Husbands around the world are dealing with unprecedented amounts of external stress. Whether you call it “miserable husband syndrome,” “irritable husband syndrome” or the more academic “irritable male syndrome,” we’re experiencing a perfect storm of political and financial uncertainty in our everyday lives, against the backdrop of a recalcitrant pandemic. 

But before there was the idea of Irritable Husband Syndrome, there was the animal research that discovered Irritable Male Syndrome.

What is Irritable Male Syndrome?

Irritable Male Syndrome is a conditioned state of depression, irritability, lethargy, and nervousness, that occurs in adult male mammals upon a significant drop in testosterone (T) levels.

Persistent external stress might be contributing to an emerging mental health crisis more commonly referred to as Irritable Husband Syndrome. As stress becomes a daily experience, sleep is degraded, mood erodes, and testosterone levels tend to drop.This renders husbands even less resilient for tomorrow’s challenges.

We’ve known for some time that stress can cause men to produce lower levels of testosterone, as daily stressors persist. But nowadays external stressors are relentless. Men have always struggled to manage stress in a changing world. Researchers first became interested in best practices for resilience way back in the mid 80s.

Some time ago, researchers identified Irritable Male Syndrome, which is also referred to in popular culture as Irritable Husband Syndrome or Miserable Husband Syndrome. Our awareness of an emerging male mood disorder is only relatively recent. But we have signs of it everywhere. For example, every month, about 18,000 spouses type into Google the search query…my husband yells at me.

How COVID makes irritable husbands even more irritable

Breaking research suggests that one of the hidden symptoms of long COVID is a drop in testosterone levels which was overlooked by earlier researchers. A British survey of over 600 patients indicates that long COVID can also significantly impact male reproductive systems and testosterone levels. 

“Absolutely, reproductive systems have been overlooked during the pandemic,” says Geoff Hackett, a professor of sexual medicine at Aston University in Birmingham, UK. He explains that during acute illness from COVID, the testes can be attacked by the covid virus directly.

In other words, while men are being stressed past their breaking point, which will tend to drop testosterone levels, a lingering pandemic may also be silently plunging testosterone levels even lower.

How was Irritable Male Syndrome discovered?

Research biologist Dr. Gerald Lincoln was hoping to make a killing by developing a male contraceptive. His initial research involved lowering the testosterone levels of rams to the point where they were incapable of impregnating.

What happened next was unexpected. The rams got testy without their testosterone.They became irritable, depressed, and nervous. They started biting the researchers, and showing signs of increasing distress.

Because Dr. Lincoln was looking at mammalian behavior, he subsequently coined the term “irritable male syndrome.” And since he was talking about rams, it’s understandable that journalists would explain his research to the general public as “irritable husband syndrome” or “miserable husband syndrome.”

Irritable Husband Syndrome and Andropause

When Dr. Lincoln was puzzled over his irritated rams, he suspected that his findings could be generalized to all male mammals. And what we know about how men physically change after the age of 40 tends to back that up.

Andropause refers to a predictable constellation of symptoms that men experience as their T production levels naturally decrease as they age. Andropause is a predictable age-sensitive. For most men, after the age of 40, their testosterone levels start to decrease and the symptoms related to andropause begin to emerge. 

Testosterone levels can also decline due to overwhelming stress, certain medications, and poor lifestyle choices. But, according to thought leader Jed Diamond, unlike Andropause, Irritable Husband Syndrome is not age sensitive. 

Why the idea of Irritable Husband Syndrome matters in couples therapy

The best couples therapists are systemic thinkers. They’re always looking at the feedback loops; the vicious as well as the virtuous circles in a couples’ life. 

A good couples therapist will want to learn how a couple copes with stress, and have some familiarity with possible underlying medical factors such as low testosterone.

Throw in the force multiplier of long COVID, and you have a perfect storm of irritated, depressed, and unfocused men struggling to endure and navigate unprecedented, historic times. 

