I’ve been a marriage and family counselor for more than fifty years and have helped more than 40,000 couples. One of the most common, yet least understood, problems that couples face is Male Irritability and Anger (MIA). I first learned about the problem, though it didn’t have a name then, when my own marriage was in trouble. My wife had been trying to get me to see a counselor for many months, but I was reluctant to ask for help, even though I’d been a counselor myself for many years.
I finally agreed to see a counselor when she tearfully told me something had to change. She told me,
“I love you very much, but your anger is destroying the feelings I have for you. If we don’t get help soon, I’m afraid we’re not going to make it.”
That got my attention, big time. But it also terrified me. If we start digging into our lives, what are we going to find? When she sees the real me—angry, scared, confused, unmanly—will she decide to leave me? How could I continue as a marriage and family counselor if I couldn’t fix my own marriage?
I agreed to see someone but went reluctantly. On the surface I was saying things like:
- “What makes you think this person can help us?”
- “We can handle this ourselves.”
- “I’m not crazy, and I don’t need a shrink.”,
- “My friend Lanny went to a counselor with his wife and they split up.”
Inside I was just scared, but I couldn’t admit it to myself or my wife. What helped me was reading a book by a therapist who talked about her own problems. In her book, An Unquiet Mind: Memoir of Moods and Madness, well-known researcher and therapist Kay Redfield Jamison described her own illness.
“You’re irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding, and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and ‘you’re not at all like yourself but will be soon,’ but you know you won’t.”
When I read those words, I had two reactions. The first was, “That’s me. I’m all of those things.” The second was, “If she can come out and tell the truth about her problems, so can I.” After the first session with the therapist, I was less resistant but still had trouble admitting that I might have problems. I kept wanting to blame things on my wife.
What broke through my denial was a heartfelt letter my wife wrote to the doctor after our first session:
“The thing that is most troubling about Jed are his rapid mood changes. He’s angry, accusing, argumentative, and blaming one moment, and the next moment he is buying me flowers, cards, and leaving me loving notes. He’ll change in an hour from looking daggers at me to being all smiles and enthusiasm.
“He gets frustrated, red in the face, insists that we have to talk, then cuts me off when he judges I have said something offensive to him. I become frozen inside, feeling that no matter what I do or say, it will be ‘wrong’ for him. The intensity and the coldness in his eyes scare me at these times. I usually shut down, and it takes a lot of time for me to return to an open feeling towards him. My openness, trust, and joy in being together have suffered greatly.”
The 4 Early Warning Signs of Irritable Male Syndrome
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.
- Whenever I try to do nice things, he pushes me away.
- 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.
- No, nothing’s wrong. I’m fine.
- The kids always…. (Fill in the blank). It’s usually something negative.
- You never…. (Fill in the blank) e.g. want sex, do what I want to do, think before you open your mouth, do things the right way.
- You damn…. (Fill in the blank) e.g. fool, bitch. As IMS progresses, the words get more hurtful.
- 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. Many uncertainties 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, which is frequently hidden and unrecognized, is a key element of IMS.
4. Over-the-top anger.
We all get angry from time to time. But men suffering from irritable male syndrome express anger that is over-the-tap and often about seemingly minor events.
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.