- The demands of rigid masculinity make it difficult for many men to fully express their needs in relationships.
- Alexithymia presents a hosts of challenges in relationships, for both partners.
- Men deserve to be seen, and their emotions validated, without their masculinity being called into question.
In adult romantic relationships, it is all too common to find two people whose ways of managing emotions differ wildly. People who emote outwardly and people who retreat inward with their emotions can find themselves struggling to connect or to maintain effective communication with each other.
Competing needs and differing emotional regulation strategies can leave partners misinterpreting psychological survival skills as personal attacks or abandonments. This chasm in communication is often amplified if one or both partners suffer from alexithymia.
Translated, the word “alexithymia” means “without words for emotions” (Soni et al., 2018). What this means, essentially, is that the individual with it struggles to understand, process, or describe their emotions (Panahi et al., 2018).
Alexithymia serves as a temporary, albeit meticulous, defense against emotional pain whereby a person suppresses or represses the conscious experience of the distress. Typical emotional functioning resumes when the stressor or threat subsides, or as the person develops more sophisticated coping skills (Soni et al., 2018).
Alexithymia can lead to insecure attachment styles in adult romantic relationships, as children who develop alexithymia may have had parents who were ambivalent, rejecting, or emotionally unavailable (Scigala et al., 2021).
Alexithymia may present in different people with a varied constellation of symptoms. According to Panahi et al. (2018) and Scigala et al. (2021), some of the most common indicators of alexithymia include:
- Difficulty regulating emotions in general
- Increased difficulty with arousal and emotional regulation in intimate relationships
- Utilizing distancing or cutoff strategies
- Difficulty staying aligned with their own values and convictions
- An amplified preference for autonomy
- Fear of emotional intimacy
- Difficulty articulating their feelings to themselves or other people
- Inhibited emotional expression
- A lack of internal imagination
- Distress in social settings
- Chronic negative mood
- A limited capacity for empathy
Normative Male Alexithymia
Research indicates that alexithymia occurs more frequently in men than women (Leonard, 2019). For cisgender men, the performative nature of masculinity can be exhausting. While sex is noted at birth, gender is a socialized construct. Many men learn the rules of toxic masculinity—dominance, competition, aggression, and stoicism (Murti, 2020) early in life.
DeAngelis (2001) noted that by age two, boys are typically less verbally expressive compared to girls. Perhaps due to socialization, boys are less facially expressive by the age of four, compared with same-aged girls. Peers and other men in school, family, and friend groups may reinforce the rules of masculinity, and bully boys who don’t comply. For fear of being found not masculine enough, an exaggerated sense of emotional repression is required, so as not to risk being excluded from the club of men (Reeser & Gottzén, 2018).
Families that maintain more traditional or rigid gender role expectations tend to discourage sons from expressing vulnerable emotions while simultaneously encouraging expression for their daughters. Though not rooted in direct relational trauma, male gender role socialization teaches boys to suppress emotions and deny feelings they have of vulnerability, passivity, or tenderness (DeAngelis, 2001). One could posit that doing so could engender significant emotional distress, while concurrently stripping boys of the ability to recognize, label, and express their emotions in a constructive way.
Subclinical levels of alexithymia were found to be more prevalent in men. While not “normal,” the trait has become “normalized” due to the reinforcing nature of performative masculinity that demands stoicism. These suppressed feelings may then be acted out through the guise of anger, given that aggression is a sanctioned expression of emotions within the framework of traditional masculinity.
Due to reinforcing narratives of stoicism and individualism, it is no surprise that men tend to employ a cut-off strategy to manage their emotions. In terms of attachment, men are reported to have a higher prevalence of avoidant attachment than women, as they learn to minimize their attachment needs to avoid being seen as weak or unmasculine.
Impact on a Couple
In a romantic relationship, alexithymia presents a host of challenges, which are only heightened when placed in tandem with rigid gender role expectations, should they exist in the relationship. One partner’s desire to co-regulate big feelings with their partner may feel overwhelming or threatening to the partner with alexithymia. Not only does the partner with alexithymia struggle to identify, express, or discern their emotions, but they are often so overwhelmed by the task of thinking about their feelings that it evokes an emotional and relational cutoff.
A partner with alexithymia is most inclined toward autoregulation, the tendency to regulate emotions without involving others. They may also struggle to be empathetic with a partner who may be far more emotionally expressive, and in need of co-regulation for comfort. A partner of someone with alexithymia may feel abandoned in plain sight, as it often evokes anxiety, and fears of rejection or abandonment (Scigala et al., 2021).
Alexithymia has been shown to have a negative correlation with physical affection, as well as the quality and satisfaction felt within a relationship (Panahi et al., 2018). When one or both partners has unaddressed alexithymia, couples may struggle to feel safe, validated, heard, or seen, and can have a difficult time establishing a sense of purpose, protection, and connection. Deficits in emotional expression, communication, connection, and regulation pose a direct threat to the secure functioning of the couple.
Emotions are a biological imperative, necessary for survival. Emotional awareness and intelligence are evolutionary strategies that can be learned, even later in life. Working to deconstruct the limiting self-expression that rigid masculinity demands empowers men to experience a full range of their own emotions. Men deserve to be seen, and their emotions validated, without their masculinity being called into question.
Individual therapy can help in this quest, teaching men the emotional regulation skills that help them become stronger communicators. Couples therapy can help bring partners closer together, and back in alignment with their shared relational goals. Developing a mutual understanding and the skills to effectively meet each other’s needs, are the liberation partners need to break free of patterns of self-protection that silo partners, instead of connecting them.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
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Alu, M. (2019, April 5). The Impacts of Gender Role Socialization on Health and Culture. Lehigh University. https://www2.lehigh.edu/news/the-impacts-of-gender-role-socialization-o….
DeAngelis, T. (2001, December). Are men emotional mummies? Monitor on Psychology. https://www.apa.org/monitor/dec01/mummies.
Leonard, J. (2019, September 25). Alexithymia: Symptoms, diagnosis, and links with mental health. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326451.
Murti, A. (2020, November 21). Stoicism Has Become a Masculine Ideal That Values Repression, Indifference. The Swaddle. https://theswaddle.com/stoicism-has-become-a-masculine-ideal-that-value….
Panahi, M. S., Hoseinzadeh, A., Razaghpour, M., & Hosieni, N. (2018). Formulating a model for the relationship between alexithymia, social support, loneliness, and marital satisfaction: Path analysis model. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, 7(5), 1068–1073. https://doi.org/10.4103/jfmpc.jfmpc_3_18
Reeser, T. W., & Gottzén, L. (2018). Masculinity and affect: new possibilities, new agendas. International Journal for Masculinity Studies, 13(3-4), 145–157. https://doi.org/10.1080/18902138.2018.1528722
Scigala, D. K., Fabris, M. A., Badenes-Ribera, L., Zdankiewicz-Scigala, E., & Longobardi, C. (2021). Alexithymia and Self Differentiation: The Role of Fear of Intimacy and Insecure Adult Attachment. Contemporary Family Therapy, 43(2), 165–176. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10591-021-09567-9
Soni, P., Bhargava, T., & Rajput, U. (2018). Gender Differences in Alexithymia. The International Journal of Indian Psychology, 6(2). https://doi.org/10.25215/0602.114