You are on page 1of 19

From Irritable Male to Run-Away Husband:

Anatomy of a Mid-life Marriage Meltdown

By Jed Diamond, Ph.D.

Contact Information:
I look forward to your comments, questions, and feedback.

When I wrote The Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key

Causes of Aggression and Depression, the primary impetus was to help mid-life

marriages survive and thrive. As a psychotherapist who has been helping men, and the

women who love them, for the last 44 years, I was saddened to see so many relationships

fall apart just at the time when the couple should be enjoying the benefits of their many

years together.
I would get hundreds of letters like the following, mostly from women, who were

blind-sided by their husband’s behavior:

Dear Dr. Diamond,

I wish I had learned about your book a year ago. It might have saved our marriage.

His personality began to change 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 spending most of the time when he got home from work,

including dinner time, in his home office or at the neighborhood bars until well after 1


Simultaneously, he was constantly criticizing me for the things he once used to

compliment me on. He treated me like a child in a crowded store, scolding me in public

for bumping into someone who, instead, walked into me. When I expressed a desire to go

back to school and then work, he said that he didn't understand why I couldn't be happy

staying home doing housework all day. Since it was an every day exercise in futility, I

just couldn't be happy staying home, especially if I was going to be slapped in the face

with a bunch of criticism and anger. No matter what I did to try and make things better,

they continued to get worse.

I don’t understand how this happened. We had everything going for us: A long-term

marriage, three great children, good jobs, and enough money to enjoy retirement. Now

it’s all fallen apart. I hope others can get help before it’s too late. Julie.”
What Is Irritable Male Syndrome?

I define Irritable Male Syndrome as follows: A state of hypersensitivity, anxiety,

frustration, and anger that occurs in males and is associated with biochemical

changes, hormonal imbalances, stress, and loss of male identity.

Working with males (and those who live with them) that are experiencing IMS I have

found there are four core symptoms and four key causes of IMS. Let’s look more closely.

Core Symptoms of IMS

1. Hypersensitivity. The women who live these men say things like:

“I feel like I have to walk on egg-shells when I’m around him.”

“I never know when I’m going to say something that will set him off.”

“He’s like time bomb ready to explode but I never know when.”

“Nothing I do ever pleases him.”

“When I ask him what’s wrong, he bites my head off.”

“He’ll change in an eye-blink. One minute he’s warm and friendly. The next he’s

cold and mean.”

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.”


“Nothing’s wrong. I’m fine.”

“Why are you always doing that? You know I hate it.”

Eventually they begin to withdraw into silence.

One concept I have found helpful is the notion that many of us are “emotionally

sunburned,” but others 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.

2. Anxiety.

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 in their

lives—sexual changes, job insecurities, relationship problems, economic collapse,

environmental degradation. There are also many uncertainties that lead men to ruminate

and fantasize about future problems.

These kind of worries usually take the form of “what ifs.” What if I lose my job?

What if I can’t find a job? What if she leaves me? What if I can’t find someone to love

me? What if the economy collapses? What if something happens to my wife or

children? What if my parents die? What if I get sick and can’t take care of things? The

list goes on and on.

3. Frustration

Princeton University’s WordNet offers two definitions that can help us understand this

aspect of IMS.

1: the feeling that accompanies an experience of being thwarted in attaining your goals.

Synonym is defeat.

2: a feeling of annoyance at being hindered or criticized; The dictionary offers an

enlightening example to illustrate the use of the word…"her constant complaints were

the main source of his frustration."

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 often feel there’s no way they can

get it. They often feel defeated in the things they try and do to improve their lives. The

men feel frustrated in their relationships with family, friends, and on the job. 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?” The frustration, that is often

hidden and unrecognized, is a key element of IMS.

4. Anger.

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 lead to 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 are taught to keep all emotions under

wrap. We cannot show we are hurt, afraid, worried, or panicked. The only feeling that is

sometimes allowed many men is anger. When men begin going through IMS, it is often

anger that is the primary emotion.

Whereas feelings like anger, anxiety, and frustration can occur quickly and end

quickly, irritability can develop into a mood state that can last over a long period of time

and can trigger these feelings over and over again. It can have a major impact on our

whole lives. “When we’re in a mood it biases and restricts how we think,” says Paul

Ekman, who is professor of psychology and director of the Human Interaction Laboratory

at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco. Dr. Ekman is one of the

world’s experts on emotional expression.

In describing these kinds of negative moods, Ekman continues. “It makes us

vulnerable in ways that we are normally not. So the negative moods create a lot of

problems for us, because they change how we think. If I wake up in an irritable mood,

I’m looking for a chance to be angry. Things that ordinarily would not frustrate me, do.

