Opening Tasks: A couples therapist’s theory as to why men struggle with the mental load
A common complaint from women in my therapy room and my online community is that their partner doesn’t seem to notice when a task needs to be done. She ends up feeling like the CEO of the household, relationship, and childcare. He says ‘just give me a list, and I’ll help.’ (I’ll be using the gender division of labor most commonly found in my practice and community, though I acknowledge this dynamic is not universal).
Similar to the dynamic of Emily and Matt in my book, I Didn’t Sign Up for This, tackling the mental load results in a downward spiral of the same repeating argument every time: One partner says, “You never notice these things. Why do I have to tell you what to do?” while the other partner says, “If you weren’t such a nag or had impossible standards, then I would get it done.”
The mental load is a complex topic, and needs to be addressed in order to change the rate of burnout for women who often work over 90 hours a week in paid and unpaid labor between their career and familial responsibilities, such as childcare, household tasks, and relational investments. If you’re looking for a powerful, effective system to address the mental load, be sure to check out Eve Rodsky’s bestselling book, Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for when you have too much to do (and more life to live).
So the question is: Do men notice the things that need to be done and consciously choose not to do it? Or do they actually not notice these things unless they’re pointed out?
With nearly two decades of working with clients, I have witnessed common patterns that show up in long term relationships. Here, I will walk us through three key factors contributing to why men so often struggle to open tasks and navigate the mental load: socialization and cultural conditioning, avoidance as a coping mechanism, and the pervasive influence of shame.
A note: This article is written with the heterosexual couple in mind. The majority of my clinical experience is with heterosexual couples, and therefore I am speaking from this perspective. While research shows that negative relationship cycles do show up in same-sex couples, we do tend to see a more fair distribution of household, relational, and childcare labor.
What Stops Him From Noticing Tasks?
Deep Socialization of Gender Norms and Cultural Conditioning
From a young age, individuals are exposed to societal expectations that shape their perception of gender roles. Traditional norms dictate that women are the primary caregivers and organizers within the household, while men are tasked with external responsibilities. This cultural conditioning can create a blind spot for men when it comes to recognizing the invisible tasks that need to be completed around the home, be it for the kids or within the relationship (i.e., planning dates; expressing appreciation; showing up with vulnerability).
My work has revealed that most men are taught to be on autopilot (see the next point about avoidance), while women are taught to be super scanners for threat and danger. In my own marriage, I can identify ten steps ahead of potential danger that may cause my child to get hurt, while my husband doesn’t see them. Perhaps this is my brain using its activated amygdala to find threats that aren’t really there, or maybe it’s a true reflection of how men and women so often show up differently in our environments.
As a result, men may not consciously register the mental and emotional energy required for planning, organizing, and managing the day-to-day aspects of life. The normalization of these roles can inadvertently lead to an oversight of the invisible tasks that contribute to the mental load. They’re not intentionally weaponizing incompetence– instead it’s an automatic default.
While we can recognize this problem is largely rooted in socialization, it does not mean we can’t call for a deep reorganization of the system that is currently in place in our relationships. I often hesitate to talk about socialization because for many it can feel like an excuse. It’s tricky. The answer to “Why doesn’t my husband notice the things that I do?” does need to come with a big dose of awareness of how he was taught to orient himself in the world well before he met you. And it’s equally true that men are responsible for actively changing this narrative so that progression and education do not become additional weights for women to bear.
Where do we begin to create new wiring in your husband’s brain that enables him to see tasks in the household? A helpful place might be to use the Fair Play system I mentioned above. This tool guides us in opening a conversation about all the behind-the-scenes obligations happening to sustain the household. It will also help you identify your family values and choose which tasks take priority in this season of your life.
