Before assuming a relatively low profile of late, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, noted for his testy exchanges with the press, was generally thought to be the most irritable man in Washington. In the realm of sports there's no contest: Nobody is more irritable than college basketball coach Bobby Knight, best known for flinging chairs across the court but recently in the news for accosting his university chancellor over a salad bar.
Why are these guys so grumpy?
Maybe they just need a hug. Or maybe they're suffering from a condition we all recognize that finally has a name: irritable male syndrome. It's the subject and title of a new book by psychotherapist Jed Diamond. Diamond made a name for himself with the 1997 book Male Menopause, in which he argued that "andropause," or the decline in testosterone that accompanies aging, can really bring a guy down. In The Irritable Male Syndrome: Managing the Four Key Causes of Depression and Aggression (Rodale), scheduled for bookstores in October, Diamond broadens his scope of hormonal changes that can make men, old or not, grumpy. And hormones are just one element in a mix of internal and external forces that can turn a happy, healthy stud into a sour, sick spud.
WHY IS HE LIKE THAT?
Does this sound like someone you know? "He blames me for everything these days," says a middle-aged woman describing her spouse in Diamond's new book. "If his socks or underwear are missing, I must have put them somewhere or done something with them to [make him mad]
that's what he tells me. The thing that bothers me the most is how unaffectionate he has become.
My husband used to be the most positive, upbeat, funny person I knew. Now, it's like living with an angry brick!"
That guy really is irritable, as cranky as Archie Bunker or almost any Jack Nicholson character.
"The stereotype of the old codger says that men will naturally become cynical, angry and frustrated as they age," says Diamond. "But many of the things we used to accept as inevitable are now recognized as disease states. We used to say that someone was dotty-now we know it as Alzheimer's. We used to accept a lack of sexual function. We used to accept these things, and now we treat them."
Some of the fault clearly lies with hormones. Every parent knows that hormone spikes turn teenagers into moody monsters. When surgery alters a man's hormone mix, doctors expect mood swings. With testosterone likely to start taking a header in men between ages 40 and 55, Diamond has observed irritability in 80 percent of his patients in this group, a figure many women may find low.
Blame other biochemical factors as well, starting with differences in gender. Research has shown that men can take longer than women to process complex emotions, so they can get cranky when they're pushed to talk about something they don't yet understand. Some people are born with genes that simply make them more prone to anxiety, depression and hostility. You can't blame them for that, but their parents were supposed to have taught them to control and channel negative emotions; instead they learned to respond to hard times by repressing their emotions and either acting out or turning inward. Either way, they end up irritable males.
While hormones and genes might tee a guy up, it's usually the outside world that tees him off. Think about Clint Eastwood's characters: They're always peevish but don't explode until they feel insulted. For today's guy in his 50s or 60s, the insult might be frustrated ambition, the promise of the "man's world" that once dangled before him but that now he will never inherit. Women's incomes and education levels have been rising while men's have been stagnant or falling. Guys may be stuck in a job they dislike, or laid off, or forced to take early retirement. That's depressing.
WHAT TO DO
Diamond's interest in the mental health of men began during childhood. "My father was manic-depressive and ultimately attempted suicide," he says, "so I knew growing up how complicated male depression is." Diamond himself endured a bout of depression severe enough to endanger his own marriage, he says.
"A lot of people weren't convinced by the idea of male menopause when that book first came out," he says. "There were a few articles and a lot of jokes. But I got an ‘aha' reaction from therapists who have been seeing this in their work. So these ideas gradually work their way in."
Diamond suggests several ways an irritable male can treat his body and mind. First, get healthy. Forget the low-carb fad: Only a diet that includes both protein and carbohydrates allows the body to produce enough of the neurotransmitter called serotonin, "the male hormone of bliss," one doctor calls it. An unbalanced diet can depress serotonin levels-and bingo, you're a grouch. Alcohol gives serotonin a temporary bump but then dramatically lowers it, so it pays to go easy on the sauce.
To maximize testosterone, Diamond says, stay away from coffee, licorice and diet sweeteners. Zinc pumps testosterone up, and some irritable men even get mellower by taking testosterone the way some women take estrogen. Diamond doesn't endorse this in all cases, but he says it's worth asking a doctor about. Men naturally generate estrogen, too. Ten pounds of extra weight increases estrogen levels in a man's system and can make him irritable, if not busty.
Men should also stop defining themselves in terms of their job titles and start searching for a purpose that comes from within, Diamond says. "The question I'd put to an older man is, ‘Now that you've done what you were supposed to do, what were you put here on earth to do?' " he says. "Other cultures have rites of passage for men that help define their purpose. We tend to ignore that, which leads to men feeling useless."
A relationship with an irritable male will improve when both partners learn what Diamond calls the art of nonviolent communication. That means ignoring who is right or wrong and focusing instead on each partner's needs. If that sounds a little touchy-feely, you won't be surprised to learn that Diamond lives in Willits, Calif., land of redwoods and hot tubs.
Of course, there's no sure-fire cure for irritability. And, if it comes down to telling grumpy guys to chill out
hey, nobody said this would be easy.
Brad Edmondson is a vice president of ePodunk, an online provider of profiles of U.S. towns and villages.
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This article first appeared on Gordon Clay's MenStuff Web site, http://www.menstuff.org/