The danger of a mood is not only that it biases thinking but that it increases emotions.

When I’m in an irritable mood, my anger comes stronger and faster, lasts longer, and is

harder to control than usual. It’s a terrible state…one I would be glad never to have.”
Key Causes of IMS

1. Biochemical changes

We’ve all heard about brain neurotransmitters such as serotonin and how they can

impact our moods. Having a constant level of serotonin is vital for men if they are to

prevent IMS from upsetting the balance of brain chemicals that we need to maintain a

positive mood. Siegfried Meryn, M.D., author of Men’s Health and the Hormone

Revolution, says, “The more serotonin the body produces the happier, more positive and

more euphoric we are. It plays an essential role in psychological stability and affects

eating behavior, the circadian rhythm, mood, sexual behavior, and the perception of pain.

Low serotonin can contribute to a man’s irritability and aggression.”

So how do we keep our serotonin levels up? It’s actually quite simple. One of the

things we can do is eat the right foods for mood stability. Most men are trained to eat too

much of the wrong kinds of foods and too little of the right ones. For instance, research

has shown that protein, if consumed in excessive quantity, suppresses central nervous

system (CNS) serotonin levels.

Dr. Judith Wurtman and her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

found that high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet may cause increased irritability. “Eating

protein when we need carbohydrates will make u s grumpy, irritable, or restless,” says Dr.

Wurtman. So what’s the right ratio of protein and carbohydrates? “The ratio,” says

Wurtman, “is one part protein to five parts carbohydrates.” In her book The Serotonin

Solution, she says for instance, “if you eat one once of turkey, eat five ounces of stuffing

with it; eat one meatball for five ounces of spaghetti; just moisten your cereal with milk,

rather than immersing it.”

2. Hormonal imbalances

When people think of irritability, anger, hormones; they often think of a football

player or weight-lifter juiced up on anabolic steroids with everything bulging—hi neck,

his biceps, his eyes. Though a small number of males experience IMS because of

hormone levels that are too high, the more typical problem is that hormone levels, such as

testosterone are too low.

Dr. Gerald A. Lincoln is a research scientist at the Centre for Reproductive Biology in

Edinburgh, Scotland. Dr. Lincoln and his team were trying to develop a male

contraceptive. One of their studies involved lowering the testosterone levels of rams to

see if it prevented conception. It didn’t. But surprisingly he found that it did make the

animals “irritable.”

Dr. Lincoln monitored the activity of eight Soay rams, expecting to find that the

animals were more aggressive during the mating season, when testosterone levels were

high. But instead, as testosterone levels fell, the rams were transformed from confident,

competent males to nervous, withdrawn animals that struck out irrationally. Red deer,

reindeer, mouflon sheep, and Indian elephants also show signs of irritable male syndrome

when testosterone levels fall at the end of their breeding seasons.

We may not be reindeer, elephants, or rams, but we are all mammals. Men, like our

fellow furry creatures suffer in our lives when our testosterone levels drop. This can be

caused by improper diet, too much alcohol, depression, or simply an effect of getting

3. Increasing stress

Fifty years ago only bridges were stressed. Humans were irritable, angry, anxious,

or worried. Since the 1950s stress has evolved from an engineering term to become

the most prevalent cultural construct of our time. It seems that nearly everyone is

stressed these days and the interest in stress and how to deal with it increases all the


Interestingly, when I was writing my book, The Irritable Male Syndrome in 2003, I

Googled “stress” and was given nearly 10 million listings to choose from. Googling

“stress” today I get 164 million listings. In the study I conducted for the book, 91% of

the men I surveyed said they were suffering from stress in their lives. I suspect that

number is approaching 100% now.

But what exactly is stress? For most of us, stress is synonymous with worry. If it is

something that makes us worry, then it is stressful. However, our bodies have a much

broader definition of stress. To our body, stress is synonymous with change. It doesn't

matter if it is a "good" change, or a "bad" change, they are both stressful. When you find

you find your dream home and get ready to move, that is stress. If you worry that you

won’t be able to pay for it, that is stress. If you get a divorce or fall in love, that also is

stress. Good or bad, if it is a change in your life, it is stress as far as your body is


Even imagined change is stress. If you fear that you will not have enough money to

pay your rent, that is stress. If you worry that you may get fired, that is stress. If you think

that you may receive a promotion at work, that is also stress (even though this would be a
good change). Whether the event is good or bad, imagining changes in your life is


Stress is part of life and we wouldn’t want to eliminate stress, though at times, we’d

like it to ease up a bit. We might think of stress that leads to Irritable Male Syndrome at

“distress” or “overstress.” When we have too much change in too short a time, our

system gets overloaded.

