07/19/2012 09:33 am ET | Updated Sep 18, 2012

Jekyll and Hyde, Irritable Males And Attachment Love

Before I wrote my book, "The Irritable Male Syndrome," I thought I might call it "The Jekyll and Hyde Syndrome," since men often seem to change rapidly from "Mr. Nice" to "Mr. Mean."

In "The Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Aggression and Depression," I describe a number of key symptoms of IMS, including hypersensitivity. The women who live with these men say things like the following:

I feel like I have to walk on eggshells when I'm around him.
I never know when I'm going to say something that will set him off.
He's like a time bomb ready to explode but I never know when.
Nothing I do pleases him.

The men don't often recognize their own hypersensitivity; 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.
Leave me alone.
No, nothing's wrong. I'm fine.

Or 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 our partners 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.

Why Do Men Suddenly Become Hypersensitive And Irritable? Could It Be We Don't Feel Attached?

Here's a letter I received recently:

"Last month a man came home from work with my husband's face but he did not act at all like the man I married. I've known this man for 30 years, married 22 of them and have never met this guy before. Angry, nasty and cruel are just a few words to describe him. He used to be the most upbeat, happy person I knew. Now he's gone from Mr. Nice to Mr. Mean. In spite of how he treats me I still love my husband and want to save our marriage. Please, can you help me?"

Both the man and the woman are baffled. What's going on here? The answer may lie in ways in which we feel a loss of connection with our partner. We all struggle with vulnerable feelings in love whether we want to admit it or not. It's inevitable that we will hurt each other with careless words or selfish actions. While these occasions sting, the pain is often fleeting and we get over it quickly.

But according to Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of "Emotionally Focused Therapy," "countless studies on infant and adult attachment suggest that our close encounters with loved ones are where most of us attain and learn to hold on to our emotional balance." We are all sensitive to being rejected or abandoned by a loved one. And almost all of us have at least one hypersensitivity -- a raw spot in our emotional skin -- that is tender to the touch, easily rubbed and deeply painful. When this spot gets rubbed often enough, it can bleed all over our relationship.

When our need for attachment and connection is repeatedly neglected, ignored or dismissed, it results in two potential raw spots: feeling emotionally deprived or deserted/abandoned. It may not be obvious to us, but when a man becomes irritable and angry or hostile and blaming or withdrawn and cold hearted, it is often because he feels a disconnection from his partner. He feels rejected or not cared for. Of course, his hostile reaction often drives his partner farther away, which makes him even more fearful of loss. It's easy to get caught up in the blame game. He blames her and she blames him. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Both males and females are sensitive to emotional deprivation and abandonment. When women feel disconnected they often express it with sadness and hurt. When men feel disconnected they often express it as hypersensitivity and irritability. We often feel ashamed of our attachment needs, associating them with being children. But research shows that we need to feel attached to our mates just as much as we needed to feel attached to our mothers and fathers.