Managing our "Mental Load" and Fostering Meaningful Connections in Relationships with Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, CGT

In this episode, we talk to Elizabeth Earnshaw about how we distribute and manage the “mental load” we carry within our relationships, how our “shoulds” might be keeping us stuck, and how to more effectively communicate and connect with others, even in the most difficult conversations.

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December 7th, 2021

Episode Notes

Memorable Moments:

  • 3:02 The mental load is that work that we have to do that’s not physical, but that keeps a life, a relationship, a family running. So anything from having to remember, having to delegate, having to pay attention to dynamics, you know, noticing how people are feeling if they’re getting along, if they’re happy in a situation, those are all things that are in the mental load. 
  • 3:41 The problem becomes when only one person is shouldering that mental load and they didn’t fully agree to do that. 
  • 4:30 One thing when I’m working with premarital couples that we talk about a lot is for them to explore this idea of a mental load because it often doesn’t really feel problematic until there’s a lot of layered responsibilities. 
  • 7:16 If you are suffocating under the mental load, you have to be willing to let your partner do it in their way, as long as it gets done. And that might mean that you come home and you cringe because the way that the person they chose to do landscaping didn’t do it the right way. But you have to take a deep breath and recognize that the bigger picture is that you’re getting a break. 
  • 8:55 So my job in this situation is to keep expressing that I’m frustrated, let my partner know that I’m really looking forward to the way that they’re resolving this and all of that kind of stuff, but like allowing him to truly deal with it. Which is really hard, and when I work with couples, a lot of people will be like, “but it means that our house isn’t going to look right.” And I’m like, “yes, I totally get that.” And it takes a period of time to readjust, to giving some of this up and seeing that most of the time, it truly does work out.
  • 9:52 Couples get themselves in really messy spots when they start getting into this, it’s almost like a stubbornness, where they’re saying, I’m not going to talk about it because they should. I’m not going to bring that up because they should know better. I’m not going to go to their parent’s house anymore because their parents shouldn’t act that way. I’m not going to let my partner know that they bummed me out because they should already know that; who wouldn’t know that?
  • 10:18 The second you start to get to that place, you get into a place that I call willfulness. Where you have put your feet in the ground, you’re digging your heels in and you’re saying, I’m just going to sit still here until you please me. The problem is, if your partner truly knew if they did, most of the time they would do the right thing. So if, if they really did know about the mental load, most of the time they’ll want to talk to you about it. If they do know, and they still don’t care to do it, then that’s actually really important information for you to hear. 
  • 12:02 And when we start thinking in the shoulds, what we do is we really block out communication and we also tend to then shame the other person. Because if you should know something or you should do something, then it means that you’ve made a mistake, right? Because you didn’t do it or you didn’t know it. 
  • 13:19 So difficult conversations are going to be everywhere during the holiday season. I think they always are, but especially now, because people have to decide what they’re thinking about their health, what they feel comfortable with, what they feel disappointed by and adding that on to the layers of disappointment, discomfort, sadness, grief, all of that, that has already happened over the past year and some, right? So it’s a lot. Something that is really, really important for people to be able to do when they’re approaching a difficult conversation is to know how to enter it gently. And to enter it from a space where you want your partner to be your ally. You’re not entering it immediately seeing them as the opposition.
  • 14:09 What happens with really tough conversations sometimes is that we feel so anxious. We feel so overwhelmed, so worried that we’re not going to get what we need, that we already address the other person like they’re our enemy. 
  • 14:49 So if we start from an offensive position, we can not expect the other person to be in a neutral position. But we often act really surprised when they’re defensive.
  • 15:58 Let the other person talk first because as soon as you let the other person talk, their defenses are down.
  • 17:51 It takes the ability to have other awareness and self-awareness to be gentle and firm. If you don’t have both of that awareness, what happens is you are too far on one side or the other. 
  • 18:42 But when you’re having a tough conversation with your partner, you want to try to stay in this place of I still see you as a human being with feelings, with needs, with thoughts. I’m still curious about you. I want to understand where you’re coming from. And, I see myself as a person with thoughts and needs. And I want you to be curious about me.
  • 21:04 Human beings are wired to connect with other people, but we’re also really wired for aggression too. So we are nuanced, we like to fight people and we like to love people. Neither one is actually the more dominant trait, they’re both there. 
  • 24:10 So in our everyday interactions, we want to increase the amount that we’re turning towards because what research has shown us is that when people are turning towards their relationships, and I think this is pretty obvious, tend to be happier. 
  • 24:56 In the big picture with our communities, we want to create connection, not isolation and distance. In our intimate partnerships, obviously, you want connection. So you want to really look for the ways in which you can turn towards. 

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This podcast is hosted by Allison Walsh and Dr. Angela Phillips. It is produced by Allison Walsh, Ashley Tate, and Nicole LaNeve. For more information or if you’re interested in being a guest on this podcast, please visit

Show Contributors
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Elizabeth Earnshaw

Over the last decade, Elizabeth Earnshaw (LMFT) has become one of today’s most trusted relationship teachers. Elizabeth is a renowned Gottman therapist, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), Clinical Fellow of The American Association of Marriage & Family Therapy (MA), and influential Instagram therapist who has helped transform countless relationships. She is the Head Therapist at Actually, where she works to make relational wellness mainstream and accessible. She also owns A Better Life Therapy in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, supporting clinicians who are helping couples every day. Out on November 30, 2021, Elizabeth’s debut book, I WANT THIS TO WORK, is a trustworthy, inclusive guide to navigating the most challenging relationship issues we face. Couples will learn to work with three challenges they must tackle to repair and strengthen their relationships: conflict, healing, and connection. Culturally inclusive, LGBTQIA+ friendly, and written for both married and unmarried couples, this book brings an accessible guide to healing relationships and creating enduring intimacy. For more information, please visit Elizabeth’s social media handles are: @lizlistens and @abetterlifetherapy.