No wonder so many couples therapists have waiting lists these days.

What is Irritable Husband Syndrome?

Irritable husband syndrome is a conditioned state of depression, irritability, lethargy, and nervousness, that occurs in men upon a significant drop in testosterone (T) levels.

Jed Diamond is a social worker whose life’s work has focused on men’s issues. He advises that Irritable Husband Syndrome can start out relatively mild, but can become more serious as external stressors multiply.

While some would-be thought leaders shamelessly recycle old wine into newer bottles, Jared freely admits that while he believes Irritated Male Syndrome is not entirely synonymous with male depression, and that more research is needed. 

Research conducted by Jed Diamond and Courtney Johnson at Duke University with nearly 6000 men provided some valuable insight into Irritable Husband Syndrome:

  • 46% of men said they were often or almost always stressed.
  • 21% said they were often or always depressed.
  • 40% said they were often or almost always irritable.
  • 50% reported they were annoyed often or as much as always.
  • 57% reported they were impatient often or as much as always.
  • 54% said they were tired often or as much as always.
  • 45% said they were dissatisfied often or as much as always.
  • 45% also said that they were frustrated often or as much as always.
  • 43% said they were exhausted often or as much as always.
  • 46% reported that they were bored often or as much as always.
  • 62% described a desire “to get away.”
  • 51% reported that they “veg” out in front of a TV often or as much as always.
  • 55% of men said they had a fear of failure often or as much as always.
  • 51% reported feeling “gloomy, negative, or hopeless.”
  • 46% said they often or as much as always feel sorry for themselves.
  • 51% reported that they focus on their failures and are highly self-critical.
  • 50% reported that they often engaged in flirtatious fantasies of infidelity.
And all of these data points were from before COVID.

The problem of feeling overwhelmed

Unfortunately spouses take the brunt of the misery from an irritated husband. For example, Gottman tells us that 85% of stonewallers are men. 

Men have several other handicaps in the emotional regulation department. 

“Men tend to be more physiologically overwhelmed than women by marital tension… for example, during confrontations, a man’s pulse rate is more likely to rise, along with his blood pressure. Therefore, men may feel a greater, perhaps instinctive need to flee from intense conflict with their spouses in order to protect their health.” John Gottman

8 signs of an irritated husband

In more and more of my client’s Big Big Books I’m seeing wives asking,  “Why is my husband so moody? Why does my husband yell at me? Why do I feel like I’m walking on eggshells? How is it that he gets so easily annoyed?” 

Irritable husband syndrome can wreak havoc on an otherwise happy marriage. Left untreated, Irritable Husband Syndrome can provoke resentment and prevent stressed couples from having a “good enough” marriage.

Here are 8 signs that your husband may suffer from Irritable Husband Syndrome:

1. He’s become hypersensitive: there is increased bickering and fights about nothing

If there’s been an increase in your bickering and fights about nothing it can propel a couple into negative sentiment override.  Men with low T have a particularly hard time dealing with increased negativity and harsh startups. 

That is, they seem to have little problem bestowing harsh start ups on their wives, but often stonewall when their wives respond in kind. Their mood swings, irritability, and tendency to emotionally withdraw doesn’t help their wives to show up in a more understanding way either.

My clients tell me, “I feel like I’m walking on eggshells..he changes in a heartbeat…just when I think we’re doing fine he says something cutting.”
2. He seems preoccupied with uncertainty, apprehension, anxiety and fear

Modern life is hard. Men are dealing with profound uncertainty on multiple fronts. As a result, they tend to ruminate more now than ever before.

What if I get sick? What if I get laid off? What if there’s a recession? What if I get transferred to Terre Haute? 

The list of potential what-ifs is endless. If your husband is talking less, it’s possible he might be worrying more.

