Irritable Male Syndrome
Do men in mid life or later really suffer from Irritable Male Syndrome? Do they become hypersensitive, anxious, frustrated and angry? Do they take this out on their partner and family? Have they gone from Mr Nice to Mr Mean for no explicable reason? Does this occur in men, due to biochemical changes, hormonal fluctuations, stress, and loss of their male identity? I've been a counsellor working with men for 25 years and believe I have a unique perspective to look at the pros and cons of Jed Diamond's theory "The Irritable Male Syndrome."
My work with men has included facilitating stopping violence courses in both prison and in the community, plus running assertiveness and conflict resolution classes for men. As a counsellor I have worked with men who have been maltreated, neglected and sexually abused as children and teenagers. More recently I have focused my practice on "Mojo Recovery for men", allowing men who have struggled to bounce back from life's challenges, or have lost focus, or have become overwhelmed with life to have a safe place to reflect on their lives. I have stood with men as they cope with death of a loved one and the break up of a relationship. I have sat with men who have become depressed, chronically stressed and anxious. I have been there for men as they face major life changes such as redundancy, job restructuring or a decline in their own wellbeing.
Working with men who have lost their mojo, who are struggling with depression, who are overreactive, grumpy and abusive or feel like their lives are in crisis, is challenging. However when one can create the right counselling environment, it is such rewarding work, as being with men as they reflect on their lives, become vulnerable and begin to make sense of what is going on for them is such a privilege.
Irritable Male Syndrome:
Describing someone as suffering Irritable Male Syndrome, could make what is natural, seem like it is a disorder or as a sickness, rather than part of a life. It is not unusual for men to wonder where their life has gone, to grieve for what they didn't achieve, to become more cognisant of their disappointments and failures. To question if they are happy, if they are still in love? Where he considers wether he has lived a life for others expectations rather than a life based on his own values and desires. To reflect on, if his childhood has in fact informed how he has been in the world rather than his authentic needs and values. There is a wisdom created when a man begins to consider his life, to reflect on what is important, as he comes to 'some sort' of terms with his mortality. A lot of men can share this, talk with friends, seek counselling without becoming irritable, blaming and angry.
The idea that the change in a man's hormones, primarily testosterone (male menopause) is the cause of Irritable Male Syndrome is not unanimously accepted by researchers or the medical profession. I am not in a position to critique this at all.
My real reservation about Jed Diamond's theory is, a central component is the idea that men, have been usurped by women and are now the second sex, with women having taken their jobs and roles. Diamond even proposes that men have become an endangered species. Presenting men as the victim does not help to build respectful relationships, and limits a critique of the major players in the disestablishment of workers job security, the casualisation of employment and the privatisation of human services. Rather than acknowledge that people are struggling, in a world that has significantly changed, with the domination of neo-liberal capitalism, Diamond encourages what Paulo Freire describes as horizontal hostility, where people with the same struggles are encouraged to blame each other, diverting them away from looking at who really has the power. In a society, that encourages a form of hyper-individualism, with a resulting breakdown in connection and community, it is not surprising that men (and women) are struggling. This idea that women are to blame for a man's misery, supports the beliefs that underlie violence, rather than standing against it.
In fact, something about the way we have constructed relationships, as a sort of an antidote to our own misery, is a significant part of the problem. The idea that he or she will make us happy, is sort of the root of their downfall. I have worked with so many couples, who when this fantasy fails, make the decision to blame their partner for being the one who is wrecking their life. With the resulting, state of mind, creating a ripe environment for bitterness, resentment and contempt to overwhelm what was once a loving relationship. We seem to be so easily seduced into believing that we can moan our way to happiness, even though over my 25 years of practice I have never met anyone who has succeeded.
However, Jed Diamond's ideas about male menopause, Irritable Male Syndrome, Mr Nice to Mr Mean are worth considering, if for no other reason, than it may make men who are abusive towards their girlfriends, partners and families, seek help. He is open about his own life, his aggression and struggles, this connects him with men and their partners, encouraging them to seek help and to take responsibility for their actions, without shaming them.
Diamond's theory that men (some) at a certain age can begin to struggle, become disillusioned and depressed, has some validity. I would agree that men suffering from male depression, rather than connecting with those they love, can withdraw, become anxious and irritable.
