Jekyll and Hyde, Irritable Males, and Attachment Love: What Men, and the Women Who Love Them, Need to Know

Before I wrote my book, The Irritable Male Syndrome, I thought I might call it The Jekyll and Hyde Syndrome, since men often seem to change rapidly from “Mr. Nice to Mr. Mean.”  The book Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886 and has become a mainstay of stage and screen throughout the world.  It seems to speak to something in the human psyche, particularly the male mind.  The story is about Dr. Henry Jekyll who is pursuing his life-long quest to separate the two natures of man to get at the essence of good and evil.

Refused help by his peers and superiors, he begins experiments on himself with his formula. He meets with success, and shocking results.  The evil nature of Dr. Jekyll surfaces as a separate identity: Edward Hyde. Hyde begins murdering the members of the Board of Governors who previously refused assistance to Jekyll’s cause. Throughout the story Jekyll fights in vain to keep his darker half under control.

We often see this kind of transformation in how men are in their love relations.  In a blog post “Should I Stay or Should I Go Now,” Helena Madsen reports a woman’s experience with the man in her life:

“I had a revelation today. During my son’s graduation ceremony at his high school, my husband came up to me and squatted down to share a story with me. Without thinking I ran my hand over his hair and down his arm. I’m still in love with this guy. He can be very nice. He can be very sweet. I married him because of this. This is why I find his behavior so baffling. I’ve known this guy just shy of 25 years. That is a long time. The meanness, the temper tantrums, the spitefulness is all new. I’ve never seen this in him before. Living with someone for 25 years means this isn’t behavior that has been hidden away. It is brand spanking new. It is why I’ve been blindsided with it. I so didn’t see this coming. It also makes the whole idea of divorce so messy. If he was always nasty this would be a no-brainer. I would up and leave in a heartbeat. But he swings hot and cold. One day he is super nice to me; takes good care of me and even gives me hugs. The next day he is slamming doors and telling me he wants out. I am so very confused.”

In The Irritable Male Syndrome:  Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Aggression and Depression, I describe a number of key symptoms of IMS, including hypersensitivity.

The women who live with these men say things like the following:

  • I feel like I have to walk on eggshells when I’m around him.
  • I never know when I’m going to say something that will set him off.
  • He’s like a time bomb ready to explode but I never know when.
  • Nothing I do pleases him.

The men don’t often recognize their own hypersensitivity.  Rather, their perception is that they are fine but everyone else is going out of their way to irritate them.  The guys say things like:

  • Quit bothering me.
  • Leave me alone.
  • No, nothing’s wrong.  I’m fine. 
  • Or they don’t say anything.  They increasingly withdraw into a numbing silence.

One concept I have found helpful is the notion that many of us are “emotionally sunburned,” but our partners don’t know it.  We might think of a man who is extremely sunburned and gets a loving hug from his wife.  He cries out in anger and pain.  He assumes she knows he’s sunburned so if she “grabs” him she must be trying to hurt him.  She has no idea he is sunburned and can’t understand why he reacts angrily to her loving touch.  You can see how this can lead a couple down a road of escalating confusion.

Why Do Men Suddenly Become Hypersensitive and Irritable?  Could It Be We Don’t Feel Attached?

Here’s a letter I received recently:  “Last month a man came home from work with my husband’s face but he did not act at all like the man I married.  I’ve known this man for 30 years, married 22 of them and have never met this guy before.  Angry, nasty, and cruel are just a few words to describe him.  He used to be the most upbeat, happy person I knew.  Now he’s gone from Mr. Nice to Mr. Mean.  In spite of how he treats me I still love my husband and want to save our marriage.  Please, can you help me?

Both the man and the woman are baffled.  What’s going on here?  The answer may lie in ways in which we feel a loss of connection with our partner.  We all struggle with vulnerable feelings in love whether we want to admit it or not. It’s inevitable that we will hurt each other with careless words or selfish actions. While these occasions sting, the pain is often fleeting and we get over it quickly.

But according to Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, “Countless studies on infant and adult attachment suggest that our close encounters with loved ones are where most of us attain and learn to hold on to our emotional balance.”  We are all sensitive to being rejected or abandoned by a loved one.  And almost all of us have at least one hypersensitivity – a raw spot in our emotional skin- that is tender to the touch, easily rubbed, and deeply painful.  When this spot gets rubbed often enough, it can bleed all over our relationship.