We are not designed to deal with the many stress-inducing situations of the twenty-first century. For most of human history, the stressors we faced were mainly physical, like running away from wild animals. Now they are almost entirely psychological. When was the last time you were frightened by a lion? The things that cause us stress in our modern world are the ones that go inside our heads. Jed Diamond
3. His frustration levels have increased

Frustration has two characteristics in men; there's the frustration that comes from being thwarted in attaining one’s life goals…and another kind of frustration is feeling criticized and shamed as “the designated problem.” 

4. He seems more angry than you’ve ever remembered seeing him

Because men sometimes are required to do things which defy common sense, they are socialized to act on the world while keeping their emotions in check. 

Dr. Ron Levant, a professor at Harvard University, coined the technical term "normative male alexithymia" to describe the way men tend to suppress emotional expression. He is perhaps the most influential thought leader today on male psychology. Dr. Levant’s research shows that most American men are socialized in a deliberate way to keep their emotions both suppressed and under-developed.

For example, men are socialized to not display panic, pain or fear. However, anger is an acceptable “approach” emotion which may rally inner resources. That’s why anger is such a reliable “organizing principle” for irritated husbands.

5. His misery and irritability has become a persistent feeling-state 

Paul Ekman is a professor of psychology and the director of the Human Interaction Laboratory at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco (UCSF). 

Dr. Ekman is one of the world’s experts on emotions. He points out that feelings of frustration, anger, or anxiety can ebb and flow as all emotions do. But a feeling-state such as irritability can seep into one’s emotional pores and “bias and restrict” the way we see and act in the world.

The problem with irritability is that it changes how we think… by changing what we expect.

The danger of Irritable Male Syndrome is not only that it biases a man’s thinking but also it increases the intensity of his emotions. 

Ekman speaks from personal experience. 

When I’m in an irritable mood, my anger comes stronger and faster, lasts longer, and is harder to control than usual. It’s a terrible state, one I would be glad never to have (Ekman, 2003).
6. Reduced sex drive and energy level

When a husband’s sex drive flags, due to decreased testosterone levels, self-esteem and confidence issues usually follow. Does your husband seem more distant? Unfocused? Vaguely sad? Reduced libido and lower energy can quickly create a fun-deficit in a marriage.

7. Poor lifestyle choices, and secretive behaviors

Men with low T tend not to take care of themselves, because their impulse control has been compromised.

They may abuse alcohol or other recreational drugs. They may also be careless about what they eat. Because they lack confidence, and are emotionally pulling away from their wives, they may also use porn, have affairs, or distract themselves in other secret, addictive behaviors.

Jed Diamond believes that underlying all of this behavior is a growing self-esteem problem. So, more often than not, when confronted, they lie.

8. He seems spacy, distracted and unfocused. 

It’s important to remember that his brain is stressed. Low T takes a toll on concentration, focus, and short term memory.

Performance anxiety may have been a driving force behind the recent rise of low T treatment centers. I suspect that one of the reasons why this issue is getting more attention is that the force-multiplier of COVID has silently made the issue of low T more noticeable, by making men more miserable.

 Miserable Husband Syndrome typically hits men in midlife, but, unlike Andropause, it can sometimes impact men even younger.

5 ways to deal with an irritable husband

The problem with irritability is that, at a certain point, it becomes highly toxic and emotionally abusive. Dealing with a grumpy, depressed husband returning home from work can be a daunting, thankless task.

A distant, moody husband can make for a very sad and lonely wife. Sooner or later she’ll want to talk about her feelings, and she might encounter a stone wall for all her trouble.

In order to deal with a miserable husband, it is important that you be thoughtful, deliberate and intentional. Here are 5 ways to cope when your man is irritable:

1. Soften your Startup 

The way a conversation begins, is also the way it typically ends. While you can’t control how he behaves, you can certainly control yourself. Soften your startup.

