Is Irritable Male Syndrome Wrecking Your Relationships?
3 Things You Must Do Now to Protect Yourself
Shortly after The Irritable Male Syndrome was published in 2004, I began to get letters from women all over the world who recognized themselves and the men in their lives in the stories I recounted in the book. This is typical of 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 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? MK.
I wrote Mr. Mean: Saving Your Relationship from the Irritable Male Syndrome to respond to the women who asked for a book that would help them know what to do to save themselves, rescue their relationship and support their man. I also wrote for the men who were beginning to break through their denial and to see things through the eyes of their partner.
Here are 3 essential sections from the book that you can use now to better understand Irritable Male Syndrome (IMS) and to take appropriate action.
1. How Can A Man Change From Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde Seemingly Overnight?
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 own formula. He meets with success, yet the results are shocking. 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.
Even this short summary of the story can give us important insights about what is going on with so many men today. Like the good doctor in the story, men today are questioning what is “right” and what is “wrong” in the world. For many men, they have spent their lives trying to do what they thought was right. They’ve done their best to make the world a better place for their wives and children, but they feel they have failed.
Many have worked at jobs that no longer exist or have been laid off because of a sinking economy. More and more men, whether working or not, feel that their dreams of success are slipping away from them. They work harder and make less money. They do everything they can to create a secure life for themselves and their family and see their retirement and savings accounts getting lower and lower. Their fear, frustration, and shame often turn to anger.
Another aspect of the story is instructive. Dr. Jekyll feels betrayed by his superiors, and as the transformed Mr. Hyde he begins to murder the Board of Governors who refused previously to support his efforts. Susan Faludi, author of Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male captures the betrayal felt by the average guy towards the men in power who promised that if he played by the rules and worked hard he would ascend the ladder of success until he reached the top.
“Implicit in all of this,” says Faludi, “was a promise of loyalty, a guarantee to the new man of tomorrow that his company would never fire him, his wife would never leave him, and the team he rooted for would never pull up stakes. Instead, the average man found his father was an absent father, the job market had no place for him, women were ashamed of his inability to make a decent living, and his favorite sports team moved to another city and abandoned him.”
The first step to helping yourself and the man in your life is to put yourself in his shoes. Can you empathize with how a man feels? Can you experience the rage that comes from the betrayal of a promise? Can you understand why Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde and goes after those in power who betrayed him?
2. What Is the Irritable Male Syndrome (IMS) and Why Is It So Dangerous?
After studying IMS for nearly 10 year now, I have a pretty clear picture of what we are dealing with. Here’s how I define Irritable Male Syndrome:
A state of hypersensitivity, anxiety, frustration, and anger that occurs in males and is associated with biochemical changes, hormonal fluctuations, stress, and loss of male identity.
Working with men (and those who live with them) who are experiencing IMS, I have found there are four core symptoms that underlie many others: hypersensitivity, anxiety, frustration and anger.
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.
- 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.
Anxiety is a state of apprehension, uncertainty, and fear resulting from the anticipation of a realistic, or fantasized, threatening event or situation. IMS men live in constant worry and fear. There are many real threats that they are dealing with—sexual changes, job insecurities, relationship problems. There are also many uncertainties that lead men to ruminate and fantasize about future problems.
IMS men feel blocked in attaining what they want and need in life. They often don’t even know what they need. When they do know, they may think there’s no way they can get it. They often feel defeated in the things they try to do to improve their lives. These men feel frustrated in their relationships with family, friends, and at work. The world is changing and they don’t know where, how, or if they fit in.
Author Susan Faludi captures this frustration in her book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. The frustration is expressed in the question that is at the center of her study of American males. “If, as men are so often told, they are the dominant sex, why do so many of them feel dominated, done in by the world?” This frustration, frequently hidden and unrecognized, is a key element of IMS.
Anger can be simply defined as a strong feeling of displeasure or hostility. Yet anger is a complex emotion. Outwardly expressed it can lead to aggression and violence. When it is turned inward it can result in depression and suicide. Anger can be direct and obvious or it can be subtle and covert. Anger can be loud or quiet. It can be expressed as hateful words, hurtful actions, or in stony silence.
