Mental load is a common relationship problem - here's what I did to help my marriage

The unequal distribution of mental load can cause physical and emotional burnout. Here, writer Kat Storr reveals how she rebalanced, plus advice from the experts

Couple talking together in the kitchen with view of dining room table with notebooks on, representing how to lower mental load in a relationship
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Mental load, which is also referred to as invisible labour, is when one person in a relationship juggles the responsibility of planning, managing and executing tasks that keep a household running outside of household chores. Emotional and mental efforts like anticipating a relative's needs, organising schedules, and managing relationships. If you, like me, find yourself carrying most of the mental load in your relationship, you'll know how exhausting it can be. 

Invisible labour can cause problems in any partnership as one person may be struggling to keep all the balls in the air on a day-to-day basis and the other may not even have a clue that it’s being handled. This has unfortunately been the case in my marriage, where these tasks often fall to me. At times, I've felt very overwhelmed by it all. My husband and I have three children and a busy work and social life so there's always something to remember, whether that's paying a bill, someone's birthday, or menu planning for the week. 

I’m a very organised person and a natural worrier, which isn’t the best combination when it comes to dealing with the mental load. It means that I’d rather just do things myself and tick them off my list than delegate to my husband, which takes longer and leaves me panicking that they won’t get done. It has taken a lot of effort for us both to communicate better and split the workload where we can. 

The imbalance of handling mental load is one of the most common relationship issues out there, so here, with advice from therapists and other relationship experts, I reveal what helped us fix the issue for good. 

What is mental load? 

When we talk about mental load, we're not referring to doing the laundry or taking the bins out. These are examples of physical labour and they are tasks easily divided up between partners in a relationship. The mental load is "like being the conductor of an orchestra," says dating expert Jessica Alderson. "It looks effortless from the outside but there's a lot of work going on behind the scenes to make it appear this way."

In many cases, the partner carrying the mental load in a relationship is a woman. Traditional gender roles still exist in many heterosexual relationships, even if both partners work as "women are often expected to engage in more emotional labour than men," says Alderson, who is also the founder of personality-based dating app So Synced. "This includes listening, empathising, and providing emotional support to family members." 

On top of this, Dr Avigail Lev, a clinical psychologist based in California, says, “Studies have shown that women often take on a disproportionate share of household chores and caregiving responsibilities, increasing their mental load.” 

I have worked part-time since we had children, while my husband has always worked full-time. One of the reasons I haven’t been able to go back to full-time work is that it would be too much to manage everything our family needs if both of us were out of the house five days a week. It's a situation that's very common, says Sharin Shafer, co-founder of matchmaking firm Bond The Agency. “If women are over-stretched in their personal lives as carers, family organisers etc., it means they do not have the mental capacity to focus on a career and often resort to working part-time, working in less pressurised roles, or leaving the workforce completely to avoid stress, anxiety and burnout from work.”

I’ve found the mental burden of feeling like I have to remember everything all of the time exhausting and stressful. I lie awake at night with lists going around in my head or wake up remembering things and I have to make a note on my phone in case I forget in the morning. My husband also experiences sleep issues but they revolve more around work stress or other family problems we’ve experienced, instead of what he will perceive as less important issues, such as whether he’s RSVP’d to a party or replied to a WhatsApp message from a friend. I’d like my brain to work like that sometimes! While they might not be such integral issues, these small tasks quickly build up and they are what keeps the family moving day-to-day. 

Perhaps another reason why most of the mental load falls on women is that we are perceived to be "naturally better" at planning or multitasking than our male counterparts - but that's actually not the case. We are just expected to do it more so we eventually become better at it. "If men were performing the same behaviours, they would also feel the mental load effects of this," explains Dr Lev.

So, what can realistically be done to redistribute this mental load? Here's my experience and what the experts say. 

Couple talking over laptop together at home, smiling together

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How to deal with mental load

1. Start talking

Clear communication is vital if you're looking to learn how to deal with mental load. "If you do not feel you and your partner are working as a team with common goals and a fair division of the familial and household responsibilities, this can result in relationship distress," says Shafer. "In fact, a [study linked to the University of Melbourne] showed that when there was a mismatch in couples’ housework,  there was much lower relationship satisfaction and this negatively impacted the stability of the relationship.”

She recommends finding a fixed time to talk about it all, without any distractions. If you keep your feelings bottled up, this just becomes another stress to deal with which will have an impact on your mental wellbeing. 

When approaching the topic, try to come at it from a collaborative point of view - rather than an accusatory one. As certified relationship specialist Kendra Capalbo says, “When discussing the topic with your partner, it is helpful to approach it from a perspective of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. Instead of solely focusing on your own tasks and their lack of awareness, frame the conversation by acknowledging that there may be many things both of you are unaware of regarding each other’s contributions.”

Talking to my husband before I reach the point of being overwhelmed has been key to helping me deal with the mental load. We now make sure to sit down together and look at what's coming up in the week ahead and decide who will do what and when so I don't feel like I'm the one handling all of the logistics and planning.

