Trying to decipher a man’s mind? Now there’s a name for that.

By Nick Roberts March 27, 2024 at 8:02 a.m. EDT Washington Post

When Ellie Anderson, an assistant professor of philosophy at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., had coffee with female friends, she noticed the conversation often involved dissecting the meaning of comments or texts from their male romantic partners.

Together, they’d talk through an argument with a boyfriend, or try to interpret a vague text message from the night before. They’d game out the next step, deciding when, if at all, to bring up the issue, and then carefully prepare what they’d say or draft a text message in response.

Anderson says many of the women she knows “spend what seems to be an inordinate amount of time interpreting the pretty opaque cues of men they’re dating.”

Anderson felt she was observinga form of “emotional labor,” a term first defined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild to describe how certain workers — typically women — have to suppress emotions, such as flight attendants who deal with unruly passengers.

But what to call the mental work women were doing in deciphering cryptic conversations and texts? In a paper published last year, Anderson penned a new term: “hermeneutic labor.”

Hermeneutics refers to the interpretation of language. Hermeneutic labor, Anderson says, encompasses three phases of emotional work:

  • Interpreting the feelings of others.
  • Determining when and whether to bring difficult, emotional conversations up.
  • Interpreting your own feelings.

Anderson argues that hermeneutic labor is largely performed by women who are forced to interpret the emotions and motives of male partners who lack the emotional vocabulary to explain themselves.

The men, Anderson says, “are often really taken aback and are like, ‘Oh, why are you causing a problem?’”

She argues this dynamic can have a particularly negative effect on women in heterosexual couples because their work to maintain the relationship is often met with disbelief, accusations of overreacting or fixating on problems their partner claims don’t exist. This, Anderson says, has the effect of punishing women for attempting to maintain their relationships.

It starts in childhood

Amy Warren, a licensed mental health counselor in Sarasota, Fla. has seen the pattern Anderson describes again and again over the course of her 29 year career. More often than not, it’s the woman in a heterosexual relationship who pushes the couple to seek counseling.

“Oftentimes, the man’s blindsided,” Warren says. “Men are unhappy in the relationship because a woman’s unhappy, and the woman’s unhappy because a man’s emotionally disconnected.”

But rather than blaming men for their emotional disconnection, Warren faults how men are raised.

“So many men think of their role in a relationship as the provider, the father, sometimes the protector,” Warren says. “That’s because they’ve been groomed to believe that is their role. Not really because they chose it.”

Warren, who is also a psychotherapist, says this lack of emotional expressivity arises from what she calls “little T traumas” in early childhood.

“When you tell a child, ‘Don’t cry; don’t be a baby; grow up; be a big boy,’ that’s definitely a little T trauma, because it teaches them to shut down their emotions,” Warren says.

The toll of masculine norms

Psychology professor Ronald Levant says he frequently starts lectures by asking the audience if they know a man who has trouble verbally expressing his emotions. The result has almost always been the same.

“Almost everybody raises their hand,” Levant says.Share this articleNo subscription required to readShare

Levant, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Akron and a former president of the American Psychological Association, has been studying emotionally inexpressive men for more than four decades.

While it’s true that many women and nonbinary individuals also have trouble expressing emotions, the stereotype of the emotionally inexpressive man persists. The reason, experts say, is because so-called masculine norms still dominate many cultures.

Levant’s research focuses on these masculine norms, which include dominance, toughness, self-reliance, a strong interest in sex, disdain for all things feminine, gay or bisexual, and restricting the expression of emotions. The result of these norms, Levant and other experts say, is that boys often are socialized to suppress the expression of vulnerable and caring emotions.

This inability to identify emotions with words also has a name — “normative male alexithymia.” The condition, Levant stresses, is “normative” not because it is common enough to be considered normal, but because it arises out of social norms associated with traditional masculinity.

2012 study co-authored by Levant found the condition was associated with higher rates of fear of intimacy and lower rates of relationship satisfaction and communication quality.

“If a boy is essentially punished for showing affection or crying,” Levant says, “he’s going to kind of not allow this emotion to come out.”

How to improve communication

When one partner struggles to put their emotions into words, it requires both parties to improve how they communicate. Here’s some advice.

Take turns being upset. Amir Levine, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Columbia University, has a rule for couples that come to his practice: Only one person is allowed to be upset at a time.

Levine, who also co-wrote the popular book “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love,” says that in relationships, one person’s mood — whether it’s miserable or happy — affects the mood of the partner. The person who is upset first should be the one who is allowed to be upset.

“You have to put your upset aside and find a way to make them not upset because that’s your job,” Levine says. “That’s kind of what relationships are all about.”

Reflect back the words. Reflecting back what your partner says has the effect of showing them you’re listening to them, and invites the opportunity to clarify what’s upsetting them.

Warren says it’s important “to say back to the person what you think you heard them say, so the speaker can then clarify.You get the whole picture, and you can respond accordingly rather than getting reactive and defensive.”

Let your partner know what you want. Warren says it’s imperative for intimate partners to let each other know what they want in their relationships, and “stand firm” that you won’t tolerate certain behaviors.

Warren notes that many people wrongly believe that their partners should intuitively know their needs without being told.

“It’s up to us to let them know in a gentle, loving way what we want,” Warren says.