When we think about how humans evolved to deal with stress we can see why

modern stress is, well, stressing us out. Picture a peaceful village with men, women, and

children working, playing, and telling stories. A leopard sneaks into camp and goes after

one of the kids. The alarm sounds, people mobilize, men grab spears, everyone runs for

safety. In short order, the threat has ended. A child either dies and must be mourned or

climbs a tree fast enough and is saved.

Now picture a modern scene. We are on our way to work. We are not attacked by a

wild animal. But we are assaulted by thousands of cars, with horns honking, cutting in

and out, with stressed-out motorists shaking fists and fingers as they wend their way to

their own jobs. Once at work, we must deal with an angry boss, deadlines, phone calls,

e-mails, faxes, text messages—all making demands on our time. By the time we return

home, we must deal with stressed out spouses and children.

Two problems of modern stress: First, the stressors never cease. They are constant.

Second, we don’t do any physical activity to “burn off” the stress. When stress strikes,

whatever the source, the body mobilizes, thinking it is under attack. Body, mind, and

spirit are set for action, be it fighting or fleeing. The body reacts with an outpouring of

hormones such as adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Our heart rate respiration
increases and more blood goes to skeletal muscles and away from our digestive track.

Since we don’t fight back physically or physically run and climb trees, these chemicals

build up and undermine our health. It’s no wonder we want to get away.

4. Loss of male identity

In 1990, psychologist Carol Gilligan announced to the world that America’s

adolescent girls were in crisis. “As the river of girl’s life flows into the sea of Western

culture, she is in danger of drowning or disappearing.” A number of other popular

books focused on the problems our daughters were experiencing in school. Something

dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence,” said Mary Pipher, author of Reviving

Ophelia. “Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle,

so do the selves of girls go down in droves. They crash and burn.”

There’s no doubt that our daughters and granddaughters have been losing their

identity in the modern world, but so, too, have our sons and grandsons. “In-depth

research shows that girls and boys each have their own equally painful sufferings,”

says Dr. Michael Gurian, author of The Wonder of Boys and The Wonder of Girls. “To

say girls have it worse than boys is to put on blinders.”

Dr. William S. Pollack has spent a great deal of his professional life working with

males. In his book, A New Psychology of Men, co-authored with Dr. Ronald F.

Levant, he says, “Men suffer under a code of masculinity that requires them to be:

• Aggressive

• Dominant

• Achievement oriented

• Competitive
• Rigidly self-sufficient

• Willing to take risks

• Emotionally restricted.”

It’s a terrible bind for men. If we don’t follow the masculine plan, we are told by

society, in no uncertain terms, that we are “wimps,” not really men. If we do follow

the male dictates, we are told we are “unfeeling brutes” and we feel ashamed. It’s no

wonder we dream of escape, even through death.

In his book, The Hazards of Being Male: Surviving the Myth of Masculine

Privilege, psychologist Herb Goldberg summarizes what many have come to believe

about men. “The American an endangered species? he asks. “Absolutely! The male

has paid a heavy price for his masculine ‘privilege’ and power. He is out of touch

with his emotions and his body. He is playing by the rules of the male game plan and

with lemming-like purpose he is destroying himself—emotionally, psychologically

and physically.”

Anatomy of a Mid-life Marriage Meltdown

When I began gathering research for my books, Surviving Male Menopause and The

Irritable Male Syndrome, I was surprised at how many letters I got from women who

found that their spouses changed rapidly, a la Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, from Mr. Nice to

Mr. Mean to Mr. In-the-Wind. Many wives felt they had been totally blindsided and were

frantically searching for answers.

One woman who wrote about her experiences was Madeline Bennett. In her book,

Sudden Endings: Wife Rejection in Happy Marriages, she says, “For me to survive the

trauma of abandonment, I had to find out why my husband—or any spouse who claimed
to be in love with a mate—would walk out after twenty-five years with no apparent

conflict or remorse.” I believe that what Madeline learned from her experiences with her

husband, Arthur, can be of benefit to both women and men who are dealing with issues

related to Irritable Male Syndrome.

