple can feel close and like their partnership is an equal one. And for couples who are having trouble getting through these conversations without a fight and miscommunications, couples therapy can help to get the partners get back on the same page.