What Is It and Is It Real?
Does this sound familiar?
"Sometimes I think my husband was born grumpy, but he’s become so much worse in the last few years," says Susan, 48, about her handsome, hardworking husband, a software engineer. "One thing he does is buy junk he will never use — vintage electronic equipment, mostly," says this Petaluma, California, teacher and busy mother of two.
"We currently have five guitar amplifiers and several speaker cabinets the size of refrigerators and who knows what else crammed into the garage. It’s so messy you can hardly move around, but if I ask him to organize it, he says things like, "Well, I don’t have any place to put stuff!" He claims that no one gives him any room. Somehow, the whole garage doesn’t count."
Perhaps Susan’s husband needs more space. But he also may be suffering from irritable male syndrome (IMS). "The primary symptom of IMS is you’ve done nothing wrong. Any problem is your wife’s fault," says Jed Diamond, 60, a psychotherapist and director of the northern California health program MenAlive (www.menalive.com).
Diamond knows firsthand what he’s talking about. After he entered his 50s, his ever-increasing criticism of his wife, Carlin, threatened the stability of their marriage and led him to research his irrational mood swings. And in his book, Male Menopause — the surprise 1997 best-seller translated in 17 languages — Diamond contended that declining testosterone levels accounted for much of midlife male cantankerousness.
At the same time, Diamond suspected more than hormonal fluctuations were fueling his touchiness. "Many women don’t recognize that pain and sadness often are expressed in men as anger and irritation," says Diamond.
So for a deeper understanding of men’s mental health, he posted a detailed questionnaire that ran on the Men’s Health magazine Web site. More than 9,000 men, ages 10 to 70, responded and a pattern of sudden irritability, anger, and blame emerged.
In Diamond’s new book, The Irritable Male Syndrome: Four Key Causes of Depression and Aggression (Rodale, 2004), he pinpoints the physical changes and external stresses that can cause 30 percent of men of all ages to turn prickly with IMS. Key triggers are not only hormonal fluctuations and biochemical changes, but new stresses including midlife changes, and job shifts — from losing jobs that have become obsolete or layoffs to competition with women at the workplace — all adding up to a loss of traditional male roles and identity.
Laura Havstad, a Sebastopol, California, clinical psychologist, agrees that Diamond is on to something. "For anyone who is struggling in relationship to a spouse or partner who seems to be doing fine, it is important to figure out how to get up for a more satisfying run at life. And as far as I can tell, even though the advantage has shifted some away from men, plenty of women still struggle with this, too."
Does He Have IMS?
According to Diamond, if the man you love and care for the most isn’t interested in sex and is prone to illogical mood swings and blaming behavior and getting increasingly cantankerous with age, you may be living with an IMS male, someone like Tim.
Tim, 43, a burly hockey coach from eastern Pennsylvania and father of two, monthly has struggled with regular bouts of depression which contributed to the demise of his 17-year marriage. He tried various therapies, but nothing helped. "I’ve always said I felt like a woman with PMS. But I don’t like being crabby and I don’t want to lose my wonderful new girlfriend. Still about once a month, I totally withdrew, drank too much beer, and stare at the TV with a stone face. I didn’t feel like talking."
Tim’s work suffered, too. "As a coach you have to be upbeat and positive. But when I was down and the kids weren’t paying attention, I’d get edgy. The parents would say I wasn’t acting like myself."
To learn more about his inexplicable mood swings, Tim turned to online research. That’s how he discovered Diamond’s Web site and started reading about IMS. "Man, the symptoms sounded just like me. I sent my girlfriend Jed’s articles and she agreed."
Based on his own experience, Diamond offers these four "red alerts" or warning signs of impending IMS damage to the relationship, from the least to the most destructive.
- Criticism: "In my mind, my wife appeared determined to bug me," says Diamond. "I didn’t see myself as criticizing her, but simply pointing out a problem she was causing me. For example, she’d take longer than I expected to leave a party and that really annoyed me, even though logically I knew it takes her longer to say goodbye."
- Contempt: "My wife and I didn’t get into this too much, but in my practice I see a lot of men who call their wives stupid or say they can never do anything right." Says Tim, "I love my car and usually keep it immaculate, but when I’m in an IMS mode, I let it get dirty and think about selling it.
- Defensiveness: Like Susan’s husband, Diamond found himself on the defensive. "If my wife pointed out I spilled some soup on the counter, I wouldn’t thank her for pointing it out. Instead I’d say something like, ‘you are always nagging at me.’"
- Stonewalling: And like Tim, Diamond held back his emotions and sat around looking mad but denying he was. "The reason men hold back their emotions isn’t because they are unemotional. Instead they fear becoming overwhelmed and breaking down," Diamond says.
If you think you are living with an IMS male, don’t despair. "Let him know you love him but you aren’t giving up on your own happiness," counsels Diamond, whose own wife urged him to seek help. "Tell him things need to change and you want him to join with you in making a life that works for both of you.
A combination of therapy, antidepressants, a men’s group, regular exercise, and a healthy diet helped Diamond heal from IMS, restoring his cheerfulness and saving his marriage, he says. In his book, which Diamond suspects will be read by more women than men, he urges men to seek professional help for depression, along with offering some practical lifestyle tips to help heal from or prevent IMS.
A balanced diet of lean meat, leafy green vegetables, and carbohydrates promotes production of the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin. Say no to licorice; it zaps testosterone. After reading about IMS, Tim immediately gave up drinking beer, because alcohol raises estrogen levels.
Not only does regular exercise promote well-being, but even an extra 10 pounds overweight can raise estrogen levels and make a man grumpy.
Heal Unresolved Issues to Foster Optimism
Joining a men’s group or seeking therapy is often the best way to heal past hurts from the past, including childhood experiences of abuse and abandonment, says Diamond.
Pass On What You’ve Learned to Others
"Many of my clients get enormous satisfaction out of volunteering in programs dealing with at-risk young males," says Diamond. "Knowing you can help others usually translates into feeling better about oneself."
Tim says going through the divorce and losing his identity as a husband triggered his IMS and made it worse. "Not knowing what was ahead and not understanding who I’m supposed to be as a man had a big impact on my well-being," he says. But learning to open up and discuss his feelings with his girlfriend eased his fears. "I was so worried I would lose her but now we make little jokes about my IMS. I believe there are a lot of men out there that just won’t admit they’re moody and unhappy."
And Susan? After checking out Diamond’s Web site, she’s thinking more about slipping her husband Diamond’s book rather than cleaning out the garage. "I’ve often wondered why we’ve been led to believe that women are the only ones who have hormone troubles in later life! The idea that my husband may be on the same chemical roller coaster I’m riding helps me stop taking some of the things he says and does so personally and to think about ways we can tackle our midlife transitions together."