I’ve previously written about weaponized incompetence and emotional labor, and it’s by far been my most-popular article.  This leads me to believe these concepts are familiar or relatable to many, but often until we are faced with a more clear-cut descriptor of these experiences, they can fall by the wayside as just another experience that “happens sometimes,” in a “that’s just the way it is” kind of way.  My desire is to provide more space to reflect on these experiences, and in doing so better understand them as well as their contributing factors, and impacts had on persons “going through it,” so to speak.

That said, I continue to reflect on the disparities I see in relationships, both those I experience in my personal life as well as those I witness or hear about regularly from folks in my circles, including at work and at home.  I’m not here to impart any personal biases or engage in narrative storytelling, but rather to expand upon this concept and discuss a recent scholarly work I’d just learned about, an article entitled Hermeneutic Labor: The Gendered Burden of Interpretation in Intimate Relationships between Women and Men by Ellie Anderson (2021).  Give it a read.

Anderson’s (2021) paper discusses a new term, hermeneutic labor, defined as “the burdensome activity of: understanding and coherently expressing one’s own feelings, desires, intentions, and motivations; discerning those of others; and inventing solutions for relational issues arising from interpersonal tensions” (p. 1).  

In essence, hermeneutic labor encompasses the burden of being a more emotionally intelligent partner in a coupling or relationship; in the same way that a partner might be way buffer and therefore be the one to lug the new bedframe in the house, Anderson argues that women are often the more emotionally intelligent partners in heterosexual romantic relationships, almost certainly influenced by social and societal factors, and so they shoulder the burden more of doing this sort of emotional or care labor in the relationship.    

Anderson (2021) goes on to expand upon the work done by a hermeneutic laborer, including 

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. (p. 2)

The goal of distinguishing hermeneutic labor from other forms of emotional labor or care labor helps folks better understand, identify, and study it.  So even though it’s likely the above sounds familiar to you, the benefit of adding a new word like hermeneutic to the lexicon is to increase understanding, so thanks for bearing with me.  

That said, the work above sounds familiar, and fairly straightforward, right?  It’s understanding one’s own emotional state and feelings and being able to communicate that effectively, being able to identify that emotional state of being in others, and hold them against each other for better understanding.  We are all able to do this to a degree, but our culture generally agrees that this sort of thing is women’s work, which Anderson expands upon by reviewing numerous previous research articles in her paper.  

In expanding upon this coding of hermeneutic labor as “women’s work,” Anderson (2021) states, 

​​hermeneutic labor is still implicitly coded feminine because it involves interpersonal relationships. It is a labor that expends resources in interpreting others’ behavior in order to achieve harmony and resolve conflict—hence, it corresponds to the gendered division of labor and values that associates women with the private sphere. Thus, hermeneutic labor is further rendered invisible by a culture that takes it to be natural for women to spend time and energy auditing their own and others’ feelings, desires, intentions, and motivations, and communicating accordingly. (p. 11)  

Doing emotional labor can be thankless work.  Often, it can be taken for granted, with others expecting women to do this labor or just straight-out ignoring it.  For women who feel like they spend so much time on trying to understand their own reactions and emotions, those of their partner, and trying to communicate about it and “figure it out,” they might feel like tearing their fucking hair out over all this, while their partner might just be unaware of it or scratching their head when this is expressed.  “Why do you worry about this so much,” “I had no idea,” “You’re letting this stress you out too much,” or “I haven’t really given it too much thought” might be the most stressful fucking things that a hermeneutic laborer might experience hearing in a relationship with discrepancies in this sort of labor.  

Basically, I want to say, if you’re a person in a relationship where it feels like you spend so much time trying to think on, understand, and resolve this stuff, I see you.  It’s fucking exhausting.  And often, the burden falls to folks socialized as women, at least in our culture.  And it’s really fucking hard to be doing this work (going to therapy, reading articles, googling fucking zodiac signs, poring over a partner’s reactions, discussing relationship issues with friends to try to understand it, sending articles to your partner that you found that might help, etc) and not seeing that same effort represented in a partner’s actions.

Anderson (2021) continues, 

Men receive the fruits of hermeneutic labor in conversations in which women offer up to them their interpretations of women’s own feelings, those of the men, and provide concrete plans for action; they also benefit when women keep silent about their interpretations and decide for themselves which actions will most benefit the relationship. (p. 9)

Basically, a person in a relationship with an experienced, emotionally intelligent hermeneutic worker reaps rewards regardless of their own actions.  And this can be frustrating to the hermeneutic laborer, who expends time and energy ruminating and deliberating potentially without much tangible reward to themselves.  

