Definition of the Irritable Male Syndrome (IMS): A state of hypersensitivity, anxiety, frustration, and anger that occurs in males and is associated with biochemical changes, hormonal fluctuations, stress, and loss of male identity.
Let me share with you what went into this particular definition. Working with males (and those who live with them) that are experiencing IMS I have found there are four core symptoms that underlie many others.
The first is 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 pleases him.
- When I try and 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.
- You know I don't like that. Why do you keep doing it?
- Leave me alone.
- No, nothing's wrong. I'm fine. Quit asking me questions.
- The kids always....(it's always negative). The kids never....(do the right things).
- Why don't you ever.... Fill in the blank. ...want sex, do what I want to do, do something with your life, think before you open your mouth, do things the right way.
- You damn....Fill in the blank....fool, bitch, etc. 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 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.
The second core emotion is anxiety.
Anxiety is a state of apprehension, uncertainty, and fear resulting from the anticipation of a realistic or fantasized threatening event or situation. As you will see as you delve more deeply into the book, 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. 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 I have to go to war? 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.
The third core emotion is 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
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.
The forth core emotion is 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.
As we explore IMS in more depth, be aware that we are talking about a problem that isn't easily categorized or circumscribed. It is slippery and illusive. It can wreak havoc in the lives of men and those who love them and remain hidden from scrutiny. I know. IMS nearly destroyed me and my family. Next week I'll share my own experiences with IMS.
Since I began my study of this subject five years ago, I have received thousands of letters from men and women describing their experiences. Over the next weeks, I will tell you more about this interesting and baffling change that so many men experience, particularly as we get older. Have you heard of the Irritable Male Syndrome? Do you know someone who is going through it? Drop me a note and let me know.
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This article first appeared on Gordon Clay's MenStuff Web site, http://www.menstuff.org/