Feeling Resentful? Your Mental Load Might Be Contributing to It
When I polled my online community, over 86% indicated that they feel resentful in their relationship. Resentment is a toxic emotion that slowly erodes the health of one’s relationship. It’s a complex emotion, composed of other emotions that lay beneath the surface: anger, sadness, anxiety, envy, and jealousy. It seeps into one’s connection and instead of being able to turn towards their partner to seek connection, individuals end up bottling up their emotions and needs, only to build distance in their partnership.
The biggest cause of this resentment? An undervalued mental load.
What Is The Mental Load?
The mental load is the cognitive labor that one holds, which often includes the invisible and unseen load of managing the household, childcare, emotional and relational tasks in a relationship. Essentially, it’s any task that one thinks about. Eve Rodsky indicates in her bestselling book Fair Play that the mental load isn’t just about going to get the groceries, but instead it’s about knowing which mustard family members prefer, how much of said mustard is left, and when it needs to be purchased.
Most of you reading this are probably very familiar with the invisible mental load, but I want to be clear about its meaning:
The Mental Load is Comprised Of The...
...that is required to take responsibility for...
*maintaining a safe and comfortable home,
*completing non-work related tasks, and
*navigating important relationships (child rearing, nurturing friendships, communicating with in-laws and parents).
- Washing dishes (an active practice to maintain a safe and comfortable home)
- Knowing when kids need check-up appointments (forethought to complete non-work related responsibilities)
- Following up with in-laws after a health scare (emotional labor in order to navigate an important relationship)
All of these components of the mental load can pair together in different forms. Some active practices fall under the non-work related responsibilities, or emotional labor can pair with maintaining a safe and comfortable home. Everything stacks and bundles and multiplies, which is why carrying this invisible mental load begins to feel like drowning.
For many, the person shouldering the vast majority of the invisible and mental load (statistically the woman in a heterosexual relationship) resents their partner for not stepping into an active role. Many of my clients describe the painstaking feelings of being the CEO or manager in their relationship. Once feeling like teammates, they now question their partner’s engagement in running the family alongside them.
Resentment For Just One? Or For Both?
It’s evident in a relationship that the individual carrying a high mental load grows resentful over time. They often feel overwhelmed and angry with their partner for not being aware of their mental load or for appreciating the weight of it. But there is also a dynamic that happens in the relationship as a result of an unevenly distributed load. The person who would be identified as carrying less of the household, childcare, and relationship labor may also feel resentment towards their partner.
For this partner, a common experience described by my clients is one of “not enough.” One client felt like it didn’t matter what they did, that their partner was seemingly unhappy with what they did. Another client once debated with me about the hours spent at work while his wife was at home with the kids, a desire to come home and to rest and connect with his family. But instead, he felt “nagged” by their partner.
One dynamic that unfolds between these two partners when it comes to dealing with the mental load is that this individual isn’t given the opportunity and space to struggle as they strive to become an active teammate. As a result of feeling like “it’s never enough” or “I can’t get it right,” they end up shutting down, only to leave their partner feeling more alone in navigating all of the household and childcare tasks. When we feel alone with these swirling unmet needs, we look to our partner and wonder why they seem so disengaged. Thoughts creep in, that sounds like Why do I have to manage all of this? Why do they get to relax and not care? They’re selfish and ungrateful. These are the seedlings of resentment.
A Common Mistake
When we try to change this tricky dynamic in our relationship, a common mistake is giving our partner a to-do list. For some, this helps! But for many, it only continues to lead to resentment. Let’s explore why.
Each task has three parts. (This comes from @everodsky book Fair Play. I highly recommend it.) The there parts to every task are:
👉 Conceptualization - Thinking of the issue and defining what needs to be done for it.
👉 Planning - Where do you need to go to complete the task? When will you do it? Who else is involved? Creating a plan from start to finish to complete the task.
👉 Execution - Actually doing the work
When we give our partner a list, we’re only letting them address one part of the task, rather than offloading the entire responsibility. In fact, Eve Rodsky found that when women only gave the to-do list (which is the execution part of a task, see below), they began to feel more resentful. A more powerful solution? Have your partner take on the entirety of a task, from conceptualization through execution.
