Alexithymia and the Hermeneutic Laborer

When Your Partner Can’t Talk About His Feelings

Image from Freepik

“She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me, she loves me not, she loves me, she loves me not. She loves me!”

Saying this while pulling petals off a flower is a silly way to determine whether she loves you, but it’s easier than engaging in hermeneutic labor.

Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation, so hermeneutic labor is when it takes work, as it does when you interpret words, behavior, and body language to hint at her thoughts, feelings, and intentions. It’s a type of emotional labor, the work you do to manage feelings: except, in this case, you’re trying to figure out what the feelings are.

Hermeneutics of emotions is so difficult because we don’t have direct access to the inside of another person’s mind. All we have to go on is the outer manifestation of what they’re feeling. That’s not much to go on, so you’re left trying to imagine how you would feel if you were them. Unfortunately, knowing your own feelings is just as hard. You could have contradictory feelings, a crazy sequence of feelings, or no apparent feelings at all. Sometimes it’s impossible to pin down a feeling and give it a name. Therapists like me earn a good living by helping people understand their own minds, much less the minds of others.

At least we know what to call this work now, thanks to contemporary philosopher, Ellie Anderson. She coined the phrase hermeneutic labor in a recent paper, Hermeneutic Labor: The Gendered Burden of Interpretation in Intimate Relationships Between Women and Men. She says:

..hermeneutic labor is the burdensome activity of a) understanding one’s own feelings, desires, intentions, and motivations, and presenting them in an intelligible fashion to others when deemed appropriate; b) discerning others’ feelings, desires, intentions, and motivations by interpreting their verbal and nonverbal cues, including cases when these are minimally communicative or outright avoidant; and c) comparing and contrasting these multiple sets of feelings, desires, intentions, and motivations for the purposes of conflict resolution.

Like any labor, the hermeneutic kind is costly to the hermeneutic laborer. It can interfere with sleep, disrupt concentration, and can give you an unappetizing pit in your stomach. Then there’s the time spent ruminating and the money spent in therapy. Often, an exhausting hour of hermeneutic labor only brings you back to where you started, having reached no conclusions. There’s also a price to pay if you try to get help with your hermeneutic labor from the person you’re trying to figure out. If you try to talk about the relationship too often, you can be accused of overreacting or being emotional, demanding, or overly sensitive.

In her Overthink podcast, Anderson gave a vivid example of when she felt hermeneutic labor was imposed on her by a screenwriter boyfriend who wouldn’t talk about how he felt. Anderson and her boyfriend had been dating for some time, but she was uncertain about where the relationship was going. They seemed to be electric together, but he resisted all attempts at talking about the relationship. She scrutinized his every word and action, journaled on it, and analyzed it in therapy and with friends, while he seemed to go blithely from one date to the next without reflection. At the same time, she wouldn’t bring it up as often as she thought she needed to because she was afraid he’d say he was a crazy, clingy girlfriend.

Anderson could have reached for a flower and begun to pull the petals off, but instead, she insisted they have a DTR, a define the relationship talk. He said he felt nothing for her. She couldn’t accept that answer because it seemed incongruent with how he acted around her. He was normally an articulate man; a screenwriter, for crying out loud. How could he be so out of touch with his obvious feelings? They broke up and she found herself pregnant with the concept of hermeneutic labor.

All this could be a funny, but unfortunate story about herself and a bad boyfriend, but she makes the case that it’s a gendered burden. She claimed she got stuck with the hermeneutic labor because she’s a woman, and he avoided it because he’s a man.

Women’s socialization encourages them to be relationship experts, while men’s encourages them not to be; women’s social positionality and traditional gender roles combine to encourage women’s greater investment in romantic relationships than men; men’s socialization drives them to be far less adept and willing to take on the work of interpreting their own feelings and their partners’… this situation leads to women’s becoming informal therapists for men partners and for the relationship, but this results in their disempowerment and dissatisfaction. Women in relationships with men often find that men partners set the terms of when, and how, emotional expression is received: they are able to exert power by withdrawing from conversations with women partners and by withholding love and affection.

Anderson’s point is supported by the preponderance of women who come to me for help with their hermeneutic labor and the preponderance of men sent by their women because they seem to have no interest in it. However, she dismisses one possible explanation for her boyfriend’s behavior. To me, he clearly displays a neuropsychological phenomenon affecting 10% of the population: alexithymia, a difficulty identifying and describing the experienced emotions of self or others. Alexithymia is not a mental disorder itself but is found with many conditions ranging from traumatic brain injury and autism, to PTSD and depression. Alexithymia is slightly more common in men than women, so some psychologists have theorized that men are socialized to be alexithymic; though that would not explain why alexithymia is more common in people with some mental illnesses than in the general population.

One idea that could explain alexithymia is the disaffectation hypothesis of Joyce McDougall. It goes like this. First you experience an overwhelming emotion that threatens to destroy your sense of integrity and identity. If you’re unable to repress or project these feelings, you’ll expel them from consciousness and become alexithymic. The alexithymic is not suffering from an inability to experience or express emotion, as much as an inability to contain excess of emotion, so the circuit breaker blows, and he is disconnected from it.

The disaffectation hypothesis makes sense to me when the alexithymia seems to be part of a mental illness, many of which include strong emotions. I can also see how it fits with the idea that men are socialized to be somewhat alexithymic. The threshold that a feeling needs to reach before you become disaffected by it is lower when feelings are less acceptable in your social milieu. In other words, if you’re not allowed to cry, you’ll learn not to notice when you’re sad.

Be that as it may, the question remains, how much can we expect an alexithymic to contribute to hermeneutic labor, or any emotional labor, for that matter? We get to this same question, no matter what psychological condition we are dealing with. On one hand, the sufferer has a real, certifiable condition; a disability, if you will. He should not be expected to do as well as one without the condition. On the other hand, if the sufferer never challenges his disability, he’ll never know if he can overcome it.

I would count myself as a recovering alexithymic. Mine would be the normative male variety because I was socialized to disregard most feelings. To say I still relapse would be an understatement. It would be more accurate to say I have moments when, by trying very hard, I can overcome my alexithymia and engage in hermeneutic labor. I’ve managed to make my living this way. As a psychotherapist, I’m a professional hermeneutic laborer. If people had simply given me a pass, I never would have known what I could do.

It’s probably just as well that Ellie Anderson broke up with her boyfriend. She wouldn’t have written her paper. Also, they weren’t right for each other. Not because he was alexithymic, but because he didn’t even try. Just as most men are taller and stronger than most women, we ask them to get the pickle jar down from the top shelf,and open it. In the same way, because most women are less alexithymic than most men, we ask them to do more hermeneutic labor and take the lead in managing most relationships. We should be understanding when men struggle, but if they don’t even try, they have no excuse.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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