Irritable Male Syndrome: The First Hidden Cause of Mid-Life Marriage Meltdown

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

Charles Dickens could have been describing mid-life marriage instead of the times leading up to the French Revolution in his epic 1859 historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Whether we are in our first marriage when we approach our 40s, 50s, and 60s (We are living longer and longer so mid-life extends through three decades), or whether we have been married previously, mid-life is a turbulent time and marriage can be difficult.

I suspect there may be two kinds of people in the world—Those who watch Dr. Phil and those who don’t. My wife is one who does and I’m one who doesn’t. That’s not unusual. 82% of those who watch Dr. Phil are women and only 18% are men. More than half the viewers are between the ages of 35 and 64.

For more than 40 years, I’ve been helping mid-life men and women prevent mid-life marriage meltdown. When I began writing this article I looked up “Mid-life Marriage Meltdown” on Google and found this interesting 1-minute promo to a Dr. Phil episode.

The show speaks to a number of issues I deal with daily in my practice as a therapist and marriage and family counselor:

  • Increased relationship stress and disconnection.
  • One person saying or feeling, “I love you but I’m not in love with you anymore.
  • Betrayals that cause the marriage to enter melt-down mode.
  • Regret and a desire to repair the marriage and heal the wounds.

What is rarely discussed are the underlying causes of these problems. Surprisingly, I’ve found that often the hidden causes are related to unresolved men’s issues including the following: [Read more…]

Why Is My Husband So Mean to Me?

For more than 40 years I have been helping men and the women who love them. In recent years, more and more women are contacting me who are concerned about their husband’s anger and how its impacting their lives. Here’s how one woman described her confusion and concern:

“For about a year now, I have gradually felt my husband of twenty-two years pulling away from me and our family. He has become more sullen, angry, and mean. The thing that bothers me the most is how unaffectionate he has become. My husband used to be the most positive, upbeat, funny person I knew. Now it’s like living with an angry brick. I want my husband back. Can you help us?”

I developed a quiz for men and for women who were asking why the man in their lives had suddenly become more irritable and angry. It was eventually filled out by more than 60,000 men and women. When the results were in, I thought of writing a book titled The Jekyll and Hyde Syndrome. This seemed to capture the way a man could change from being loving and supportive to being angry and mean.

In reminded me of the novella by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, written in 1886, titled “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The novella’s impact is such that it has become a part of the language, with the very phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” coming to mean a person who is vastly different in moral character from one situation to the next.

Another woman described her husband’s changes in similar terms. “My husband’s personality suddenly changed from my funny, loving Dr. Jekyll into an angry, resentful, and controlling Mr. Hyde. He grew increasingly angry with me and seemed to withdraw from our marriage. I just can’t be happy staying at home, especially when I’m slapped in the face with a bunch of criticism and anger. What is going on here?”

But though the transformation from “Mr. Nice to Mr. Mean” was clear, there was still a mystery about what causes the change. My first clue about the root cause of this shift came from a Scottish biologist in Edinburgh, Dr. Gerald Lincoln, who was studying the impact of hormonal changes on animal mood and behavior. He found when testosterone levels dropped the animals became irritable, ill-tempered, and edgy. These were some of the same symptoms I was seeing in my own work. [Read more…]

6 Ways to Prevent Irritable Male Syndrome from Ruining Valentine’s Day (and the Rest of Your Life)

414059057_3ac9ecef5a_zThe true story of “Valentine’s Day” may tell us more about anger, irritability and violence than about candy, hearts, and flowers. Back in 269 AD a good priest named Valentine ran afoul of the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Valentine was sentenced to a three part execution of a beating, stoning, and finally decapitation. Talk about extreme irritable male syndrome. Getting irritable occasionally is part of being human, but getting locked into a pattern of negativity can cause problems for men and the families that love them. Turned inward, we often suffer from depression. Turned outward we suffer from IMS.

What Is Irritable Male Syndrome (IMS)?

IMS was first described by research biologist Dr. Gerald Lincoln when he was trying to develop a male contraceptive.  He tried lowering the testosterone levels of Soay rams and other mammals to see if he could stop their partner sheep from getting pregnant.  It didn’t work well and the rams got a bit testy as a result.  He coined the term “irritable male syndrome” which he described as “a behavioral state of nervousness, irritability, lethargy and depression that occurs in adult male mammals following withdrawal of testosterone.”

Dr. Lincoln had no evidence that it occurred in human male mammals, but he suspected it did.  I had been doing research on men going through Andropause or male menopause and found that they became irritable and angry.  I visited Dr. Lincoln in Edinburgh, Scotland and shared my research with him.  He agreed that it would be valuable to have a book written on the subject, which I began writing when I returned to the U.S. The book, Irritable Male Syndrome:  Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression describes the following four causes. [Read more…]

Are You (or are you married to) A Depressed Husband? Maybe It’s IMS – Take the Quiz

Irritable Male SyndromeAfter writing, The Irritable Male Syndrome:  Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression, I received hundreds of letters from women and men concerned about the impact that irritability and anger were having in their lives.  Many of which are about either being or married to a depressed husband.  This one is typical of the many I received:

“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 Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde.  In spite of how he treats me I still love my husband and want to save our marriage.  Please, can you help me?”

We all get irritable and angry at times, but Irritable Male Syndrome (IMS) has deeper roots.   In the book 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.

Does this sound familiar?  If you think someone you love may be suffering from IMS, take this simple quiz to find out.

Think back over the last month.  How often have you (or your man) appeared :

Rarely  (1)        Sometimes  (2)        Often (3)

  1. Grumpy
  2. Jealous
  3. Gloomy
  4. Impatient
  5. Tense
  6. Hostile
  7. Lonely
  8. Stressed out
  9. Annoyed
  10. Touchy

Please add the numbers and compute your score which can range from 10 to 30.

Results:

10-15. This guy is on a pretty even keel.

16-22.  He can be a bear to live with at times.

23-30.  You’ve got a man who suffers from Irritable Male Syndrome which could lead to depression or aggression if not treated.

If you need immediate help please contact me with your specific concerns.  You may also find my books and this blog post valuable:

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

What has been your experience with IMS?  What have you done that has helped?  What questions do you have that we can explore together?

Please share your comments and questions below.

Together we heal.

 

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