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.
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