When our need for attachment and connection is repeatedly neglected, ignored or dismissed, it results in two potential raw spots: feeling emotionally deprived or deserted/abandoned.  It may not be obvious to us, but when a man becomes irritable and angry or hostile and blaming or withdrawn and cold-hearted, it is often because he feels a disconnection from his partner.  He feels rejected or not cared for.  Of course, his hostile reaction often drives his partner farther away, which makes him even more fearful of loss.  It’s easy to get caught up in the blame game.  He blames her and she blames him.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

So how do you identify your raw spot?  Here’s what psychotherapist Helena Madsen recommends:

Think about a time in your marriage when you got suddenly thrown off balance, when a small response or lack of response suddenly seemed to change your sense of safety or connection with your spouse, or when you got totally caught up in reacting in a way that you knew would spiral you into your usual dysfunctional pattern of relating. Maybe you are aware of a moment when you found yourself reacting very angrily or numbing out.

Let’s unpack the “Jekyll and Hyde, Irritable Male” sensitivity:

What was happening in the relationship?  What was the trigger that created a sense of emotional disconnection for you?  What was your general feeling in the split second before you reacted and got mad or numb?  What did your spouse specifically do or say that sparked this response?  As you think of a moment when your own raw spot is rubbed, what happens to your body?  You might feel spacey, detached, hot, breathless, tight in the chest, very small, empty, shaky, tearful, cold, on fire.

What does your brain decide about the meaning of all this?  What do you say to yourself when this happens?  What did you do then?  How do you move into action?

See if you can tie in all these elements together by filling in the blanks below:

In this incident, the trigger for my raw feeling was _________.  On the surface, I probably showed _____________.  But deep down, I just felt (pick one of the basic negative emotions, sadness, anger, shame, fear).  What I longed for was ___________.  The main message I got about our bond, about me or my love was _________________.

I’ve found in my own work that recognizing our need for emotional support does not mean we’re acting like children.  In fact, these needs for emotional support are important throughout our lives, not just when we are children.

I’d like to hear from you.  Have you noticed yourself or someone you love going from “nice” to “mean?”  Can you slow down and recognize the feelings of fear and how you react to them?  When we can share these universal emotions rather than blaming ourselves or our partners we can once again become friends and allies and sort things out together.

Photo Credit: maxREM Creative Commons


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  1. Christine says:

    The above describes my Husband to a ‘T’. Together 25 years. Lovely man, until three years ago when he morphed into an alien lifeform that neither myself nor our children recognised.
    Withdrew emotionally from us all and became very silent. He refused to allow me to meet his emotional needs any more.

    From everything that I have read about midlife, I believe carefully forgotten (tucked away memories) from his childhood came back to haunt him. They demanded to be confronted. He refused to do the internal work needed.
    Instead, he chose to believe the way he was feeling was based on his external reality. He looked around him and pointed the finger at me. It was all my fault.
    To get around this problem, he chose to remove himself from our life and no longer identify with being a father, husband and responsible adult. He chose a new identity. Funky lifestyle, new ‘mates’, motorbikes, workaholic, SUV, no family responsibilites, younger dysfunctional woman to surround himself with.
    He has remained very clingy to me during this time which is most baffling.
    He appears very confused and depressed a great deal of the time, despite appearing determined to make his new life work.
    I believe he will continue this troubling behaviour until he chooses to look inwards – something of course, that he may never do. He may continue to choose to run. This is terribly sad for the boys and I.
    This is so destructive.

    • Christine, I know how difficult it can be when someone we love turns on us. As you recognize this is about the internal work that a person needs to do at this time of life. But it takes some men longer than others to recognize this. You have two roles to play. First, you need to take care of yourself and your family. Second, you can be a source of support to help him overcome his confusion and fear and find the right support so that he can heal these old wounds and get back to being the man he’s always wanted to be. Hopefully, he will stop running and start living. It isn’t easy for anyone, but if you take care of yourself and get the support you need, you will make it easier for him to do so as well.

