From Irritable Male to Run-Away Husband: Anatomy of a Mid-life Marriage Meltdown By Jed Diamond, Ph.D.

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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 A.M. 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.” “I’m NOT IRRITABLE.”

“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 older.

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 time. 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 concerned. 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 stressful. 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-andtake 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 life.” 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