For many men, anger is the only emotion they have learned to express. Growing up male, we are taught to avoid anything that is seen as the least bit feminine. We are taught that men “do” while women “feel.” As a result men learn to keep all emotions under wrap. We cannot show we are hurt, afraid, worried, or panicked. The only feeling that is sometimes allowed to many men is anger. When men begin going through IMS, it is often anger that is the primary emotion.
If these symptoms are not addressed adequately they tend to get worse. Over a period of weeks, months, and years, the pressure builds up. Often it explodes, seemingly out of the blue. One day he appears to be fine. The next, he’s claiming he’s had enough and he wants to leave. Most women I’ve talked with say they felt that something wasn’t right, but they didn’t have the understanding and the courage to deal with it directly. Don’t let this happen to you.
Many women suffer indirectly from IMS as they see the man they love becoming more and more unhappy, angry, and withdrawn. They also suffer directly as they increasingly become the target of his angry and erratic moods. The relationship that they have lovingly built through the years begins to crumble. This is more than painful. It is a tragedy.
3. What Causes Irritable Male Syndrome?
Based on research and feedback involving more than 60,000 men, we have a much better understanding of what is causing IMS. Although triggers vary, man to man, we found that there were four key elements at the core of most men’s problems: 1) Hormonal fluctuations, 2) Biochemical changes in brain chemistry, 3) Increasing stress, 4) Loss of male identity and purpose.
Hormones and IMS.
In order to understand the way in which hormonal fluctuations cause IMS in men, we need to know something about testosterone. Theresa L. Crenshaw, M.D., author of The Alchemy of Love and Lust, describes testosterone this way: “Testosterone is the young Marlon Brando—sexual, sensual, alluring, dark, with a dangerous undertone.”
She goes on to say that “It is also our ‘warmone,’ triggering aggression, competitiveness, and even violence. Testy is a fitting term.” We know that men with testosterone levels that are too high can become angry and aggressive. But recent research shows that most hormonal problems in men are caused by testosterone levels that are too low.
Dr. Gerald Lincoln, who coined the term “Irritable Male Syndrome,” found that lowering levels of testosterone in his research animals caused them to become more irritable, biting their cages as well as the researchers who were testing them. Larrian Gillespie, M.D., an expert on male and female hormones says, “Low testosterone is associated with symptoms of Irritable Male Syndrome.”
Brain-Chemistry Changes and IMS:
Most people have heard of the brain neurotransmitter, serotonin. When we have enough flowing through our brains, we feel good. When there isn’t enough, we feel bad. Siegfried Meryn, M.D., author of Men’s Health and the Hormone Revolution calls serotonin “the male hormone of bliss.” Women have the same hormone in their brains and it has an equally positive effect on them. “The more serotonin the body produces,” says Dr. Meryn, “the happier, more positive and more euphoric we are. Low serotonin can contribute to a man’s irritability and aggression.”
One of the most common causes of low serotonin levels is our eating and drinking habits. For instance, research has shown that protein, if consumed in excessive quantity, suppresses central nervous system serotonin levels. Many men were taught to believe that eating lots of meat would make them manly. Not only are there hormones injected in meat to make the animals fatter, but the protein contained in the meat can be harmful as well.
Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., and her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that a high protein, low carbohydrate diet can cause increased irritability in men. They found that men often mistake their cravings for healthy carbohydrates, such as those found in vegetables like potatoes, rice, corn, squash, etc., with cravings for protein found in meat.
“Eating protein when we need carbohydrates,” says Wurtman, “will make us grumpy, irritable, or restless.” Wurtman’s team also found that alcohol consumption increases serotonin levels initially. However, chronic use dramatically lowers serotonin, resulting in depression, carbohydrate cravings, sleep disturbances, and proneness to argumentativeness and irritability. It may be that the male propensity to eat too much meat and drink too much alcohol is contributing to lower serotonin levels in brain chemistry, which leads to symptoms of IMS.
Stress and IMS.
We all know the feeling. We’ve had another one of those days at work. One deadline after another, and there isn’t enough time to breathe. Someone is always making more demands, and no matter how hard we try to stay on top of things, we seem to be getting farther and farther behind. Many of us have lost our jobs. If we have a job, we’re often working more hours for less money. The economy is in turmoil. Our savings are dwindling, and our hopes for retirement seem to be fading away. We all recognize the feeling of being stressed out.
In my experience as a psychotherapist, I have found that stress underlies most of the psychological, social, and medical problems that people face in contemporary society, including IMS. For most of us, stress is synonymous with worry. If it is something that makes us worry, then it is stressful.
