Ever feel overwhelmed? Mental load takes its toll on everything: your happiness, family, and health — but it doesn't have to! Here are some smart tips from Dr. Morgan Cutlip for taking control of your life instead of letting your life take control of you.
“I NEED AN ESCAPE FROM MY LIFE!”
I literally said this the other day under my breath in a huff while gathering: water bottles, snacks, shoes, sunscreen, hats, a check to deposit at the bank, + 3 packages to return to UPS… plus, I needed to call the insurance company.
My dad called, “Can you talk for a minute about creating a giveaway for this conference I’m going to?”….yeah sure… drops all the things I’ve gathered.
My blood pressure rising + my patience dwindling. Ok, so I can add that to the list of things to get done today. Maybe when the kids go to bed…… “Oh and don’t forget to pick up Teddy’s meds from the vet.” Check…one more thing.
The day has just begun and I’m already exhausted and feeling stressed.
My friends, this feeling of wanting an escape from life is the result of a full and seemingly endless mental load.
I am sure you’ve been there, too, or are there right now.
The worldwide pandemic has thrown families and their routines completely upside down. Maybe you’re now juggling different work-at-home schedules or homeschooling, but for sure life has been different and it’s likely you’re feeling it in a big way.
So, if you aren’t familiar with the term the mental load, I am certain you will recognize what it feels like.
WHAT IS MENTAL LOAD?
The mental load is the running list of all the “to-dos” that you do to manage your life, home, work, relationships, and those who are dependent on you. A key feature, which makes it all the trickier to deal with, of the mental load is that it is often invisible. Like:
- Researching: Does this shampoo cause cancer? Can I bring scooters to the airport? Which preschools get good ratings?
- Organizing: Activities, social calendars, summer camps, etc.
- Managing the Home: Are we out of Q-tips? What’s for dinner? Go to the grocery store. Shoot, no clean undies. How do all of the kids' shoes suddenly not fit?
- Managing Emotional Needs of Family: Who needs hugs? Our oldest is being bossy and we need to do something about that (without squashing her spirit). Make sure they’re kind but strong.
- Work: Deadlines, feeling like you’re falling short, being the one to have to take time off when the kids are sick, don’t have school, etc.
Truly, the list goes on and on. I want you to hear me when I say, the reason you feel so drained or stressed may very well have to do with the mental load that you’re carrying.
HOW CAN WE LESSEN MENTAL LOAD?
Here are four tips to consider when you’re thinking about how to lessen your mental load:
1. Be aware of unintentionally piling on precedents
These precedents usually start as small gestures of love and care. They eventually add up to be responsibilities you carry but never spoke about with your partner.
If you think back, you may remember these precedents starting early in your relationship. Things like, “I would love to cook him his favorite meal and then let him chill out on the couch while I clean up, too.”
This is a sweet gesture of love and care, but what message does this send? It says, “don’t worry, I’ll take care of this.”
And I promise you, your partner doesn’t worry. Your partner has absolutely removed this from their mental list of “to-do’s” and now let's you take it on.
This happens over and over in relationships. So, pay attention to it.
If you don’t have kids yet, be careful what you take on when you introduce kids to your relationship. Be intentional about involving your partner early.
If you already have piled on the precedents, be careful about what more you take on. Be mindful of the moments you are just “taking care of things,” and if it isn’t something you want to be forever yours, then speak that to your partner. Something like, “Hey, I RSVP’d for the dinner party next weekend. Next time, will you make sure to handle that?”.
The antidote to piling on precedents is making them and the process to get them done visible. Speak out what you are taking care of, let your partner know, and then either ask for your partner to take over a piece of it, or let your partner know that next time it’s on them.
2. You shouldn’t have to ASK but you just might have to
Probably the number one mistake women make is summed up by these words, “but I shouldn’t have to ask.” I agree that you shouldn’t have to ask, but to move toward off-loading some of the mental load, you just might have to.
So let’s rebrand “asking” to mean involving, teaching, engaging.
When you ask, you are involving your partner, you are showing them what needs to be done so hopefully, they will think of it next time, you are releasing some of the responsibility, and setting the stage to turn over more of the mental load.
Ask by ask, you are making some steps forward.
3. Beware of stories that sabotaged or behaviors that backfire
In my course entitled, The Mother Load: Helping Couples Unite to Tackle the Mental Load, I talk about tackling the mental load in two ways through the within and the between.
This tip is focused on the within (or the work that you can do if your partner does nothing)! Remember, relationships are dynamic, so if you change one piece the whole is impacted.
Stories that sabotage and behaviors that backfire are the things that you may think or do that sour the tone of your relationship or inadvertently discourage your partner from taking more responsibility for things in the future.
