“ALL men are bastards.” The well-known phrase has spawned great mirth — or empathy — among women. Which is fair enough, boys! But if I were to write the sequel it would be this: “Not all bastards are bastards after all.”
Why? Because they suffer from significant emotional repression, or alexithymia. A complex condition that’s increasingly catching the eye of the psychiatry profession, alexithymia supposedly affects a whopping 10 per cent of the population, most of them men.
I first heard the term from a friend of mine, “Betty”, who believed her husband was “a cold bastard”. When they were dating, “Bob” never called her to see how she was at the end of a day — she always had to call him. He rarely returned texts.
He claimed he forgot his phone was in silent mode, or it had run out of battery life. He often went days without contacting her.
When they moved in together, she thought things would improve. But she started to notice other things: he had no friends; he seemed to be emotionally detached when they talked. He had no desire to do what he called “needless post-mortems” after disagreements. He’d stare at her with blank eyes and stonewall: “Leave me alone now, it’s enough …” or “Do whatever you want …” or “I’ve had it! Stop nagging me.”
But it wasn’t just her. He also stared vacantly at the news. He had a lot to say politically but admitted he didn’t feel empathy. “Of course this is horrific, but how can I feel for them? They’re not my family,” he’d shrug.
She married him because she adored him and he was often very loving, kind and affectionate. But things got worse. He didn’t like to socialise and had grown indifferent to having sex with her. Try as she did, it felt like he was doing her a favour. “I felt so lonely it was heartbreaking. He was so shut down.”
“Yep, a cold bastard!” my friends agreed.
But their couple’s therapist had another take. He had alexithymia, a right-hemisphere brain condition that affects emotion.
Because men are socialised to express emotions differently, the term “normative male alexithymia” was coined to describe regular male tendencies. However, in this article we are talking about significant or “high” alexithymia.
High alexithymics (or “Alexes” as they call themselves on chat sites) have an emotional range from A to B. Think of Star Trek’s Mr Spock and the characters played by the gorgeous Michael Fassbender in Shame or the X-Men series. Simply put, there are deficiencies in the brain pathways that process emotion. The condition is either genetic or develops as a defence mechanism against childhood pain or distress. Alexes seem unkind but they are “disabled” in parts of the brain, and often anxious under the surface.
Alexes come under the category of repressers, says US-based psychologist Lynne Namka, who has worked with angry children and their families. They flatline and are detached from painful or tender feelings. They lack imagination, become emotionally unavailable to others, are conflict avoidant and cannot tolerate working things out to the satisfaction of their partner.
They can’t read facial expressions and have a lack of insight about how their distancing bothers others. Because they are rarely introspective, they have little empathy or understanding of other people’s feelings. The website Alexi.info describes them as emotionally illiterate: hence the term originating from the Greek A (lack) lexis (speech); and thumos (soul, seat of emotions).
People with alexithymia can be bright — a business contact of mine with the condition excels in his work, at mathematics, and in knowledge of world affairs. But they don’t have emotional intelligence. They learn to mimic love; they can appear “loving” when it’s often respect or admiration they feel, or affection, or a learned expression to earn security and safety. So the condition goes under the radar.
But they do get angry, according to Namka. “Anger is a substitute emotion for the hurt and disappointment they might feel. It takes them out of the emotional flatline and becomes their dominant emotion.”
This can take the form of overt outbursts, but more commonly passive aggressive. As my friend Betty reported, Bob was good at blaming, withholding, and passive aggression (“forgetting” to feed the cats; “losing” the tickets; “accidentally” dropping something, or forgetting arrangements). Alexes complain their frustrated partners “nag” them without seeing themselves as the cause.
Some scholars believe alexithymia may eventually be added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Colin Hesse, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Missouri, says that in previous studies, high alexithymia has been shown to be comorbid with a number of psychiatric conditions on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum. Other studies have outlined the strong connection between alexithymia and the DSM’s avoidant or schizoid personality disorders.
People with a schizoid disorder (nothing to do with schizophrenia) “are miserable failures at communication”, says Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self-love. They “prefer to stay and work in their rooms — in solitary confinement, chained to their computers and books — to avoid any social encounter or diversion”, he says. When not in need, they don’t contact friends or even partners.
We tend to believe abusive relationships involve narcissists and those with overt personality disorders, such as sociopaths. But more subtle disorders are heartbreaking for partners, too, and alexithymia is thought to account for many divorces. Repressers lack empathy and can cause great suffering, even if it’s not from malicious intent.
