Is Subtle Mansplaining Slowly Eroding the Love in Your Relationship?
In 2008, Rebecca Solnit penned an essay titled “Men Explain Things to Me,” that’s credited for popularizing the term “mansplaining.” It exploded into the lexicon because, well — women everywhere could relate.
By 2018, it was even added to The Oxford Dictionary. As the word itself suggests, mansplaining refers to the act of explaining something to a woman in a condescending way — under the assumption that she couldn’t possibly have any knowledge about the subject.
Many men (including you, yes you) may assume they aren’t guilty of this problematic behavior. The problem is that mansplaining can seem so innocuous and become so habitual that it’s often difficult to recognize. It may not even stem from bad intentions, but rather a genuine desire to share knowledge or advice about something you’re passionate about.
That said, couples therapists agree that mansplaining can be seriously harmful to your relationship. And if your partner hasn’t called you out on it, you may be mansplaining without even realizing it. So, how can you tell if you’re an accidental mansplainer? And what can you do to change your ways? Here’s what experts want you to know.
Signs and Examples of Mansplaining
“Because men have an innate privilege that women do not have, they often do not recognize this privilege,” says Dr. Katie Moore, a licensed clinical psychologist and the owner of Affirming Psychological Services. “They may believe they are helping, or they may just not pick up on cues from women. This doesn’t excuse the behavior, but understanding how mansplaining can look in a more subtle form may help men to recognize just how prevalent this is.”
According to Moore, mansplaining can be as simple as telling your female partner that she is using the wrong knife to cut something in the kitchen, or as pervasive as telling her that she cannot complete a DIY project around the house because she just won’t understand how to use a specific power tool.
“Many men who mansplain don’t mean to be condescending, but think that they are helping their partner or sharing an interest,” says Kara Nassour, a licensed professional counselor and founder of Shaded Bough Counseling. “For example, if your partner describes a home repair she’s starting, you might offer ideas for fixing it, without realizing that she has already formed a plan and gotten out the tools. Or if your partner’s talking about a book she read, you may get excited and start explaining the ideas in the book even though she already read them herself.”
Heidi McBain, a licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed professional counselor, notes that you may be more likely to mansplain if it’s a behavior you noticed in your father growing up. Witnessing this regularly may have caused you to believe this is a normal dynamic in relationships.
How Mansplaining Affects Your Relationship
“Mansplaining is harmful because it assumes your partner is not aware or knowledgeable about a particular topic,” says Dr. Brianna Gaynor, a clinical psychologist and the director of Peace of Mind Psychological Services. “This kind of behavior can damage trust in a relationship and make your partner feel like you don’t respect them.”
According to Nassour, mansplaining can also make your partner feel like you don’t trust their competence or intelligence. This can take a toll on their self-esteem, and cause feelings of frustration. Worse yet, it may cause them to be less willing to share their opinions and problems with you.
“This creates distance, resentment, and disconnection,” Nassour adds.
As McBain points out, partners are supposed to feel like equals in a relationship — and even if you don’t really believe it, mansplaining can suggest that you feel you’re superior in some way.
“Mansplaining derives from the societal assumption that women are not as smart, as equipped, or as able as men,” explains Moore. “When you engage in mansplaining with a female partner, you are communicating to her that you agree with this societal assumption. If there were consistent messages from society telling you that you weren’t good enough, and then your closest ally confirms them, you might also feel pretty upset.”
Bottom line? Moore says mansplaining contributes to a perceived power indifference that’s unhealthy — and unsustainable.
Tips to Stop Mansplaining
So, you’ve realized you’re guilty of mansplaining on occasion. Don’t stress — this doesn’t mean you’re a “bad” guy or even an unsupportive partner. It just means you need to be a bit more mindful of how you respond to your significant other.
Let’s say you’re on a date with someone new and you start talking about a niche hobby of yours — like woodworking, mountain biking, or beer brewing. Instead of assuming that you have to explain this hobby, Moore suggests asking her if she’s ever tried it.
“If she doesn’t seem to know anything about it and she’s interested, go ahead and explain it,” says Moore. “Just don’t make the assumption that she doesn’t understand something because of her gender.”
In fact, asking questions before you start explaining something is generally a good rule of thumb. For example, before jumping in with your assistance, Moore suggests asking or saying:
- "Would you like my help?"
- "Is everything going OK?"
- “Are you interested in my recommendations or would you rather manage this yourself?”
- "It looks like you’ve got this handled, but I’m here if you need me."
- "Let me know if you’d like my thoughts on this."
- "Would you like to just vent, or do you want advice?"
“When you get the urge to make suggestions or correct your partner, first ask them about their perspective,” adds Nassour. “You might say, ‘So what’s your assessment of that?’ or ‘What do you think of the issue?’ This makes the conversation collaborative so that both of you are adding meaningful input and moving the subject forward.”
Another helpful strategy is reflective listening. To practice this, Nassour recommends getting your partner’s view of a subject and then trying to repeat it back to them in your own words before confirming whether or not you heard them right.
“This skill is great for helping your partner feel heard and understood and helps you both get on the same page,” Nassour says. “Then you can take your turn and add your thoughts. Most people will be happy to hear your side when they feel like you have heard theirs.”
You can also let your partner know that you’re aware you’ve been mansplaining and that you’re working on it.
“Let them know that if you default to your mansplaining ways, they can gently let you know when it’s happening again as it takes a while to undo these learned patterns, even with this new insight,” she says. “Therapy can also be a helpful place to talk about these dynamics and come up with healthier patterns that will better take care of both of you.”
Remember: The best antidote to mansplaining is listening rather than talking. If you can show genuine interest in your partner’s thoughts, ideas, and experiences, then they’re bound to feel heard, acknowledged, and respected.
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