Is Irritable Female Syndrome Undermining Your Marriage?

Female irritability seems to be in my face lately. I’m hearing about it in my men’s group. Friends are describing it. I think it may even be related to the widespread support that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are currently receiving.

Here are some things I’m hearing from men:

“My wife shows very little empathy when I’m I talking about my ongoing foot pain. When she’s hurting I try to express loving kindness. When I’m hurting, she gets irritable and angry.”

“We’ve been having financial problems lately as the economy in our area continues to be on the decline. When I try and talk to my wife, she bombards me with questions. She’s like a woodpecker rat-a-tat-tatting on my brain.”

“I can’t seem to do anything right lately. I work my ass off to keep us afloat, but when I come home tired she’s got more and more things she wants me to do, and the tone in her voice always has a sharp edge.”

Men aren’t the only ones who are noticing this. Women are sharing their own concerns about irritability.

“I don’t know what’s the matter with me. It seems that things bother me more these days. I’ve become a real bitch. I know it hurts my husband and he gets that wounded, hurt-puppy look, which makes me even more angry. I don’t understand what’s going on with me.”

“I’ve got two children, but including my husband I have three. I’ve got to constantly remind him to do things around the house. It’s like I’ve become his mother. I hate it, but he just keeps pissing me off.”

“I’m getting more irritable with everyone–my husband, the kids, even my friends. Sometimes I just wish I could escape and get the hell out of here.”

A number of years ago I was seeing an increase in irritability among men, particularly those between the ages of 40 and 60 who were going through Andropause. I spent four years doing an in-depth study. My book The Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression detailed my findings and what I had learned that could be helpful to men and women.

In the research study I conducted with over 60,000 males, I found there were 50 symptoms (You can take the full quiz here) that were indicative of Irritable Male Syndrome (IMS).  Here are the most common.

  • Hypersensitivity.

It’s as though the man was emotionally sunburned.  It seems that every little thing sets him off.  She feels like she’s walking on egg shells trying to avoid setting him off.  He feels like everyone is going out of their way to irritate him.

  • 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—sexual changes, job insecurities, relationship problems.  There are also many uncertainties that lead men to ruminate and fantasize about future problems that may never occur.

  • Frustration.

IMS men feel blocked in attaining what they want and need in life.  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.

  • 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 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.

I’ve found that many women experience these same feelings. I’ve found that hypersensitivity and anger are more common in men, while frustration and anxiety are more common in women. All four can contribute to depression in both sexes.

When I explored the underlying causes of IMS in men I found four that predominated.

  • Hormonal changes.

Testosterone is a critically important hormone for men (and women).  Theresa L. Crenshaw, M.D., author of The Alchemy of Love and Lust, describes testosterone as the young Marlon Brando—sexual, sensual, alluring, and dark, with a dangerous undertone.” We’ve heard of “roid rage” when men take testosterone-like steroids to bulk up.  But the more common reason men become irritable is when their testosterone levels are too low, rather than too high.

  • Biochemical changes.

Most people have heard of the brain neurotransmitter, serotonin.  When we have enough flowing through our brains, we feel good.  When there isn’t enough, we feel bad.  What most people don’t know is that our serotonin levels are influenced by what we eat.

Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., and her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that a high protein, low carbohydrate diet can cause serotonin levels to drop.  They found that men often mistake their cravings for healthy carbohydrates, such as those found in rice, corn, squash, with cravings for protein found in meat.  “Eating protein when we need carbohydrates,” says Wurtman, “will make us grumpy, irritable, or restless.”

  • Stress.

It’s no secret that stress levels are going through the roof.  Our economic system seems on the brink of collapse.  We worry about whether we will have a job tomorrow and how we can support our family while prices on everything continue to rise.  World population has reached 7.4 billion.

According to the UN population division 216,000 children are born each day.  They won’t all come to our town, but we all feel the pressure and our stress increases.

  • Loss of male identity.

For most of human history, the male role was clear.  Our main role was to “bring home the bacon.”  Everyone had a job and contributed to the well-being of the family, the tribe, and the village.  But now many of us work at jobs that we hate, producing goods or services that have no real value to the community.

Again I see similar causes that contribute to women’s increased irritability. We know about hormonal changes in women as they age, but not everyone is aware of the shift in balance between estrogen and testosterone. As estrogen levels drop, the ratio of testosterone to estrogen increases and women often become more irritable and “testy.” Like men, women often go on “low carb” diets which may also increase irritability as their serotonin levels drop. Finally, women too, have to deal with increasing stress and changes in roles.

But there is hope. In my new book coming out this summer, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best is Still to Come, I talk about why Stage 3, Disillusionment, is often the time when irritability and anger begin to undermine our relationships. The key to getting through this difficult stage is to practice loving kindness so that we can embrace Stage 4, Real Lasting Love and Stage 5, Couples Coming Together to Change the World.

Denying these changes increases our fear. At home we find our relationships are in trouble. In the political world we lean towards candidates that are often irritable, angry, shaming, and blaming. This is a time when we will come together with deeper empathy or pull ourselves apart with anger and fear. I look forward to your comments.

Jed Diamond, PhD, LCSW, is the Founder and Director of the MenAlive, a health program that helps men live well throughout their lives. Though focused on men’s health, MenAlive is also for women who care about the health of the men in their lives.

Diamond’s new book, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best is Still to Come brings together the wisdom accumulated in more than 40 years helping more than 20,000 men, women, and children.

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