Los Angeles Chapter  California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists

Los Angeles Chapter — CAMFT

Guest Article

09/30/2021 3:00 PM | Mike Johnsen (Administrator)
Amy McManus

Amy McManus, LMFT

Carrying the Mental Load—
Why Women Are Anxious

Women often complain that they do all the work in the house, even when they also have a full-time job and career. When they complain that they are overwhelmed by all they have to do, their partners say “You shouldn’t worry so much!” This is not as helpful as their partners think it is.

Research shows that women do more of the physical household work, although the ratio has changed dramatically in the last 50 years.

But what about the Mental Load?

What about the cognitive labor—the thinking, planning, deciding, and problem-solving necessary to run a household and a relationship?

Note that by “running a household” we’re not just talking about vacuuming and grocery shopping, etc., but also financial planning; interactions with extended family; gifts for friends, family, service workers, and colleagues; travel; insurance; pet care; healthcare; car maintenance; sports equipment purchases and maintenance; neighborhood involvement; and other aspects of adulting. And that’s if you don’t have kids.

Allison Daminger, Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and Social Policy at Harvard University, has done research about the way couples divide the mental load. She breaks down the mental load into 4 parts:

  • Anticipate a Need
  • Identify Options
  • Decide and Execute a Plan of Attack
  • Monitor Results

Ms. Daminger found that often when couples say their decision-making is collaborative, they are referring to the “Decide and Execute” phase of the decision-making. The “Identify Options” phase is sometimes shared as well.

Couples will tell you they chose that new sofa together—but chances are that the woman is the one who pointed out that they needed a new couch and researched the options. She is probably the one that deals with any problems with production or delivery as well.

The “Anticipate a Need” phase and the “Monitor Results” phase, however, are by-and-large tasks that fall on the woman alone.

These tasks are mostly invisible, so women don’t get “credit” for doing them—often they aren’t even aware of it themselves! These tasks are often time-consuming, and demand that a woman take time from a busy career or from personal activities in order to perform them.

But one of the least-appreciated aspects of these tasks is that they require constant vigilance.

Ms. Daminger tells us this cognitive labor imbalance can engender a “pervasive sense of anxiety: Which needs have they failed to anticipate? What schedule conflicts have they not foreseen? Which ongoing home project might they have lost track of along the way?”

“Decide and Execute” is a one-and-done task. “Identify Options”, though it can be time-consuming, has a distinct beginning and end. Also, interestingly enough, Ms. Daminger’s work does not identify whether there is a difference in genders in the amount of time spent on identifying options. Other researchers have pointed out that women tend to worry more about things household-related, because our culture will judge them more on the results. This could easily lead to them spending more time trying to find the best option available.

As therapists when we have a woman in our office who is suffering from a feeling of being constantly overwhelmed, we may approach this issue in a number of ways.

We may teach her relaxation techniques, or use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to challenge her beliefs about perfectionism. We may explore her attachment issues to see why she feels like she needs her home to be so well-run.

In these cases I would encourage you to also explore the relationship your client has with their partner. Even in the case of a healthy relationship, the bearing of the bulk of the mental load is often invisible, and often on the woman.

You can help your client:

  • understand the different aspects of cognitive labor.
  • identify the distribution of cognitive labor in their relationship.
  • process any resentment (or self-recrimination) that they might feel about this imbalance
  • learn ways to communicate with their partners about this cognitive labor, so that they can share the burden in the future.

One helpful tool is Eve Rodsky’s excellent book Fair Play, which gives couples a system for dividing up household tasks that includes both physical tasks and cognitive tasks.

Fair Play also addresses another common relationship issue—that the woman is “in charge” of managing the household.

French blogger Emma Clit addresses this in her hilarious feminist comic, “You Should’ve Asked.” The woman in the comic knocks herself out taking care of the house and the children and dinner for the guests, while her partner drinks cocktails and chats with their friends. When something boils over on the stove and makes a huge mess, he says to her, “What a disaster! What did you do???” She screams back, “I did everything, that’s what I did!”. Her partner, nonplussed, responds, “You should’ve asked. I would’ve helped!”

The woman is not the boss of running the household that two people share. Do your clients say things to their partners like, “Can you help me and take out that garbage tonight, honey?” Make sure they understand how their language promotes the idea that they are the boss and their partners are merely helpers. This dynamic is completely unconscious in many couples, and it eats away at equality and fosters resentment—but it is easy to change!

Sometimes when women present these ideas to their partners, their partners will say something to the effect of, “I just don’t care as much about these things as you do, sweetheart, so you should take charge on this.” Women can get sucked into this philosophy—after all, maybe they do care more about the new sofa, or the dental insurance, or the neighborhood meeting—but if this response is all they ever get, you can help them see the passive-aggressive nature of that dynamic. In these situations a referral to couples therapy can do wonders to assist your client with the anxiety that presents in individual therapy. Refer your client and her partner to your friends and colleagues—it’s a win-win!

Amy McManus, LMFT, helps anxious young adults build healthy new relationships with themselves and others after a breakup. Amy’s blog, “Life Hacks,” offers practical tips for thriving in today’s crazy plugged-in world. Learn more about Amy from her website www.thrivetherapyla.com.

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