  2. Though these changes that we observe in people might seem like we can give a blanket explanation, I submit that the possibility exists that each individual has potential triggers that open these hatches in their psyche and drop them into these personal vortices where Loss of control or quantum alterations of behavior seem to appear suddenly.
    In my estimation, these triggers are everywhere and becoming more a constant than ever before as people’s lives are often awash in uncountable stimuli. But what may set someone off in a year somehow is not affecting them today.
    Another thing that may be unique to men is their tendency toward herd mentality when it comes to female attention. They desire the one they don’t have and devalue the one that is reliable and there for them. But she’s a done deal and they want affirmation from as many females as possible that they are still virile. At least maybe that could be the case for the writer previous to me. Her hubby is going through the midlife crisis where some other woman has targeted him and he has followed into the hey baby routine. It’s exciting and affirming and releases lots of brain chemicals that make people act different than their “normal” homeboy self.
    If we were to need a singular explanation that may give us a more blanket theory, I would like to identify the marketing culture as a huge juggernaut of mental constructs that is designed to have front of mind positioning. It’s really basic psychology and you could say its insidious, but really, it’s just formula. It’s what works. People often like to use what works so the process has been really well refined to get greater results. And the target audience fall into lockstep like the good sheeple they ate being trained into.
    Is marketing to blame? Is testosterone? Is the maximizing of scarce resource theory to blame? Is corporate need to show profit to shareholders to blame? Is really well done research into persuasive communication to blame? Or is that horrible dysfunctional Trollop that has caught that poor woman’s husbands eye to blame? Maybe not her but maybe her makeup or hair or the way she shakes her booty or her musky sexy pungency of her private parts that he has been delving into..the forbidden fruit which is so enticing?
    None of it is to blame and all of it is to blame. It’s actually not a blame thing so much as an unawareness of motivating factors and ones personal choices and conviction to their value system.
    Having just experienced a great disparity in personal value systems in my own life, I know that some are going to deliver more apparently successful results than others. Some people are habituated to instant gratification despite the long term risks and others are more steadfast and take a longer view for results that are developed with strong foundations over time with risks but maybe fewer.

    I don’t know really. But it is very complex. It is a result of many many years and untold minds working towards their paychecks and monetary rewards. They bait the hook and reel em in. Is that bad? If its your husband, yah it’s bad!! Why is hubby acting in such a fashion? That’s the question that is individual and based in triggers. But in subliminal theory, sex and death are seen as the basic motivators. To remind people that they will die one day and that sex may allow a legacy. Or that it just feels good and do it before you die, may be the simplistic answer that you can wrap your brain around.

    Thanks for your time!!

  3. Mj mc, you’re right these things are complex and each individual is different, but working over the last 40 plus years I have found some clarity in this complex mixture of changes going on at mid-life. First, this is a stage we all go through, but like puberty we each go through it somewhat differently. Second, this stage does stir up unfinished business from the past. Third, we need a tremendous amount of the right kind of support.

    I’ve just returned from spending time with my men’s group. We’ve been meeting regularly for 33 years. I think we all need this kind of support system, but few have it. I want to make a men’s support and life-fitness center available to everyone, perhaps through an on-line venue where we can support each other through these difficult changes. Anyone interested?

    • Hi Jed,
      I’m actually very interested. I’m a 33 year old married man. I don’t seem to find much support or even interest in having these types of critical conversations among the male population in my age group. I would love to have a venue where I can talk or just listen to men who have more experience talk about these kinds of topics!

  4. Christine says:

    Jed, thanks for your thoughts.
    Would just like to add to the above – ‘Third, we need a tremendous amount of the right kind of support’.

    I think it is fantastic that you are getting your message out there – not many people understand that midlife is a stage we all go through, just as we do through puberty. What makes this especially challenging, is that many do not want that support.

    • Christine, I’ve found that most men want the support and understanding, but resist getting it because they feel confused and hurt. Over time we build up resistance to receiving the love we so desperately need. I’ve learned to reach through the resistance and hurt that men and women feel to help them re-establish the trust and the care that enable them to heal.

  5. I came across this while searching online trying to figure out why my husband of 26 years is acting the way he is – mean, blaming, and trying to push me away. This is really helpful. And Christine is right…many do not want the support…I know my husband would reject any kind of help. Even suggesting this to him would probably set him off.

    Since 50 is right around the corner for him, not being able to find a job like he used to when he was in his 20’s and 30’s, his body is not cooperating like it used to, etc. are all contributing factors. But how do I help him? What is the “right kind of support”? Do you go into that in your book?

    • Kallie, I do go into that in my books, particularly Mr. Mean: Saving Your Relationship from the Irritable Male Syndrome. I have chapters on: How do I help him when he refuses to talk,
      How do I get through to him when he refuses to admit he has a problem, Everything I try to do to make things better, makes things worse. What can I do?, How can I prevent IMS from wrecking our marriage?

