Balancing the ‘Mental Load’ in a Relationship

By Relationships Australia

If there’s an imbalance in domestic obligations in your relationship, you may be carrying the ‘mental load’. We explore ways to find more balance.

A US study found that for women in heterosexual relationships, sharing the responsibility of doing the dishes is more important than any other chore.

In relationships where women take on more than their share of domestic labour, we see more relationship conflict, less satisfaction and worse sex, compared to those with partners who share the load. If you think it’s easier to let gender equality fade into the background, think again.

It may seem like a minor issue – but housework and ‘mental load’ inequality costs us a lot more than we realise. Gender inequity is also at the heart of domestic violence, coercive control and sexual assault. This is due to stereotypes that assign unequal value to men and women, along with an unequal distribution of power, resources, and opportunity.

Unequal partnerships are less happy partnerships

“Who’s doing the dishes?” may appear to be a straightforward question, but many studies show the answer has a significant impact on the quality of time you share as a family, as well as the health and longevity of your relationship as a couple.

Whether you identify as a feminist or not, it doesn’t take much imagination to recognise that inequity in domestic roles can cause stress, resentment and erode family wellbeing and relationship satisfaction.

When we think about addressing gender equality, we tend to focus on work. Society is now far more inclined to support women to pursue careers, be accepted into political office or company boards, or set up their own businesses (although the gender pay gap persists). But when it comes to the home front, traditional values continue to dominate, and major change is slow.

Traditional gender roles still exist in Australia today

According to the 2018 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey of Australian households, even when both partners work full time, Australian women still take on most household chores. This remains the case even when the woman is the primary breadwinner.

The 2021 HILDA survey found that women do 21 more hours of unpaid work per week compared to men. Housework was the largest form of unpaid work, followed by childcare, with the amount of unpaid work escalating sharply after the birth of a first child.

Men do a little more unpaid work than they once did, from 24.7 hours a week in 2001, to 27.8 hours in 2021. But the greater share of housework and childcare still falls to women, and in particular, mothers.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Time Use Survey found that, on average during 2020-21, females spent four hours and 31 minutes a day doing unpaid work activities. Men spent over an hour less on these activities, averaging three hours and 12 minutes a day.

Carrying the ‘mental load’

There is also the ‘mental load’ that women carry disproportionately. This involves the intangible burden of keeping in mind the never-ending details, logistics and schedules of family life and making sure everyone gets their needs met. It’s no surprise women feel exhausted and demoralised when this work is not valued or recognised.

We expect younger generations to be more challenging of traditional roles. But a US survey found that, although younger couples are more egalitarian when it comes to most things related to gender roles, they’re no more likely to divide home chores equitably than older couples.

How to fairly balance the ‘mental load’ and domestic responsibilities

The gendered division of housework will only be made equal when men do more, and this requires both men and women to become conscious of how their behaviour prevents change.

Here’s how to go about it.

Consider past influences

Name the outdated assumptions you grew up with about who does what – for example, women should leave work to care for sick children, or men are not as good at caring for small children – and challenge and change them.

Challenge current habits

Why do women buy into taking on the domestic and mental load? Our beliefs about gender are so engrained and direct us in unconscious ways through fears of being judged and not loved.

Step away from the negative stereotypes around the word ‘feminist’ and recognise that a feminist is simply a person of any gender who believes that gender equity is for the benefit of us all.

Parenting goals

Do you perpetuate traditional roles and expectations of your sons and daughters through how you raise them? Do your children do chores that are not divided down gender lines? Teach your children that housework is a team effort.

Start as you mean to go on

Think about what kind of family life you want, and how a fair division of household responsibilities will make life happier and healthier for everyone. Moving in together or having a baby are critical moments where couples need to establish a shared approach to housework.

Be accountable for women

Are you trapped in the homemaker and ‘competent parent’ role because you want things done a certain way? Can you accept your partner might do things differently? Can you let go, or agree on what is acceptable to both of you?

If you’re a man, are you continuing to justify non-participation by saying you already ‘gave all you have at the office’? Own your reluctance to take on more and consider what you also lose by being less involved in the household.

Communicate and re-negotiate

Heterosexual couples can learn from the more equitable domestic arrangements of same-sex couples. While they need to make the same decisions about how to combine work and family, the absence of assumptions based on traditional gender roles requires more communication, resulting in less stress and conflict.

Consider listing all chores involved in running a household, including the more invisible ‘mental load’, and agree on an even division. There are now apps for this purpose, such as Sweepy and Spotless, and you could consider using a whiteboard for reminders and extra tasks that arise along the way.

The book Fair Play also offers couples a way to divvy up domestic responsibilities in a way that’s fair and values both parties time equally.

Become a team

Sharing tasks such as dishwashing or gardening involves teamwork that can not only make you feel more connected but also provides positive role modelling for children.

Sometimes couples get so stuck in roles and habits that it’s hard to break free. But with a little awareness, we can change patterns and attitudes that can turn destructive if they’re not addressed. Professional help might be part of the solution to more lasting change.

The more we can work to break down traditional gender roles, the more society can aspire to equality and respect for everyone, regardless of gender.

Relationships Australia NSW offers couples counselling that can help you work on these issues. Get in touch today.

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