Later in the paper, Anderson (2021) expands upon a pattern noted in disparate hermeneutic relationships which she labels the demand-withdraw pattern — 

The most common pattern of communication between heterosexual dating couples is the pattern termed “female-demand/male-withdraw” (Vogel et al. 1999). According to this pattern, the woman attempts to bring up a topic for discussion, and the man avoids the topic or ends the conversation. Demand-withdraw exhibits an asymmetrical power dynamic whereby the withdrawer is left less vulnerable than the demander. The demander may be viewed as needy, nagging, or introducing negativity into an otherwise pleasant situation

The demand-withdraw response highlights not only the notion that men in relationships with women are not expected to perform hermeneutic labor, but also that women are expected to perform hermeneutic labor invisibly. By the time the demander attempts to engage the withdrawer in conversation, she has already performed hermeneutic labor in preparation for the conversation: she has identified the problem(s) she would like to discuss and decided how to present them. The demand for a conversation both makes her previous hermeneutic labor explicit, and requests some hermeneutic labor on the part of her partner.

But, by withdrawing, the partner suggests that he does not want to perform hermeneutic labor. He also asserts that he is entitled to set the terms of their shared conversations: by deciding when, and if, to assent to her demand for them, his power to withdraw outweighs her power to demand. This causes distress for the woman demander…

The message of the gendered demand/withdraw pattern is that women should be performing their hermeneutic labor, but should do so invisibly, without involving men partners in it. (pp. 13-14, emphases mine)

Does this sound familiar?  If not, I’m really glad for you, and encourage you to consider whether you just have not experienced this sort of thing or whether you may have directed a blind eye to folks in your life, regardless of gender or relationship to you, experiencing it, as the author stated above, silently.  For those for whom this does sound familiar, it’s fucking rough, and I get it.

Many women in straight-passing relationships (hell, honestly, just many folks in general, but I understand the above disproportionately affects women in relationships with men) find themselves feeling “crazy,” hurt, or burning out on trying to get their needs met from partners who actively don’t understand those needs and are uninterested in trying to meet them.  This is the essence of disproportionate hermeneutic labor in straight relationships: women do this sort of labor, and do so under the radar, expending energy that others may not even see or notice, and then face rough results.  

So many times, folks do labor in relationships that is behind-the-scenes, misunderstood, misinterpreted, or just not seen.  And it’s hard.  Oftentimes, there are problems in relationships that are misunderstood or not seen by one or both parties, and go unresolved, leading to a further breakdown of the relationship over time.  It’s really unfortunate, as sometimes a person may feel that a breakup came “out of the blue,” when their partner had been dealing with issues and seeing the dissolution and received no accompaniment on fixing a problem, whether they had recruited their partner successfully in understanding or not.  

I think if there’s anything to gain from understanding hermeneutic labor above for persons who may be unfamiliar with the concept or unsure if it has ever affected anyone in their life, is that there is always more to learn and understand.  A person in your life who’s been dealing with this may have been doing so silently, or maybe you missed it: be attentive and aware of signs more in the future, and open to these signs, noticing any levels of defensiveness they may arise within you.  Perhaps you’ve had a relationship that struggled or fell apart because of a disparate amount of labor done on one or either side, and that’s truly a shame.  

We have power in knowledge, which is why I was so glad to learn of this article, and I am excited by the author’s continued work as well as the field’s advancement in these lines of study.  That said, that quiet power imparted in us by knowledge feels incomplete juxtaposed against a culture that consistently demands unequal labor from certain members.  Although understanding the aforementioned might not resolve a situation, it may help provide for reason to understand one’s own relational dissatisfaction, and in doing so allow folks to give themselves some grace when dealing with such a tough situation.  

So much of work in the therapy room is consciousness-raising, developing insight, and allowing for a person to care for oneself, whether in giving oneself grace, lessening instances of self-blame, allowing one to accept a situation or circumstances leading to it, or building power to make real change in an undesirable situation, among other things.  Whatever the case, I am glad to share this snippet with you, and to understand your own personal experiences in dealing with the concepts discussed above.