Early Warning Signs

Often Irritable Male Syndrome surfaces following life changes, that may be obviously

serious or may seem fairly minor: An illness, job change, traffic accident, children going

off to college, a friend getting ill, parents aging, worries about finances, etc. For

Madeline, the problems seemed to surface following a serious business crisis that affected

Arthur more deeply than Madeline was aware. “In my rush to regain normalcy, I paid

scant attention to subtle changes in Arthur’s behavior toward me,” she reported. “He had

grown gradually less attentive during the business crisis, but that was to be expected.”

“Sympathy with his ordeal dictated patience and understanding, and the relief that the

worst was over fortified me while I waited for the cloud to lift. What I didn’t know was

that a hurricane was forming. While I was still living in a relationship that was familiar

and wonderful, Arthur was withdrawing into another world and shutting me out. When I

observed signs of distancing and ill temper, I timidly proposed that he see a therapist, a

suggestion he rebuffed.”

Nullifying the Past and Seeing the Wife as Enemy

When the man begins to think about leaving, he also starts looking for reasons to

justify the inner panic that begins to arise. Often there is no “real” reason that can justify

the strength of his feeling. As a result he often re-organizes the past in his own mind.
Where he used to see their life as mostly good, with the usual downs that are part of all

long-term relationships, now he begins to see the past as mostly negative.

It’s as though his brain gathers up all the bad memories and forgets all the good ones.

Where he used to look back on a life-story of a good marriage and a good wife, he begins

to see a bad life and a bad wife. For the wife it’s a “crazy-making” experience. She

wonders whether their whole life was a sham. Could it really have been as bad as he is

telling her it was?

“About three months into the crisis,” Madeline recalled, “by which time it was clear

that no words or actions of mine could change his outlook or influence his decisions,

Arthur phoned one morning and informed me that he was moving in with his girlfriend.

Looking back, I wince at the memory of my self-confidence. I had invincible faith that

Arthur would recover his memory of everything we cherished for so many years.”

Madeline, like most women I talk to, have a difficult time understanding the profound

changes that are going inside the mind’s of their husbands. “I was sure that I could count

on his excellent character,” she remembers. “Even if he had to pursue this affair, he

would never lose his concern for my welfare and for the family that meant so much to

him. Character, I knew, was more reliable than sexual attraction.”

As the man sinks deeper into his fear and shame, his anger becomes more explosive

and his wife is often the target of his rage. “The third month away he reduced the amount

of his check and snarled when I complained,” Madeline recounts. “His voice on the

phone was hard and icy. I didn’t admit it at the time, but he sounded as if he hated me.

The voice was that of a stranger, the demeanor that of an enemy.”

His Abusive Upbringing Surfaces and Old Wounds Emerge

Many women are aware of the dysfunctional family relationships that their husbands

experience growing up. They often say that they feel so much love for him that their

nurturing, understanding, care, and support will be able to heal the old wounds. And it’s

true that some family wounds can be healed by having a loving adult relationship.

However, many times these wounds seem to be healed, but there is serious poison that

has not been touched and comes out at mid-life.

Many women also grow up in difficult family situations and have their own healing to

do. They often assume that their husbands have done as much healing as they have. But

men often cover over their pain rather than doing the deep emotional work required for

real healing to occur. Men are often taught that “inner work” is feminine. “Real” men

don’t go to counseling or try and figure themselves out. They go to the bar, have another

beer, fight with the guys, and flirt with the girls.

“I realized that I had predicated our mutual understanding on the untested assumption

that Arthur’s inner world was like mine,” Madeline remembered. “I never suspected that

growing up with a remote, baiting father and selfish, punishing mother would leave a

residue of self-hatred that would put introspection off limits.”

Shame and Humiliation Are So Painful That Denial Becomes a Way of Life

Men often grow up feeling a great deal of pain about who we are as men. We often

don’t get enough love from our mothers who are overwhelmed with their own problems.

Fathers are often absent or hurtful. We often repress our feelings and go through life with

an invisible shield that we erect to protect ourselves from more wounding.

However, at mid-life the shield often begins to crack and we are flooded with feelings

that are too overwhelming to acknowledge. When we need to open up the most, we

continue to deny that anything is wrong. Madeline began to recognize the pain that

Arthur had so long held inside. “My impression of this outwardly confident man was that

his childhood hurts had been neutralized long ago, but really he was walking around with

untreated wounds, like someone whose solution for crumbling plaster is to hang a

beautiful painting on top of it.”

When a crisis emerges at mid-life men often are in a double bind. They want to tell

someone they can trust about the fear and suffering that is going on inside. But they fear

that if they open up, they will be overwhelmed by guilt, shame, and doubt. Too many

men suffer in silence. It takes a great deal of courage to open up when we feel so

frightened of what may emerge.