2. Create strategies for dividing up labour

As the experts have said above, if your partner is unaware of the tasks you are doing then they won’t be able to help and that goes for physical labour tasks too. Nastassia Betcher, licensed feminist mental health therapist and coach, says, "Set clear boundaries and delegate responsibilities by requesting specific ownership of tasks like laundry, grocery shopping, or others that resonate with your situation. It may take your partner some time to become competent in these new areas, and mistakes might be made, such as forgetting the milk. However, through feedback and patience, they'll learn the ropes, and this collaborative approach can foster a more equitable distribution of the mental load.”

Ortega recommends using tech to help - like one of the best productivity planners online or productivity apps. This could be scheduling software, shared calendars, and shared to-do lists. If everything is written down for both parties to view whenever they need to, it can really reduce the strain on one person.

I have friends who schedule a Sunday night sit-down for 30 minutes to discuss what’s coming up that week, what needs to be organised, and who’s going to do what. This is something I think my husband and I could benefit from doing. It’s not just about who’s going to be where for work or for social events, but the added extras such as DIY which may need sorting or important things to remember. 

3. Don't let the resentment build

I know that when I’m tired, stressed, or dealing with emotional burnout with everything I need to remember, I can start to feel a bit angry. This can then explode into an argument, which is obviously not the best way of managing the issue.

Ali Ross, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy, says it’s easy to make assumptions about our partner, such as thinking they don’t care about something as much as you do or that they don’t think they should take on any of the burden themselves. Of course, this is rarely the case but it can cause resentment to build up. 

“A key problem is in the assumptions we hold about our partners, what they ‘should’ have picked up on, what they ‘should’ have done for us, without looking at what we might have contributed to the imbalance in the first place,” he says. 

Capalbo, who is also the founder of Esclusiva Couples Retreats, adds: “By giving each other the benefit of the doubt and assuming good intentions, you can prevent the emergence of resentment. This approach fosters a healthier and more balanced dynamic in the relationship.”

Again, it comes down to communication and talking to each other constantly about how we’re feeling, whether we feel overburdened and how to make things better.

Woman using dumbbells and workout app on living room floor with yoga mat and fitness tracker watch

(Image credit: Getty Images)

4. Set out time for yourself

The mental load is named as such because so much of it takes place in our heads, so it can be hard to switch off and escape from it all. I'm a people pleaser and I worry about letting friends and family down, which means I'm often the person who books restaurants or organises meet-ups. Naturally, this means I’ve now become the go-to person for this which is nice as I know I’m trusted, but I need to be better at delegating.

To counteract this, I’m trying to give myself a break by actively taking time to do activities I enjoy and know are good for my mental and physical health - like exercising regularly and practising mindfulness. 

I've particularly found that low-impact exercises like yoga, swimming, and jogging tend to help me destress, learn how to sleep better and feel better mentally. I'm also trying to cut down on how much alcohol I drink to help with my sleep quality and avoid the hangovers, which I know make me less productive. 

5. Get external help

If push comes to shove and communication is starting to break down, it's worth bringing in a third-party perspective who can approach the situation from a totally neutral angle - like a life coach or therapist. 

A therapist may be able to offer some strategies to help you communicate better and a safe space for you to explain your feelings, without it turning into an argument. 

How to explain mental load to your partner

As the experts tell woman&home, communication is key - but opening up the conversation can be difficult. If you’ve never spoken properly about it, here are some tips on how to approach the topic of mental load in your relationship. 

  • Choose the right time to talk: Instead of sending passive-aggressive messages to my husband over WhatsApp, I'll say "Let's chat when you're home" and leave him some time when he gets back to decompress first. It means we can talk properly when we're not distracted by work and we can have a useful conversation when we’re both ready and relaxed.
  • Set concrete examples: Once you’re sat down together and feel ready to discuss it all, try not to let all of your feelings come out in an emotional, angry splurge. Give concrete examples of what you’re doing and why it’s making you feel overwhelmed. Marriage and family therapist Alicia Ortega recommends using phrases like "I feel a bit swamped with..." or "Could we divvy up these tasks?" to make your partner fully aware of what you're juggling exactly and understand how they can help you.
  • Let them help you: I’m guilty of gatekeeping the household labour out of habit, which means my husband often doesn’t even get the opportunity to try helping. Dr Lev says: “The dynamics [of a relationship] can vary widely, and assertive communication, clear expectations, and equitable division of responsibilities can help mitigate the unequal burden of mental load.” 
  • Be patient with your partner - and yourself: If you’re used to doing most of the invisible labour, it can be hard to let go. Yes, your partner might not do everything the same way as you or to the same standard, but you’ve got to give them a chance. If you monitor, correct or criticize what they’re doing then this will put them off doing it again, which will be frustrating for everyone. And many things don’t need to be done urgently, so give them the time and space to do it.
Kat Storr

Kat has been a digital journalist for over 12 years after starting her career at Sky News where she covered everything from terror attacks to royal babies and celebrity deaths. She has been working freelance for the last five years and regularly contributes to UK publications including woman&home, Stylist, ES Best, Metro, and more. 

Since having her three sons Kat has become more focused on writing about parenting and health and wellbeing. She has looked at postnatal mental and physical health, how to exercise when you're hypermobile and tips for coping with sleep deprivation.