The ‘Mental Load’ is a very real (and often overlooked) challenge in domestic partnerships. The Mental Load is all unseen labor that is required to maintain a household and family. And it is exhausting!
If you and your partner are having sex issues, you might start by looking at your division of household labor, including the seen and unseen labor!
In my last post sex myths to dismantle, you’ll find some other research that shows why (in heterosexual relationships) women’s desire drops precipitously. This is often related to not wanting the sex on the menu. There is another big reason behind the desire drop-off that many heterosexual couples experience, and it’s totally worth the work to help relieve it.
In heterosexual relationships, the division of household labor and childcare is still wildly imbalanced. And women carry most of the household burden and the mental load. When women carry the mental load, it turns partners into dependents, and (understandably) squishes their desire. Have you ever heard a friend joke about her boyfriend/husband being ‘another kid to take care of”? Yea, if she sees her partner as a dependent, they are likely not having much sex.
Just how big of a challenge is this? Researchers commissioned a study about the mental load and division of labor of nearly 300 heterosexual couples in Australia. There were not enough couples in the category in which the male partner does more household work, so they had to throw out that group as a data point!
WAIT! What’s the mental load?!
The mental load is something so important and so overlooked. Research shows that even if the physical household duties are more equally divided, often one partner is tasked with the bulk of household and/or family management aka, THE MENTAL LOAD. This is essentially project management for the household—it’s overlooked, unpaid, and can be truly exhausting. It also puts the household manager in ‘charge’ of the other partner.
Here’s what the mental load might look like:
- Having to remember when to stock up on supplies (when do we need to buy toothpaste and toilet paper)
- When is my annual // the kids’ annual exams and dentist visits and allergy shots, and hair appointments and camp registration and school fees due
- When do we need to take out the trash to the curb, mail rent, send the parents the birthday cards, plan the weekend adventures, buy the gifts for the upcoming events, schedule repairs, and so much MORE.
- All the adulting tasks that one person needs to do amplified with the sharing of a household and kid duties!
A few years ago this powerful feminist comic about the mental load made a splash:
This overwhelming, unending, daily project management sucks away desire. It can damage connection, trust, and build resentment and frustration in the partnership. Neither of these are good ingredients for a good sex life. Finally, when women carry the mental load, it turns their partners into dependents, and (understandably) squishes their desire.
Sociologist Allison Daminger did research about the mental load, and broke it down into four distinct things that all need a different type of attention. Daminger refers to this cognitive labor as anticipate, identify, decide, monitor. She also found that in the household, many people ascribe their ability to anticipate, identify, decide, and monitor as a part of their nature. Many people display these habits at work but not at home, showing that’s it’s an acquired behavior.
The Mental Load and Sex
Creating a partnership that is a true partnership takes effort, and a lot of it comes down to addressing this unseen labor. Talk to your partner about their physical workload and their mental load. As a partner, you need to be proactive. This means taking on tasks that are not normally yours. It means being conscientious about who is the ‘default’ person to manage specific tasks (ie: one person is always tasked with groceries, while another is always tasked with kid scheduling). This is especially important for couples with children, and it will look different in each partnership.
Is changing the mental load going to automatically fix your sex life? Not likely! And, it can be a first step into addressing some of the hidden, undercurrent issues in your relationship. To really build a sex life that lasts, you need to ensure you talk about sex like it matters. This takes time, effort, and shared responsibility. Building in non-sexual intimate touch can help. Spend time focused on connection and intimacy instead of just sexual play can be healing and connecting. Finally, rethinking HOW you have sex with your person (not just the activities, but the how and why behind lovemaking), is essential to building a relationship full of sex worth having.