We Need to Stop Babying Men with All Our Hermeneutic Labor

I’m so over it

hermeneutic labor: Woman pushing large object up an incline
Getty Images/ Olga Strelnikova

Being in a relationship can be amazing, with fun and companionship that ranges from the passionate (hello, hot sex) to the prosaic (appreciate you, shared expenses!). Understandably, this requires collaboration and coordination—in the early stages I’ve found myself asking, is he a bad texter or is he just not into me? Then as we partnered up, I sought to avoid mistakes couples make with chores. However, TikTok turned me onto a new expectation heaped on women in straight relationships—hermeneutic labor. Initially inscrutable, I got angrier and angrier the more I learned about it.

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What Is Hermeneutic Labor?

I think of hermeneutic labor as the more insidious companion to emotional labor. The term “hermeneutic” means the science of interpretation, usually of literature or the Bible. And the specific term hermeneutic labor, as coined by Pomona College philosophy professor Ellie Anderson, can be defined as the time and effort put into interpreting the behavior and emotions within interpersonal relations. Anderson believes, and I agree, that in our society, woman are most often tasked with being Talmudic-level scholars of the family, from understanding why his mother was so snippy during her last visit to interpreting his mood swings as being caused by pressure at his job.

The phenomenon is touched on by Meryl Steep, in discussion with The Washington Post, when she describes how women learn to “speak men, but men don’t speak women.” Streep is remarking on how it’s culturally up to women to interpret the signs and signals of male behavior and manage it. Additionally, young women are posting reaction TikToks about seeing the power dynamic between man and women in a new light after reading Anderson’s 2023 essay entitled “Hermeneutic Labor: The Gendered Burden of Interpretation in Intimate Relationships between Women and Men."

Why Is It Harmful?

Shout out to Anderson for her TikTok that pretty much takes all the hot air out of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, when she reads theorist Sandra Bartky’s takedown of how men think they’ve acknowledged women’s contributions by annual ritualized card and gift displays, and how women demand the same. “The ferocity with which women insist on these performances, is a measure I believe of our sense of deprivation,” she says. The point is, if women weren’t doing so much heavy emotional lifting all year, we wouldn’t be so thirsty for the Hallmark card! On the most basic level, hermeneutic labor is harmful because it’s an inequitable distribution of effort (dear one, I don’t know or care why your mother is being cranky, and I need you to ask my emotional support rather than just expect me to absorb your work-induced mood swings).

And here’s where Anderson’s insight really rocked my world: On a deeper level, hermeneutic labor puts women in a double bind. Women are both expected to assess and interpret the emotions of the family structure (what she calls “relationship maintenance”), but are also criticized for giving time and attention to this “girly stuff” that is seen as unserious and not esteem-building. Finally, the third reason why hermeneutic labor by women is bad is that it does men no good to baby them, expecting that someone will always be there to be the social glue that keeps them tethered comfortably to their woman and the world. Grow up, dudes—we all have feelings too.

What’s the Alternative?

Who wants to labor unrewarded? Not me. So here’s a little thought experiment: The next time you feel yourself falling into the pattern of reading into your man’s behavior, just ask, You seem really cross, what’s up? And instead of laying in bed puzzling over an extended family member’s comments, why not have your partner explain it to you—and then when he punts and says “Oh, that was nothing,” go ahead and forget about it. Because at the end of the day hermeneutic labor is work, and there’s no need to knock yourself out doing a job you didn’t sign up for.

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dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...