The one phrase that saved my marriage and helped me to ease the mental load

The mental load is a very real struggle that many married couples with children experience - you're not alone...

Woman smiling at camera on sofa
(Image credit: Cat Sims)

Six years ago I sat down and told my husband we were separating. The resentment had become too much. I wanted to scratch his eyes out every time he walked into a room. I was hot with rage and I had no idea why, but I knew that I couldn’t carry on.

I had it all figured out. I’d even rented a flat nearby for three months so that we could ‘bird nest’ when it came to child care for our two daughters. My husband was blindsided. Sure, marriage had turned out to be harder - a lot harder - than any romcom had led us to believe, but it hadn’t occurred to him that it would end in separation or divorce. He asked me whether I would go back to couple’s therapy and I very reluctantly agreed. 

But it got me thinking. Why were our views of our relationship so vastly different? Why was I so desperately unhappy that I was willing to walk away from a marriage with two children, while he thought we were simply experiencing a rough patch, nothing that couldn’t be overcome? 

Family images of dad looking at camera

Husband Jimmy with daughters Billie (on shoulders) and Bo

(Image credit: Cat Sims)

I’ll tell you why. The mental load. If you’ve followed me on Instagram or TikTok then you’ll know that I spend a lot of time banging on about the mental load. I know I’m not the first but after a long, expensive, and emotionally exhausting journey through couple’s therapy, I’m starting to realise that most of the messaging surrounding the mental load is not as helpful as we think it is. It’s always reassuring to know we’re not the only one, so seeing someone talk about the searing resentment we feel as women running a household, and to be able to hear them verbalise it in a way that makes it make sense finally, is enormously cathartic and validating. But, being able to give it a name isn’t enough to save your marriage. Sending TikToks and Reels about the mental load to your husband and saying, ‘See? This is everything I feel,’ might act as a starting point for a transformative conversation if, and only if, you have really strong and effective communication tools. But, in my experience, those tools are not readily available to us without the guiding hand of a therapist or a really, really wise friend.

Why don’t we have those tools? Well, we simply haven’t been given them. Very few of us grew up in a family where effective communication skills existed. I don’t know about you, but the only communication my parents were fluent in was passive aggression, eye rolls, and ‘jokes’ that didn’t really feel much like jokes. In the same way, I inherited the idea that it was my job, as the woman in a relationship to bear the burden of the mental load, so too did I inherit that idea that if he didn’t just know, then I was perfectly justified in being resentful and pissed off - feelings I would communicate through the medium of door slamming, clipped “I’m fines” when I clearly wasn’t, and increasingly frequent explosions of rage.

"We had been operating under strategies that started from the premise that we were enemies, rather than a team."

You see, it’s easy for us as women to blame men for not just knowing what the mental load is and stepping up. It’s a narrative that’s been handed down to us. Men are useless around the house. They have no idea what it takes. They’re idiots. If I had a penny for every time a woman has sarcastically responded with something along the lines of, “Yeah, adds *teach man about mental load* to my mental load list” I’d be a very, very rich woman. And I get it, I really do. But, in the same way that we subconsciously learned about the mental load from looking at our mothers, the male species subconsciously turned their backs on it by learning from the fathers. It’s the natural way of things.

Family images of dad looking at camera

Cat and husband Jimmy on their wedding day

(Image credit: Cat Sims)

Men are not to blame for not being able to read our minds or to 'just know'; the same as we’re not to blame for instinctively taking everything on but that doesn’t mean we don’t both have a responsibility to be part of the solution. When we were in therapy there was a light bulb moment for me, in regards to our discussions around the mental load. I’d been banging on about the dishes he left on the worktop right above the dishwasher, instead of putting them in the dishwasher.

I was savvy enough to know that my rage at discovering said dishes was disproportionate to the crime committed, but I couldn’t understand why. I assumed it was a case of the dish that broke the martyr's back, but our therapist framed it differently. She said, ‘It’s not about the plates. It’s about the fact that you don’t feel kept in mind.” That was it. Throughout our whole relationship, I hadn’t felt kept in mind, and, here’s the kicker, neither did he.

"... our therapist framed it differently. She said, ‘It’s not about the plates. It’s about the fact that you don’t feel kept in mind.”

The ‘How to Be Married’ blueprints we had been handed by our parents were actually more like battle plans. We had been operating under strategies that started from the premise that we were enemies, rather than a team. Our partners were people we would have to fight every damn day to get what we needed out of it. We hadn’t been taught to keep each other in mind, we’d been taught to be suspicious of them, assume bad intentions, and fight dirty when required. So we changed our approach. He worked hard to become aware of the mental load. It wasn’t going to be instinctive for him because he hadn’t spent a lifetime perfecting it, but his willingness to sidestep his ego and learn from me meant a lot. In the same way, I had to work on not relying on telepathy as a reliable form of communication. I also had to drop the martyr act I’d become pretty comfortable with and learn to sidestep my own ego by asking for help when I needed it.

I also needed to start being OK with the fact that it might not be done the same way I would do it. That, honestly, was the hardest part. When I found plates stacked on the worktop above the dishwasher, I would say, “Babe, I don’t feel very kept in mind here,” rather than use it as my usual cue to slam some doors or initiate the silent treatment. When I would make an extravagant purchase that I definitely didn’t need, he would say, “I don’t feel kept in mind.” The beauty of that phrase, ‘feeling kept in mind’ is that there is nothing accusatory about it. It’s not aggressive or mean and it doesn’t allow for any grey areas. It’s not something that can be right or wrong, because it’s about how you feel. 

Sure, we used it a LOT at first but as the months and years have gone on, we’ve had to use it less and less. In fact, now we’re more likely to say, ‘Sorry about that - I didn’t keep you in mind there,’ and while it may not sound like the most romantic of phrases, it gives me the warm fuzzies because on a cellular level I know, and I can trust, that we are approaching marriage as a team and not as a territorial battle. It hasn’t fixed all our issues and yes, of course, we still fight and lose our shit, but the difference is that we now trust that we will both get what we need out of the relationship without having to fight tooth and nail for it because we are committed to keeping each other in mind.

Try Cat Sims' The Mental Load List to help kick start the conversation around what the mental load is, how it's affecting your relationship, and steps to make changes.

Like what Cat has to say? Check out her other columns, she talks candidly about being the Sandwich Generation, about how mothers need to own Mother's Day and forget everyone else, and the women who regret their divorces - not to mention her thoughts on Kinkeeping and how dangerous this term really is.

Cat Sims
Author, mum-of-two and content creator

Cat Sims is a writer, content creator, podcaster (You're never the only one) and author of 'The First Time You Smiled' who is still trying to figure out the whole 'adulting' thing. She's made a living out of documenting her failures and successes as a 40-year-old woman, mother, and wife across various social media platforms.