Part 2 of a 3-Part Series on Irritable Male Syndrome
Posted May 12, 2010
This is the second part of a 3-part series on Irritable Male Syndrome (IMS), and how it damages even long-term and seemingly stable relationships. The first part of the series can be read here.
After studying Irritable Male Syndrome (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, that is 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.
Jed Diamond is director of MenAlive, a program dedicated to healing men and the women who love them. He is the author of 7 books including Male Menopause and The Irritable Male Syndrome. For more information, or to sign up for his newsletter, visit MenAlive.com.