We can’t avoid stress, nor would we want to. Life is change and change is life. The problem arises when there is too much change in too short a time. We might think of the problem that leads to the Irritable Male Syndrome as “dis-stress” or “overstress.” Stress is unavoidable, necessary, invigorating and life-enhancing. Distress and overstress can cause untold difficulties if not understood and prevented.
So, what can we do to relieve the build up of stress? There’s actually a very simple answer. If you think about the kinds of stresses our bodies are designed to meet, they all involve physical activity. When a wild animal came into the camp of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we either fought or ran away. In either case, we utilized a lot of physical energy.
It’s physical activity that allows the body to attend to the stress and then to return to normal. In our modern world, we usually don’t have wild animals bursting into our living rooms. The stresses are more psychological than physical. Yet the reaction is the same. Our bodies release stress hormones that can only be dissipated through physical activity. So, if you build up stress every day, you must do something physical every day. Walk, run, take an aerobics class. As the saying goes, “just do it.” You’ll feel better and it’s a sure-fire way to treat IMS.
Loss of Male Identity and Purpose and IMS.
For most of human history, the male role was clear. Our main job was to “bring home the bacon.” We hunted for our food and shared what we killed with family and tribe. Everyone had a role to play. Some were good at tracking animals. Others excelled at making bows and arrows or spears. Some men were strong and could shoot an arrow with enough force to kill a buffalo. Others were skilled at singing songs and doing dances that invoked the spirit of the animal and made the hunt more effective.
But now many of us work at jobs that we hate, producing goods or services that have no real value to the community. We’ve gotten farther and farther away from the basics of bringing home food we’ve hunted or grown by ourselves. The money we receive is small compensation for doing work that is meaningless. And the men with some kind of job, no matter how bad, are the lucky ones. More and more men are losing their jobs and can’t easily find new ones.
In her book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, author Susan Faludi concludes that male stress, shame, depression, and violence are not just a problem of individual men, but a product of the social betrayal that men feel as a result of the changing economic situation we all face. One of the men Faludi talked to at length, Don Motta, could be speaking for millions of men in this country who have been laid off, been downsized, or part of a company that has gone under.
“There is no way you can feel like a man,” says Motta. “You can’t. It’s the fact that I’m not capable of supporting my family…When you’ve been very successful in buying a house, a car, and could pay for your daughter to go to college, though she didn’t want to, you have a sense of success and people see it. I haven’t been able to support my daughter. I haven’t been able to support my wife. I’ll be very frank with you,” he said slowly, placing every word down as if each were an increasingly heavy weight. “I. Feel. I’ve. Been. Castrated.”
As Faludi interviewed men all across the country, she uncovered a fact that most men and women know all too well. Men put a lot of their identity and sense of self-worth into their jobs. If we aren’t working or can’t support our family, we feel that we’re not really men. Motta’s feeling of being castrated, speaks volumes. Even men who choose to retire, often feel lost and inadequate. We need to help men know that there is more to who they are than a paycheck. But we also have to develop societies that create meaningful work that can provide a decent living.
All Four Are Related
Any one of the four causes mentioned above could have a major impact on a man and contribute to IMS. But what makes it even more difficult is that they interact with each other. When a man doesn’t feel he has meaningful work, for instance, his stress levels go up and his testosterone levels go down. When men are stressed they often drink too much, which lowers their testosterone as well as their serotonin levels.
The good news is that by changing any one, we can impact all of them. Here are a few things a man can do now. Have his hormone levels checked. Find out if his testosterone is low. Eat healthy food with a balance of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Exercise every day. Look for work that is meaningful, and he should not take it personally if our dysfunctional economy pushes him out of his job. He should grow something he can eat, even it’s just a carrot or potato.
Write down the ways in which your man\’s hormonal fluctuations, biochemical changes, increasing stress, and loss of male identity and purpose may be impacting you. How are they impacting the man in your life? Resist the temptation to immediately go and tell him what to do. Rather, listen deeply. Put yourself in his shoes. Get in touch with his feelings and his needs. It takes time to deal with these issues. Be patient. Be kind.
For more information on my work contact me at: www.MenAlive.com
Look for my book, Mr. Mean: Saving Your Relationship from the Irritable Male Syndrome, which will be featured on Scribd in May, 2010.