Interestingly, workplace laws now recognise that abuse can include passive behaviours such as withholding, acting in any way that could reasonably be expected to make a person feel apprehensive, mockery, marginalising or ignoring someone, being evasive or stonewalling.
So how to pick if your partner has mental illness versus just being a bastard or bitch? Observe. Explore how often you feel stonewalled or dismissed. Experts say we all have a touch of alexithymia in us at various times. But how consistently is your partner hurting you with isolating behaviour?
And yes, there is help. While there’s debate about whether the condition is curable or not, good results have been achieved using medication including the “cuddle chemical” oxytocin, which aids in communication, and in some cases antidepressants. Doing things together to foster intimacy also helps.
Experts encourage Alexes to read novels to help them develop empathy. Affection releases hormones, so keep the hugging up, and speak simply to help your partner label emotions: “You look sad. Is there a reason?” or “I am angry”. Above all, gently bring the condition to your partner’s attention. Often when partners realise what’s wrong with them, they will feel relieved and will seek help.
It’s worth persevering with any bastard who isn’t really a bastard. New leaves can sprout from dead branches. I’ve seen it.
Ten ways to combat alexithymia
1. Read novels to develop empathy skills
2. Give frequent cuddles: this releases hormones, which aids communication
3. Talk in a way that simplifies feelings: “You look sad”
4. Be patient and accept that your partner is not like you
5. Read more about alexithymia, and ways to be a better partner either as supporter or sufferer
6. If you are an Alex, regularly try to do at least some of the things your partner tells you are important to them
7. Explore oxytocin therapy
8. Investigate the value of taking antidepressants
9. Do talk therapy
10. Practise mindful meditation
UPDATE. Ruth Ostrow replies to some comments below: Hi all, some fantastic comments here. Yes, women do suffer from Alexi, just not as much as men. Research trends towards men, hence the term “normative male Alexi”. But you will note towards the end of the article I ask, “How to pick if your partner has mental illness versus just being a bastard or bitch?” Thanks for the participation.
A belated observation but the more diagnostic categories there are the more (government subsidised) patients there will be.
There was a time when a lack of clinging and cloying sentimentality was an indicator of independence. Goethe’s fear has been realised, each has become the other’s humane nurse. How many great nations were founded in a nursing home?
For all you men out there that have poo-pooed and trivialised this I say to you with or without a ‘label’, whether it is nurture or nature, for the woman experiencing it the results are often devastating. After ten years of marriage it has just got worse and worse and it is a form of abuse. I can no longer tolerate it – almost like an allergy and have had to move out to keep both my sanity and health. I note the most critical gender in the remarks are male. Maybe you should look at yourselves before your relationship ends in the same disaster as mine.
If what you say is true Ruth, it seems unlikely that “high alexithymics” will be visiting chat sites or collectively calling themselves “Alexes”, or indeed partaking in any collective identification. These people of whom you speak are more likely to be some type of freeloaders attempting to fashion a victim narrative so they can get their snout in a government trough somewhere.
Thank goodness! Now that we have a flash new Latin nonce-word to describe a problem that’s old as sin, shrinks, Uni boffins and marriage counsellors have uncovered a new way to charge for their worthless services. Now THAT should stimulate the economy, eh? At least for shrinks, uni boffins, and marriage counsellors. How long, I wonder, before you can buy a gluten-free, hypoallergenic, vegan-approved pill for the condition? Doesn’t matter, really. Science has proven what the ‘experts’ have been telling us for yonks: it’s all men’t fault. That’s the important thing. Isn’t it?
There are so many people with “conditions” these days I wonder if being normal is a “condition”
Think I’ll have a Bex and a good lie down –oh will that mean I have some sort of a condition,
I guess that’s “conditional” on your perception depending on what your “condition” is.
No wonder we have a growing number of people getting government hand outs because of a “condition” and this new “condition” gives the shrinks another whole lot of suspects with a “condition” — there’s got to be a $$ to be made here somewhere. — Think I’ll just go to the pub and anesthetize my “condition” but not sure what “condition” I will be in when I get home to face the cheese and kisses..
From many a man’s perspective, perhaps some women have the opposite disorder – they (some women) “feel” too much emotion? Whereas in fact neither has any disorder at all, and we should be very wary of those who seek to medicalise things. It’s just part of the normal variation in human beings and between/within the sexes.