When having this conversation to redistribute the mental load more fairly between partners, it’s vital that your partner takes full ownership of a task, from start to finish. Many couples struggle to get their partners onboard with tackling the mental load because they fail to offload a task completely. For example, by telling your husband to purchase more size 6 clothing for your child (this is the execution of a task), they don’t have the conceptualization and planning of the task (i.e., checking child’s fit of current clothing, sorting through clothes, identifying the missing items in a child’s wardrobe, and planning when/where to purchase items).
Avoidance as a Coping Mechanism
Men, like anyone else, can easily develop coping mechanisms for overwhelming situations that are not helpful or healthy in the long run. When tasks accumulate, emotions intensify, and responsibilities seem insurmountable, avoidance shows up as a popular strategy– especially in men, who were taught to suppress discomfort to avoid seeming weak. . Avoidance serves as a way to evade the underlying feelings beneath the problem. This shutdown response is a short-term protective measure that attempts to dissolve tension with their partner.
In the process of shutting down, individuals become emotionally detached from their surroundings. When detached, they will inadvertently overlook or dismiss invisible tasks that contribute to the mental load. For many men in my therapy room, they live on autopilot, which allows them to disconnect from their internal distress and move from one task to the next, without being present to what is happening inside of them OR around them. This coping strategy can create a blind spot, preventing men from fully grasping the extent of the household, childcare, and relational responsibilities.
I have heard people describe household tasks as morally neutral, meaning that whether you do a task or not, it is not tied to your worthiness or adequacy. But when the plate is left on the counter and not put in the dishwasher repeatedly, and your partner keeps asking you to do it, it no longer remains neutral. Instead, it's a representation of the feelings of lack of consideration and accountability that becomes charged with lingering emotional distress and disconnection.
Men would benefit from learning to tune into their emotional and physiological state from moment to moment. There are simple and effective grounding strategies that allow us to acknowledge internal distress and come back to the present moment, enabling more attunement to our partners, surroundings, and invisible (or visible) tasks. These strategies include breathwork, temperature shocks (such as holding an ice cube in your hand), and physical movement.
Core Feelings of Shame
In I Didn’t Sign Up for This, I highlight the internal shame that both Matt and Peter experienced in their relationship. This difficult emotion didn’t start with their current relationship, but instead is rooted in their past experiences with caregivers and former partners.
Here’s an important note on how shame arises within a relationship: In heterosexual dynamics, most women are concerned with connection and seeking to know they matter to their loved one. For men, their core needs and longings revolve around seeking to know they are adequate and enough for their partner.
Shame, often deeply ingrained and rooted in early experiences, can act as a barrier to acknowledging and addressing the mental load. Men, conditioned by societal expectations and gender norms, may internalize a sense of shame when they perceive themselves as falling short of these expectations.
This internalized shame can prevent them from engaging in any system that requires them to seek help or discuss the challenges they face.The fear of judgement, rejection, or inadequacy intensify their shame, creating a reluctance to admit when they’re struggling with tasks or to understand what is happening between them and their partner.
To address shame, practice the following: Remove your partner’s requests and explanations of their mental load from your sense of self. Remember that two things can be true: You are adequate and enough in this relationship. AND you can build better systems together to create a more fair division of labor.
The big question: Is it a conscious choice that men don’t notice mental load tasks around the home? Likely not. This blindness isn't necessarily intentional. However, couples can work together as a team to change how the mental load is addressed, which means finding a system that both parties adhere to.
Understanding the connection between men shutting down and their awareness of the mental load tasks is crucial for fostering open communication and addressing the inequities of domestic responsibilities. It’s imperative to acknowledge that societal norms discourage male engagement in the mental load, and to recognize that this socialization means men often shutdown and live on autopilot.
While a “you vs. me” dialogue is all too common in relationships, we have the ability to shift our perspective to “you and me vs. the mental load.” Encouraging open conversations about the mental load helps both partners feel seen and connected, sharing the burden of the visible and invisible labor in the home. Remember this: when we build an understanding for each person’s internal experiences, we are more likely to approach each other from a place of empathy and compassion.
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