“To escape the humiliation of his predicament during the business crisis,” Madeline

realized, “he must have sealed off his emotional receptors and literally stopped feeling

the pain. The numbing was abetted by denial, the defense that enables us to keep

unwanted knowledge out of conscious awareness.”

Manly Silence, the “False Self,” and Projected Blame

Men learn early on to suffer silently, to keep our pain covered over, to be “big boys”

and later “strong men.” We cover our losses and “dress for success.” Often the most

tragic cases are men who have managed to maintain a strong exterior while inside their

lives are falling apart.

“Defeat, which no one takes lightly, is fiendish for someone whose self-worth depends

on day-to-day feedback of success,” Madeline came to realize. “Arthur had cultivated a

“false self.” In childhood he must have learned how to appear confident and composed

regardless of his inner turmoil.”

The reason that there is a sudden Jekyll to Hyde shift for many men is that the

feelings build up over the years until they can no longer be contained. “I believe that

feelings of shame, guilt, and anger had been accumulating until his reservoir was full,”

Madeline finally could see. “With the overflow he began experiencing terrifying attacks

of panic and fear of losing control—as if his internal compass had gone haywire.”

As the panic begins to rise men often become like confused homing pigeons that fly

180 degrees in the wrong direction. What they really need is to open up and share their

feelings with someone who they can love and trust. Instead they think that their loving

spouse is really out to harm them and they must escape before it’s too late.

“Among other gyrations,” Madeline realized, “when his emotional compass was

pointing in my direction, it was no longer pointing toward friend or lover but toward an

unwanted intruder.” Often old unhealed wounds from childhood get projected on to the

spouse. Arthur began to criticize Madeline for doing things she had never done to him,

but she knew that had been done by his mother and father. “This was only a foretaste of

what developed later when his confusions multiplied. I was to be mistaken for his

mother, his father, and anyone else who had ever been disloyal to him.”

Through the years there is always a give and take in any long-term relationship. No

one gets all of what they want. But during this crisis of irritability and escape, men often

feel that they had never got what they wanted. They may be recalling their childhood,

but it is projected on their marriage.

“Arthur’s complaints about our marriage contained one fixation, the pervasive,

unshakable conviction that he had never gotten his way,” Madeline remembers. “He felt

martyred. The concessions and compromises that to me had reflected normal give-and-

take between two reasonable people to him represented total surrender to a demanding,

manipulative wife.”

It’s no wonder, with a man’s sense of reality so distorted, that the logical action is to

get away. Since he doesn’t realize he’s looking out at the world through distorted lenses,

he believes that he is living with someone who is trying to harm him. He naturally wants

to defend himself against the threat. He doesn’t recognize that the real threat is coming

from his old wounds, not from his present relationship.

Irritable Male Syndrome and Addiction

As we come to understand the roots of irritable male syndrome and how it can impact

relationships, we see that there is a strong connection to addictions. As men repress the

pain and memories of childhood wounds, they often use various forms of escape in an

attempt to deal with the pain. Some men overuse alcohol. Others, get hooked on

marijuana, cocaine, or other substances. Gambling, over-eating, compulsive work, or

sexual acting out, are ways men try to deal with the unresolved issues.

Since we live in a culture where addictions to legal and illegal forms of escape are the

norm, we often don’t even recognize the degree to which a man may be using one or

more of these crutches. However, at mid-life, with stress mounting, the addictions may

become more obvious and more serious. Men who have lead exemplary lives all of a

sudden become sexually involved with someone at work. Men who have been life-long

advocates of sound fiscal management become addicted to some get-rich-quick scheme

and steal money from people who trusted them. Men who have been against drugs all

their lives are suddenly arrested for the use and sale of large quantities of marijuana.

What You Can Do

Knowledge is power. Just having some understanding of the dynamics of irritable

male syndrome can empower you to hang on and get help. Although men are often in

denial and their fears of looking inside are very strong, there is always a small voice

inside that is saying “something’s not quite right here. I know it seems that my spouse is

going out of her way to hurt me, but can that really be true? Maybe I need to take

another look, get more information, before I make a decision that could affect our whole


The positive side of addictions is that they get worse if not treated and therefore

harder and harder to deny. Even men who have maintained a rigid belief that “It’s you

who have the problem, I’m just fine,” begin to get a glimpse that something is not right

with them.

Don’t give up. Take care of yourself. Reach out for help. Even if the man is resistant

at first, he may come around later.

I look forward to your comments and feedback.

For more information contact me at or visit me at and