One day we will have a mature conversation about what men do well and how they contribute to society. As a bloke, I get tired of been seen as the problem. I am also tired of been made to look like a fool – you only have to look at many of our television commercials. Yes, we have sins of the past and still have a way to go to become better men. However, I think this is starting to become an old story now and believe it is time for men to rise above the negative messages and show the world our strengths and our capacity for goodness.
Hmmmm. Looks like some of the boys are feeling a bit fragile today. I have seen men with this problem, just a few, but it is a real problem made worse as the deep insecurities that drive it tend to travel from father to son for generations. I agree that the male of the species has been on the receiving end of a lot of shallow feminist criticism over the last 50 years, but this one is worth thinking about.
This is just another “Q, what’s wrong with the world? – A. it’s men!” conversations that some (a small number of) women are having. The women who never have this conversation do seem to get better boyfriends and husbands. Is that because they are more fun to be with? Or because they do not seek to blame all ills and issues on those closest to them?
Women marry men thinking that they can change them – but they can’t. Men marry women thinking they won’t change – but they do!
Ruth, you represent the women who are a perfect example of feminist tyranny and a disgrace to their grandmothers and great-grandmothers of Australia.
If they had been pathetic emotional parasites demanding to be partners to wimps, how would the nation have been built, the outback have been won, the nation saved from deadly enemies and the wilderness explored.
Mutual unconditional love and humble acceptance of fundamental gender differences allows both men and women to gradually accomplish victory over egocentricity and self-centredness.
Fundamental reality cannot be changed by politics, philosophy or mind-power, celebrate the differences, talk about self and feelings and “he said/she said” with other women until the cows come home and stop trying to change us – we are carriers of male human nature just as you are carriers of female human nature – THESE ARE NOT SOCIAL CONSTRUCTS BUT REAL DIFFERENCES.
The first thing we must teach our daughters these days as in days gone by, do not hook up with or marry him with the expectation of changing him into what you want.
BTW, the DSM and ICD are research tools which add and take away items as experience and research unfolds.
Thank you. I have a close male relative, whom you have just described, currently on his third marriage, and probably heading for another disaster. We always described him as emotionally immature, we were only half right. At least we now know, what his problem is. Detached from other people, he has always been, and no doubt always will be.
I found if you prepare the evening meal, leave the toilet seat down, unstack the dishwasher. All the navel gazing melts away. Try not to be a dick helps also. Don’t over think marriage.
Ruth, this is just nonsense. These deficiencies you ascribe to men are just as evident in many women I know – ie failure to empathize, unaccepting of differences in their partner, failure to show affection, lack of patience, reject overtures of affection………..but sadly (and I mean sadly) these are nowadays only perceived as failings when displayed by men. Can women please stop pointing out to men what their problems are and try and work on their own shortcomings. We, by and large, are not that bad.
Given that the ancient Greeks – the original creators of democracy, remember – warned that emotions are the destroyers of civilisation, could this article be yet another example of the too-many beliefs that are in these ‘modern’ times completely upside down? This ‘low-emotion’ Alex syndrome is described as a ‘deficiency’? I tellya, the ‘deficiency’ that really needs the most attention is the overdrive, out-of-control emotions – of (most, not all, thank God) women. Guaranteed that many of them, reading the previous sentence, would instantly have rocketed into the totally unjust, unreasoned and unreasonable, emotional stratosphere screaming “misogynist!” I don’t have to suggest that (most?) men “think about it” – they already have. Many times over. But I do suggest that a majority of our ‘sweet and lovely’ (oh really?) ladies should at least try, perhaps for the first time in their lives, to rationally think about it – if ever they can.
All of this research to to prove all the things wrong with men. The basic assumption is that women are perfect so where men are in any way different, it must be because there is some kind of personality flaw in males.Try reading a book called “Bringing Down the Prom Queen”. It was written by a women. It does give some different insights.
A recent survey, conducted by a women, found that men are more narcissistic than women. I looked at the criteria for conducting that survey. It was designed to produce a specific result. Narcissistic – Let’s look at thigh gap, bikini bridge, liopsuction, collagen injections, breast enhancement, dermabrasion, the list goes on and on.
@Roger I was on holiday recently, sitting on the beach with a group of middle-aged women when another middle aged woman joined the group briefly before leaving to talk to some other people. Now, admittedly this lady had taken care of herself, had a number of “enhancements” (lips, botox, breasts etc etc) but I thought she looked pretty good and a very pleasant person as well. Well after she left the rest started on her. “did you see the “work” she had done” “My God wasn’t that awful” and so on. The irony of it all was that I know that her detractors, collectively, have had tummy tucks, vein jobs, teeth whitening, fake tans, spend fortunes on skin care products and make-up and not one of them was sporting their natural hair colour – yet this other poor woman was an object of mirth because she had had “work done”. Unbelievable!