Let me give you a true story about making this shift in my own life.
I used to invest A LOT of time preparing the diaper bag for my kids. What started out as a “I want to do this for my family” quickly changed to “why is this my job?” It turned into just one of the many disagreements we had as new parents:
“Why can’t you just pack the diaper bag yourself?”
“I’m late for my meeting. Why do I have to tell you what you need for your baby?”
“You never keep track of these things.”
Until one day, I changed how I approached this responsibility.
“You’ve got the doctor’s appointment today? Okay. I’m heading out for work now, so I’m leaving the diaper bag up to you. You’ve got this!”
Here’s the plot twist:
He did! My husband did great, and nothing horribly awfully wrong happened when I didn’t pack th diaper bag. But here is what is even more powerful. He didn’t pack enough entertainment and snacks for the wait-time, which meant he learned something incredibly powerful in that moment: pack more snacks!
The moment I stopped investing all of my energy into these types of tasks, I started to release my resentment. It also taught my husband how to be a fair-share parent with our kids. Now he conceptualizes the task of heading out the door with the kids (he knows ahead of time that it’s a recurring issue), comes up with a plan (decides on what to pack in advance), and executes (grabs the water bottles, snacks, and toys).
If you feel like the mental load is heavy and your resentment is growing, it’s time to do something different. Here are four things to consider:
1. Educate using a third party.
Your partner may not be intentionally putting you in the CEO role. Unfortunately, gender roles are learned through early childhood experiences and societal messaging. While this isn’t an excuse, let’s use this understanding to then start onboarding our partner by talking about the mental load. Be sure to grab Eve Rodsky’s book Fair Play. You and your partner can also listen to my podcast episode with Eve, a powerful session for both partners!
2. Designate and offload tasks that are not seen.
Who opens and closes the house? Who reaches out to contacts for summer camp plans? What invisible tasks could you start making visible?
I used to close the house each night. My husband didn’t see me checking all the doors and ensuring the car was locked. All he saw was me angry when I would arrive into the bedroom and he was horizontal. Discussing this task and asking him to take responsibility for it was key. Remember– the nuanced difference between offloading and list-making is helping reveal the task at hand, and the other partner taking full responsibility from that point forward.
3. Talk about responsibility
A key part in tackling the mental load is each partner taking full responsibility for the tasks they have agreed to do. We’re all adults. If someone has a hard time remembering, there are strategies available. It’s not okay to say ‘I forgot’ repeatedly. Explore various systems and behavioral strategies (e.g., shared calendars; Google keep lists; timers for task completion) that work best for you.
4. Step back. Let them fail and learn
Your partner won’t learn all the things you already know if you are telling them step by step. In order for them to take on the entire mental load associated with that task, they will likely make mistakes, take longer to complete the task, or do the task differently than you. Our work in our relationships is not to be the same person, but instead to co-create our worlds together. Building healthy interdependence says “I am me and you are you. We are both okay.” In order to nurture interdependence, allow your partner to struggle in finding ways to complete tasks that works best for them.
When you begin to feel resentful in your relationship, it’s time to look inward and address what is happening between you and your partner. A clue is assessing your teammate status. Remember that you and your partner are exactly that– partners. So it’s time to shift out of the managerial/helper mode and into a more shared and connected team.
My book, I Didn’t Sign Up For This: A Couples Therapist Shares Real Life Stories of Healing Wounds and Finding Joy in Relationships… Including Her Own, is available for preorder! Learn how to change your repeating patterns in your relationship and build healthy interdependence. As a thank you for preordering, I'll be sending you exclusive book bonuses to help you continue to grow in your relationship.
Through real-life stories of couples in my office, you’ll learn to create healthy interdependence in your relationship.
In the book, you meet Emily and Matt, a couple with a newborn baby attempting to deal with the mental load. Emily says she feels like the CEO but Matt only continues to get defensive of all the things that he does to help. Matt keeps looking to Emily to tell him that he is good enough, while Emily continues to work our old patterns of being a parentified child. Join me in their story, alongside practical tools and strategies that you can use in your own relationship today.