Stories that sabotage are the running stories that replay in your mind like: “if I don’t take care of it, no one will.” Usually, this story ends in the same way: you take care of it, and no one else does. It’s self-fulfilling.
Be aware of these stories you tell yourself and rewrite them and test them out in reality. Examine how they sabotage your desire to get more help from your partner.
Behaviors that backfire are the behaviors that ultimately may result in the same thing: inadvertently discouraging your partner from taking on more responsibilities.
Some examples of these are:
It’s just way too easy to jump to the conclusion that when your partner doesn’t step in, anticipate needs, or neglects to take care of something, that he/she just doesn’t care about you. That it is disrespectful or that you don’t “matter enough” to your partner. Or that your partner is selfish or thoughtless.
Know that more likely reasons for their behavior are: socialization, learned roles, how they were taught responsibilities, long standing patterns in your relationship or others, or just plain obliviousness.
When you attribute your partner’s behavior to the latter versus the former, it can help you to be more patient, forgiving, and gracious as you are working to hand over some of the load.
I cannot tell you how often I hear, “I asked and he didn’t do it right away so I just took care of it” or “it’s easier to do it than explain it.”
I get it, I’ve said these things myself; however, be aware that this approach will not move you toward the end goal of handing over some of the mental load, instead, it perpetuates the idea that you will take care of everything.
If you’re turning something over to your partner, let them find their way. Don’t hover and correct. It may look different, but hey — you aren’t doing it so that’s moving in the right direction.
If you ask your partner to take something over, and he does it, be careful of criticizing his approach. Like, “is that what you’re feeding the kids?!” There is definitely a time and place to talk about how you would like things done, but as you’re making this adjustment be careful of discouraging forward momentum.
It’s likely that you carry most of the mental load, especially the anticipation of needs and keeping a running inventory of all things home and kid-related. You win! You do more. This should ABSOLUTELY change, but when you keep score everyone loses and this quickly builds into a negative attitude and resentment toward your partner.
The thing is, when we make a request of our partner, we need to then give them the space to meet our request, make mistakes, and figure out his own way of doing things. You never know, they may even do it better or more efficiently.
4. Reimagine roles + responsibilities, renegotiate, redistribute, and revisit the conversation often
This last tip is an example of the between work and it is done primarily through a conversation and ultimately a renegotiation of roles and responsibilities between you and your partner. Three steps are outlined below:
WRITE DOWN YOUR MENTAL LOAD
Take the tangled mess in your head and get it out. Free up some space. When it is on paper and out of your head, it doesn’t require as much effort to manage. It becomes tasks to tick off versus competing demands and distractions.
Both partners can do this and it’s a great way to make the invisible aspect of the mental load visible. It is also helpful to separate things into categories of how often they need to be done or whether or not they are ongoing or one-time tasks.
LOOK AT THE LIST TOGETHER
Consider what your strengths are and what you each like to do. This doesn’t just help initiate a conversation, this also helps to show to your partner what it is that you are “taking care of” that he likely doesn’t even think about or notice.
RENEGOTIATE YOUR ROLES
Really, when was the last time you renegotiated your roles? Consider what items can be permanently given to your partner to take care of, what you can reasonably afford to hire out, and what you can remove from your list.
The goal here is not equality but what ultimately feels fair. The reality is that nothing is truly equal when it comes to roles in relationships, but if you two can renegotiate your responsibilities in a way that feels fair, that will make a major difference.
Finally, revisit this conversation often. Life throws curve balls at us that involves periodic increases in responsibilities (hello, pandemic!). So, get in the habit of regularly touching base with one another and discussing how you can support each other through busy seasons of life.
Ultimately, if you and your partner are able to work on the within and between aspects of the mental load, you will see major strides in your relationship and experience of equity and fairness.
I also recorded a video over the subject of mental load, so be sure to check that out on Facebook!
If you enjoyed my advice, don’t hesitate to check out @MyLoveThinks where I post series on popular relationship topics like the mental load, parenting, trust + forgiveness, sex, and more. And, if you’re really serious about making strides in your relationship please check out our courses at mylovethinks.com.
Ready for more inspirational relationship advice?
- Have a financial date at least once a month to keep you and your spouse on the same page!
- Try out these fun family competitions! They get everyone moving and make fun memories!
- Set up a budget and plan for activities with the 70% budget rule!
Now, go share the love!
Dr. Morgan Cutlip is a wife, mom to Effie and Roy, a Ph.D. in psychology, and life-long lover of all things relationships. She develops online relationship courses and resources at My Love Thinks and manages the blog at www.mylovethinks.com. Morgan also serves on the @FloTracker medical board and the advisory board for Friends With Rings. Feel free to hang out with Morgan on Instagram @MyLoveThinks or www.mylovethinks.com.