@Roger Another book, “Chauvinist Female Pigs” also written by a woman is a breath of fresh and honest air, in today’s stench-filled man-hating atmosphere. I was watching some or other ‘woman’s protest march’ on the TV news just last night and it struck me that it was of course a complete coincidence that a large majority of those female ‘protesters’ were big, fat, ugly versions of the lovely creature sitting right here nodding her head in agreement. Psychologists should independently examine the relationship between the man-hating mind-set of those types and their physical appearance. Now THAT would no doubt produce some … er …. interesting understandings. The big problem, as I see it, is that serious social changes are being driven by some of exactly those psychotic types, while the many (mentally) beautiful women of our world are more interested in devoting their time to caring for their man and children.
Another example of chronic diagnostic inflation. It would be laughable if the consequences of this trend were not so dangerous and damaging. By potentially creating millions of additional “patients” for psychotherapeutic evaluation and pharmacological treatment, we are narrowing the definition of what may be considered “normal” in human behaviour. The real question we should be asking is: whom does the DSM’s ever-expanding list of “disorders” actually benefit? Follow the money trail – and you’ll find various vested interests preying on common human fears and frustrations for financial self-interest. “Explore oxytocin therapy… take antidepressants”… what valuable advice! Drug up, people… and feed all those snouts wallowing in the DSM trough.
@John The other place I’d be looking is the criminal law.
Now that this idea is taking off, how long before a lawyer for some wife-beating scumbag stands up in court and says, “We submit, your Honour, that our client knew not what he was doing when he took to his wife with a cricket bat, on the grounds he suffers from alexithymia. We call to the stand Dr Sigmund Fraud to explain the awful affliction which drove our client to his actions.”
Make no mistake, history shows that when medicine invents a new affliction, lawyers are about three nanoseconds behind trying to make a dollar from it and there’s always a judge stupid enough to swallow any garbage.
@John One of my favourite quotes and although it refers to medical research, there is no reason to believe that areas like psychology (certainly) and other fields would be any different:
In 2003, Dr Drummond Rennie, an editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, supported by an editor of The Lancet, wrote of the profound pitfalls in “academic” peer review: “There seems to be no study too fragmented, no hypothesis too trivial, no literature too biased or too egotistical, no design too warped, no methodology too bungled, no presentation of results too inaccurate, too obscure, and too contradictory, no analysis too self-serving, no argument too circular, no conclusions too trifling or too unjustified, and no grammar and syntax too offensive for a paper to end up in print.”
You have ten ways to combat alexithymia. There is one other – Join a men’s shed. That way you get to discuss things that are important to you and go home in a much healthier state of mind. It also allows to to take on board that trivia that others discuss with a degree of understanding you don’t have when that is all you are subjected to.
OMG – do I detect a touch of “denial” in the commentariat. Given the increasing number of SRIs being prescribed these days, it would help if people knew where these problems were coming from. Again, great article. The idea that men are supposed to be intolerant macho figures who eschew all things psychological as mere self indulgent nonsense needs to be challenged – especially among the medical fraternity.
An outstanding article explaining what is a common feature of relationships where men are often emotionally absent leaving women feeling a low priority. C’mon guys we need to take ownership of our own issues!
@Michael The whole point is it’s not being claimed as undesirable but normal behaviour that we just take to ownership of, it’s supposedly a “medical problem” which needs treatment including with drugs. These men aren’t being criticised they are being classified as mad.
“Some scholars believe alexithymia may eventually be added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” Undoubtedly! Yet another example of pathologising (my word!) the normal range of differences in humans and their behaviour AND the differences between males and females which society seems to want to erase. This is another example of the problems with an oversupply of psychologists and psychology students who need to do ‘research’. Pathetic!
@Rebecca ONYA! Rebecca – you are a great example of the (mentally) beautiful women to which I referred above. Oh that there were many, many more of your type than of the other!
My wife, daughter and granddaughters will probably think I have a mild version of this alexithymia however from my point of view it is just caused by not wanting to sit around for long periods just talking. I would rather be outside in my barn working on my old sports car, vintage motorbikes or going fishing. My grandsons are a bit like me – they also like to spend time outside giving me a hand. The conversations are more about what’s important in their lives while up to their elbows in grease and oil.
Alexithymia is a common but little-acknowledged condition that cruels many marriages