Your ‘Mental Load’ Is Killing Your Libido

Your ‘Mental Load’ Is Killing Your Libido

How relationship inequity dims women’s sex lives

Grocery lists. Upcoming birthdays. Children’s weekly schedules, your partner’s upcoming dentist appointment, and what you need to pick up for the dinner party you’re hosting this week.

It’s your mental load. And it’s doing more than causing exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and stress: it’s quite literally killing your libido.

“Mental load” refers to the invisible psychological gymnastics required to anticipate the needs of and manage a household, like a mini-Alexa wired into your brain that you can’t shut off. Who carries more of the mental load depends on the relationship—and to be clear, many men juggle plenty of household responsibilities—but it’s well documented that this cognitive labor is disproportionately carried by women.

Research shows time and again that women shoulder more housework in the majority of American homes—even today, even when both partners work—and a growing number of studies find that women are most often the primary “captains” of the home: tracking routines and schedules, keeping order, and ensuring children are emotionally supported.

This unacknowledged, unpaid labor of planning, scheduling, and tracking household to-do’s is constant, boundaryless, and hard to stop because it is inextricably connected to the care of loved ones. And when we can’t turn that cognitive weight off, researchers are finding women have an extremely difficult time being turned on.

Studies on mental load or its variants date back to the 1980s. This research has been essential in shining a spotlight on gender inequality within households that persist today. But studies struggle to translate mental loads into, say, hours of work. By its very definition, mental load is relentless so you never “clock out.” You might leave home to spend an evening with friends and spend much of the night thinking about everything you have to do tomorrow, or texting your partner when you arrive to make sure he doesn’t forget to feed the dog.

To be fair, same-sex couples struggle with mismatched mental loads too, but statistically to a far lesser degree; and as we’ll get to, men are not the de facto guilty party. Women are socialized almost from Day One to manage this. But there’s also a way for us to do better and ask for more.

More than 50% of women report having “low desire.” But science is finally catching up to the fact that this metric can’t sit squarely on assumptions of hormonal imbalances, nor can it be medicated away.

While long-known that happiness in a relationship directly impacts female desire for their partners, a study published in 2022 in the Journal of Sex Research discovered how the connection is made. In that report, “Fairer Sex: The Role of Relationship Equity in Female Sexual Desire,“ researchers surveyed Australian women about equity in their relationships. The study’s authors discovered “women’s sense of fairness within a relationship forecasts their contentment, which has repercussions on their desire for their partner.” In other words, equality in relationships correlated directly with female sexual desire for a partner.

The findings support the theory that female sexual desire is “a multifaceted construct” worthy of further research.

Desire is not a monolith. It comes in two parts: dyadic desire—sexual longing you feel for another person—and solo desire, which is more about interest in solo sexual activities. “We need to think of desire in a more sophisticated way,” said Dr. Simone Buzwell, co-author of the “Fairer Sex” study and senior lecturer in psychology at Swinburne University of Technology. Buzwell is an academic psychologist who has spent more than 20 years working in health and developmental psychology with a focus on sexuality. “These two things [dyadic and solo desire] are quite distinct—not as connected as we thought.”

Tellingly, in “Fairer Sex,” researchers found that mental load directly obstructed dyadic desire without a measurable impact on solitary (or self) desire.

For many women, the mental load of their relationship quietly grows over time. “We did find in the study that relationship length makes a difference,” Buzwell said. “People say libido drops because people get bored. We found it wasn’t that, it was that the inequity became greater over time.”

Indeed, studies show minor inequalities within relationships tend to deepen with the arrival of children, when many parents take on different roles to keep the ship afloat—commonly including a shift toward gender-normative task division, according to a 1996 study on the divisions of infant care. When you first moved in with your partner, you might have both worked and both handled much of the domestic responsibilities, including planning social activities. But with time, you took on more and more of the planning without noticing your partner’s eroding involvement. Then one day, you realize you’re the only person who knows when the bills are due, where your 7-year-old’s soccer jersey is, or how much toilet paper is left in the house. And now, your partner feels rejected when you’re not immediately amorous the second you two are alone in a room.

As for making things more equitable about the home, it’s not simply a division of the actual work. Having to furnish a to-do list for your partner every day and then making sure the line items get checked off won’t resolve it. Instead, it all comes back to communication—and your significant other taking some of the mental load off of you so you don’t have to make lists or ask them to do things (and so both of you can have a much stronger sex life).

“People get so scared and tentative about talking about their sexual needs,” Buzwell said. “It’s reminding the partner that we have sexual needs as well—and telling them what they can do to help us.” The easiest place to start, she said, is to simply “open up the conversation. Help them by explaining what feels good for you.” You can also try explaining what it would mean for your libido to have him keep track of just a few of the things you’ve got swirling around in your head 24/7 without you having to remind him.

Partners are not mind-readers—and because the mental load is invisible, one or both people are often simply not aware of how exhausting it can be to keep track of everything. You may be with someone who considers sex a great stress-reducer—and may be surprised to learn that for many women, stress has the opposite effect on sex drive.

And keep checking in. “It’s essential to keep an eye on the [dynamics] over time,” Buzwell said. “Be mindful of your relationship. It’s just going to be that communication to make sure both partners’ needs are being met.”