2. Check your Fun Deficit

Greet him with a kiss. Say something sweet. Crack a joke. Lean into his interests and hobbies. Be playful. Plan a date night. Just because he’s irritable doesn’t mean you have to be. You have the option, for as long as possible, of keeping your emotions separate and independent from his. 

And, yes, I know you can’t keep this up indefinitely, but avoiding the contagion of his funk is an effective early strategy.
3. Listen and Validate

If you notice something is off with him, get curious instead of furious. Use a Stress Reducing Conversation to tease out his worries. Be curious about his world, and how he sees it.

4. Model calm and kindness, but set firm boundaries 

Don’t respond to your husband's irritability by catching it and responding in kind. This is no time for emotional gridlock. On the other hand, after making a softened startup, have a frank and direct discussion of how you’re impacted by his behavior, (and what you want instead).

Model calm while communicating with him. Choose your words carefully. For example, instead of asking, “What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you always so edgy? Try using a softer startup and say, “I see that you are upset about something. I’m here to listen whenever you’re ready to talk”.

If Irritable Husband Syndrome has become a top line issue for your relationship, we can help with that.

5. GET SCIENCE-BASED COUPLES THERAPY, THE EARLIER THE BETTER

Science-based couples therapy starts with a clinical assessment we call a  “State of the Union.” This involves completing an online questionnaire that we call “the Big, Big, Book (BBB).”

We’ll ask a lot of questions, exploring 19 areas of your relationship, and your family backgrounds as well. Sometimes a wife will ask me, “How do I get my irritable husband into couples therapy?”

Tell him he seems distant and preoccupied and that you miss him. Tell him you want to be a better partner, but you don’t know how to do that without some help. I know you’re probably feeling sad and critical, but please, whatever you do, don’t associate going to couples therapy with criticism. We don’t want him feeling ganged up on.

Consider how you contribute to the mood of the moment. Because moods between partners can be contagious, try to lift his attention to everything that is positive.

Science-based couples therapy can help you gain a deeper insight into how stress and irritability are playing out in your relationship, and offer you specific tools to soothe both of your nervous systems. We can help with that too.

Final thoughts on Irritable Husband Syndrome

There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen. – Lenin

We all know that change is unavoidable. We can’t avoid change, nor would we want to. Life consists of constant change. The problem is one of velocity. What happens to the human nervous system when there is too much change in too short a time? Can that be an explanation for Miserable Husband Syndrome?

Are modern men stressed past their breaking point? Perhaps. But men also need some degree of stress to excel.

Distress has a healthy counterpart; eustress is what you feel on the first day of your new job, or on a first date, or when you come home from a couples therapy intensive with a deeper toolbox.

We have to find a way to befriend change and roll with it. We are living in history, and for some of us, it’s frustrating, irritating, and annoying. But for many men, this era of rapid change feels like a profound existential threat. This is unnecessary suffering.

Good couples therapy can help irritable husbands and lonely wives to have richer, deeper conversations about what matters most. 

When our hearts are in a state of coherence, we more easily experience feelings such as love, care, appreciation, and kindness. On the other hand, feelings such as irritation, anger, hurt, and envy are more likely to occur when the head and heart are out of alignment. Jed Diamond
Research

Diamond J. (2005) The Irritable Male Syndrome. New York: Rodale Press.

Ekman P. (2003). Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. New York: Times Books. Pp. 50–51.

Gottman, John.  Why Marriages Succeed or Fail…And How You Can Make Yours Last (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p.95.

Kessler RC, McGonagle KA, Swartz M, et al. (1999). Sex and Depression in the National Comorbidity Survey I. Lifetime prevalence, chronicity and recurrence. Journal of Affective Disorders 29:85–96.

Kilmartin C. (2005). Depression in men: Communication, diagnosis and therapy. Journal of Men’s Health and Gender 2(1):95–99.

Lincoln G. (2001). The irritable male syndrome. Reproduction, Fertility, and Development 13:567–76.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Daniel Dashnaw


Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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