If your head’s spinning with to-do lists and you feel responsible for remembering everything, be it play dates or PE kits, your relationship needs a rebalance – before you explode!
You and your partner may split most jobs around the house, but is it your responsibility to keep track of everything that needs doing?
What about the other tasks, like remembering to send birthday cards, buying end-of-term gifts for teachers or keeping the calendar up to date?
These jobs represent the “mental load”, AKA “the metaphorical brain power it takes to manage and organise the tasks of life,” explains relationship therapist Dipti Tait. “It’s an invisible pressure that can build up and, if not managed well, can cause emotional overwhelm.”
Unfortunately, the mental load primarily falls on women – and that uneven split is getting worse.
A 2019 Harvard University study found women did more cognitive labour overall, while according to the Office for National Statistics, women took on 78% more childcare than men during the first lockdown.
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It’s important to rebalance things for the sake of your relationship, says clinical psychologist Dr Patapia Tzotzoli. “It gradually makes couples disconnect from each other.
"Negative emotions, like anxiety, depression, resentment and frustration pile up, and it’s only a matter of time before they affect the relationship – sometimes irreparably.”
So how do you get your partner to share the load? And can the kids help? We asked the experts for some nag-free solutions.
A RAW DEAL
Mental load fits into three categories:
- Cognitive labour – the practical side of managing a household and weekly calendar, from ordering groceries to organising play dates.
- Emotional labour – managing the family’s emotions, for example, making sure the kids are coping well at school.
- Life planning – looking ahead and anticipating future needs and issues, whether practical or emotional.
Lighten the load
Of course, lots of men do help out, and it’s important to note that mental load affects non-heterosexual couples, too. It’s likely your partner isn’t aware of how many extra tasks you’re picking up, so the first step is to let them know exactly how much hidden labour you’re taking on.
“Connection is the most important part of the process. You need to cultivate understanding, respect and compassion for each other,” says Dr Tzotzoli.
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“Each write a list of all the tasks you undertake on a daily basis, which can also include your work, other projects and household tasks, and share them with one another.”
Don’t forget to include forward-planning tasks, as well as practical actions, for example, remembering when a school bake sale is coming up, or planning holidays.
“It can help you communicate more effectively to each other the number and breadth of tasks you undertake and how burdensome they can be,” says Dr Tzotzoli.
“This technique has never failed to initially shock my clients and eventually help them to open up to more meaningful and constructive discussions.”
Once you’ve got everything down on paper, you can divide tasks up by playing to your natural strengths and preferences, as well as coming up with smaller responsibilities for the kids.
“For tasks that neither of you are good at or have no time for, consider delegating them to an external source where possible,” suggests Dr Tzotzoli.
We might dream of having a cleaner or gardener, but failing that, ask for help from friends, family and neighbours, or alternate who takes on the tasks everyone loathes!
Getting thoughts out of your head and into a shared online calendar will ease mental load. The calendar on your phone should have this facility, or try Google Calendar.
Look ahead (perhaps a month or two at a time) at anything you and the kids have coming up – from PE lessons and after-school clubs requiring lifts, to the MOT and when the gas bill needs paying.
Then schedule a time (perhaps Saturday morning, so there’s no Sunday-night panic!) to both glance at the week ahead and share any new resulting chores or last-minute events.
You can set alerts to each other’s phones, too, so you don’t have to take on the mental load of reminding your partner to do a job they are responsible for!
Get the family involved
“Housework needs to be viewed as a joint venture, regardless of who spends more time in the home,” says Dipti. Once you’ve fairly divided up the tasks between the whole family, it’s about keeping everyone enthusiastic.
There are plenty of apps to help you out – Sweepy (free on Apple) lets you create schedules for each member of the household, while Cleaning Checklist (free on Android) is a simple and shareable tick list, divided into rooms.
Dipti suggests embracing your inner Mary Poppins to make housework more fun with a family reward system – not only will it motivate you all, but getting kids into the habit of cleaning will set good future patterns for them, too.
Tick things off as they get done and decide on a treat to work towards – from a film night to a takeaway or day out.
Plan meals for the week
Meal planning can be a chore, but making it a shared activity will ensure everyone gets what they want, and that it’s not just you making the decisions.
“We have a Sunday-night system of meal planning for the week ahead,” says Dipti. “It takes into account everyone’s movements, as well as food preferences and dietary requirements.”
See it as a brainstorm session, where everyone has a responsibility to say what they’d like to eat/cook, when, and build the planner together on a whiteboard.
Put it into practice
Once you’ve set up your new systems, it’s important to keep reviewing them. “Make sure you have regular, perhaps monthly, meetings with your partner to check in with each other, review the plan and make any new arrangements when necessary,” says Dr Tzotzoli.
“The original agreement might not have worked out or circumstances may have changed, so it’s important to have a flexible mindset.
"You both need to keep acknowledging each other’s efforts, being understanding and compassionate towards their struggles and generally be there for one another emotionally.
"Nothing can help more with someone’s mental load than the connection they feel with their emotionally supportive partner.”
With a bit of effort, most couples should be able to rework their arrangements in a way that feels fair. But one issue to be aware of is “weaponised incompetence”.
“This is when a person repeatedly and on purpose claims not to be good at a task and bails out of it, and the person who is better at it ends up taking on more and more of the load,” warns Dipti.
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“Weaponised incompetence is a form of gaslighting that can happen subtly and easily in a relationship. Once it is picked up, it needs to be called out and stopped to redress the balance of power.”
A couples’ therapist is a good place to get some help with correcting the issue.
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