Rather than men seeking help, they tend to plough on with their lives, exacerbating their problems rather than relieving them. They don't see that, blaming, criticising and becoming angry, is a maladaptive defence mechanism. They control others to protect the fragile wounded part of their psyche, but in doing so they kill intimacy and trust. Shifting a once healthy relationship; to one defined, by defensiveness, withdrawal and even contempt.
In a society that does not encourage people to face their pain, or to be vulnerable, or to live with a certain degree of uncertainty, irritability in a perverse way could be seen by men as exhibiting strength rather than weakness. Diamond points out that male depression is often more likely to be exhibited as over reactiveness, irritability, withdrawal, addictive behaviour and aggression rather than a more vulnerable response.
Diamond's work pulls off this grumpy veil to reveal men who are struggling, often suffering from male depression, chronic stress or burnout. In doing so Diamond shifts our response to these men away from condemnation more towards a compassionate engagement.
Diamond is sympathetic and acknowledging of the consequences of chronic stress and how this is a major player in men beginning to struggle in their lives. Over the years that I have been working with men, it is clear the more stressed they become, the more likely they are to over react, become defensive and exhibit both physical and psychological signs of chronic stress. Diamond is keen to explore what is underneath this blame, anger and reactivity, allowing men to seek help, to make changes, to recuperate and recover. Even the men exhibiting these behaviours can be shocked by their reactions and responses.
Men often begin counselling with me, having in some way crashed and burned. They now have no other choice but to seek help. But rather than seeing this as an opportunity to reflect on their life, they feel they have failed, that it is evidence of some personal floor. When in fact burn out is actually ubiquitous, as any person chronically stressed over a lengthy period, (often hidden by success) is prone to some form of collapse and will need to recuperate and recover. This is not a failure, it just is what it is. In my experience, people who burnout, have often been viewed as real successes within their organisation, as they are willing to go the extra mile, but over time this all becomes too much, as their own self care practices have become subservient to the roles they are trying to achieve. As the role takes over their life, they become blinded to the consequences this is having in their personal life, their focus has become tunnel visioned, as they try and stay on top of the demands of their position. But over time, the issues that they have not attended to in their personal life, mount up and these eventually have to be faced, sadly when the person has little resilience.
Although, the idea that men can suffer, some form of male menopause associated with a reduction in testosterone, or that they suffer from irritable male syndrome, has been negatively critiqued, I believe it has opened up a dialogue acknowledging that men can begin to struggle as they age. These men have often been loyal to the stories of our culture; about what is success, that one should seek status rather than connection, that men should provide and set their children up for life and that men should soldier on in adversity. However there is a point in their lives that they begin to question, to wonder, if their own authentic needs have become subservient to these stories. Men will often talk about not even knowing who the truly are, or what they really want. But they have become trapped in a career, or their status, or their lifestyle and they don't know how to get out of it. Although it feels like a crisis and it is in a lot of ways, it is also a place from which ideas and new ways forward can be tended and allowed to slowly take root, as they seek to live a more wholehearted life. It is the crisis that has allowed vulnerability to be lived with and as Brene Brown has so clearly articulated in her books, becoming vulnerable is the key to living a wholehearted life.
Over my 25 years practicing, I see so many men who can no longer keep running, avoiding, armouring up, or numbing. They face a time when it all catches up on them, all the unresolved childhood issues, the 'striving' to cover up for childhood wounds, the need to control, and the need to seek acceptance. Fundamentally they realise that they are not happy or even content with their lives - something has to change. The tough thing is, all this stuff comes up at the same time, as they are chronically stressed, anxious and depressed. It is therefore not surprising that they become irritable and angry, or that they want to run away and start a completely new life. Hopefully for marriages/relationships, Diamond normalises the idea that men will question their relationship, but believes the desire to runaway can be reframed as a desire to live a more connected life with more excitement, with those they already are in relationships with. It is catching these men before they run, that is the issue for their current partner and family. It is in this space prior to these men running away, to a new life, where they need to be encouraged to reflect, critique and understand what is going on, if they are to reignite the passions in their current life.
It is clear that out of the turmoil that a man's life can get into, (what Jed Diamond describes as Irritable Male Syndrome), where there is significant potential for a man to change his life, by regaining or finding his mojo. To do this he needs to accept his life, learn from his mistakes, live in the moment, lighten up and learn to not take life so seriously. To as the Buddhist's say "realise he is ordinary." But also to honour his true values and priorities, to become vulnerable and build connections with his partner, family, friends and community. For without this he has little chance of living a more wholehearted life.