      The key to remember is that he wants your love and support. I help you find the ways to give it, while taking care of yourself.

  6. Hi Jed…i came by your site by accident and have finally found some comfort in your articles. My first marriage ended up due to IMS. Unfortunately my son was hurt because of it. I’m now in another relationship six years later and I can’t believe that i’m again surrunded by IMS but 10 times worse!!! the Jekyl and Hyde is so true and it’s leaving me extremely depressed. My new partner has a cat and this cat gets more pampering, attention and love than what I do and this really angers me and of course I’m the one who gets told i need professional help. I bite my tongue but my emotional well being is under so much pressure and I’m at a point of running away. There is a sweet kind side there but the later has the strong hold and it’s killing me

  7. Helen, IMS is truly an affliction that causes the men and women in the couple to suffer greatly. Once we understand that “he” isn’t the problem and “she isn’t the problem, we can recognize that the real problem is IMS. “It” is the problem. And both he and she can work towards dealing with it. Sometimes the books are enough to guide you through this. Sometimes people need additional help and support which I provide through counseling here in California or by phone with people all over the world.

  8. Joan Morrow says:

    I am very interested to buy this book as IMS is affecting my husband at present.
    Would you please advise me where I can find/buy this book…I live in Ireland/UK.

    Thank you.

    Joan Morrow

  9. Susanne says:

    I feel like I want out. I am tired of feeling unappreciated and lonely. My husband claims that his children are his life, but he never interacts with them or me. We hardly say two words to each other any more. We don’t sleep in the same room much less the same bed. I can’t even ask him what is wrong. I sometimes just wish he would just file for divorce because I am completely miserable. I hate being home and hate when he comes home. He thinks his problems are physical but he has been to doctors and nothing. Why won’t anyone else tell him. His mother and everyone else just feel sorry for him. I am done, but I do love him. What should I do? All he does is sit around the house and watch T.V. When I get home he retreats to the bedroom.

  10. Suzanne, I certainly understand how you feel. There’s nothing more painful in the world than to be with someone, but feel distant and cut off. In working with men and women over the years I’ve found that Irritable Male Syndrome (IMS) is a hidden killer that can sap our strength and undermine our love. What’s worse it often disguises the real problem. The man knows he’s unhappy, irritable, and angry, but he is mistaken about the real cause. Sometimes, like you’re husband, he thinks its all “physical.” Other men believe the the problem is “my wife.” Others think its “someone or something outside myself.”

    The good news is there is hope once you begin to understand what’s really causing the problem. I’ve counseled men and women throughout the world. I’ve learned that a marriage can be save if even one of the people is committed to it. So, I often begin working with the woman. Many men are in denial and the woman often is, unknowingly, doing things to make the situation worse.

    Once I’m able to get her back on the right track, things begin to improve. We can then often get the guy involved.

    If you’d like to contact me directly (, I can give you more details about what I do and how I might be able to help. If its the first time you’ve emailed me be sure to respond to my “SpamArrest” filter request. That way you won’t get blocked.

    In any event, don’t give up hope. If you still love him and you still want your marriage, there is still time to turn things around for the better.

  11. So, after reading all of this based on how I feel with being angry, grumpy and short tempered I think I may have IMS. Are there treatments for this? How do you describe this to a doctor? Will they know what I am talking about? To me its very confusing, my wife wants me to be a more sensitive guy, and listen to her, but when I feel I need to be heard, its just shut up or man up. So I stuff my feelings, having no place to put them, this makes me feel less important. I then feel contempt, anger, bitter and all the other feelings that go along with this. Sometime I feel like I am a powder key ready to explode… My feelings are all over the place, and I don’t know what is going on. I feel lost and helpless! How do I get treatment? I love my wife dearly, and do not want to keep putting her through this…

    • Ken, the good news is that treatment is available. I offer it and have written books about it. The bad news is that most clinicians aren’t trained to deal with it, so often do things that aren’t helpful. If you’re interested in learning more drop me a note at Put IMS in subject line and respond to my spamarrest filer so you don’t end up on my filtered out box.

  12. Thing is, when women have those ideal men who are not irritable, they treat them like crap.

  13. My husband is the poster child of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Syndrome but alcoholism prevents him from working on treatment. Do you not work with alcoholic disease as not mentioned in what I’ve read so far?