Irritable male syndrome?

Dear Alice,

I've noticed that every time I get my period, my boyfriend immediately starts acting uncharacteristically emotional, even before I do anything to let him know I'm on my period! Does he have irritable male syndrome, and is it possible for it to sync with my period?

— Synced and confused

Dear Synced and confused,

It’s terrific that you’re attuned to your boyfriend’s mood changes and are taking the steps to identify possible reasons for the mood changes you’ve noticed. Although it’s a reasonable hypothesis, it’s unlikely that your partner is experiencing irritable male syndrome (IMS). IMS is a behavior pattern associated with irritability, nervousness, tiredness, and depression in males who experience a decrease in testosterone levels. Other factors that may also contribute to mood changes in men including high estrogen levels. Research has shown that menstruation doesn’t affect male testosterone levels in any significant way. Though these biological factors may not explain your partner’s mood changes, it’s possible that there are psychological factors that could be impacting these changes.

While your menstrual period (biologically speaking) may not be directly influencing your boyfriend’s mood at ‘that time of the month’, your inclination to connect the two isn’t that far off. Interestingly, there’s documented evidence of psychological and even physical symptoms ‘syncing up’ among female and male partners during pregnancy and the postpartum period. It’s been well documented that men can be affected by their pregnant partners in a condition called Couvade syndrome. Also called “sympathetic pregnancy”, this condition occurs when men experience physical or psychological symptoms like nausea, depression, or even a toothache seemingly in tandem with their pregnant partners. Along those same lines, maternal postpartum depression is also closely linked to, and a significant predictor of, paternal postpartum depression. These are just a few instances where female fertility has been linked to symptoms that can seemingly be shared between two people.

In your case, it may be a bit more reasonable to suspect that your boyfriend’s moods could be a result of a reaction to another person, rather than hormonal cycles. There’s some psychological literature that explains a situation referred to as the emotional contagion theory. This theory suggests that emotional states can be transferred between people, meaning one person’s mood may rub off on another. In a given interaction (say between you and your boyfriend), emotional contagion starts to take hold when one person begins to mirror the facial expressions, vocal qualities, posture, and movement of the person with whom they’re interacting—often without even noticing. As those actions occur, the person doing the mimicking seemingly adopts the other person’s emotions. While this phenomenon is thought to encourage successful social interactions and empathy, it can also make a person more vulnerable to the influence of another person’s negative emotions. You mention that your boyfriend seems to experience these monthly emotions even before you mention your period. Do you notice your own mood changing

around the time you have your period? Have you identified the emotions you often experience during that time? Is it possible that your partner may unconsciously mimic your emotional state? These are possible conversation starters that the two of you could discuss to get to the bottom of his altered mood.

Whether your partner’s mood changes are a result of emotional contagion or other factors, there are some ways to address noticeable emotional change patterns. Together, you could try to maximize positive emotions during these times by doing things you enjoy such as exercising to help release endorphins or tag-teaming dinner preparations. Research has shown that those who practice regular reflections of gratitude also have significant and positive health benefits, both psychological and physical. You may consider taking a few moments with your partner to reflect on things you are grateful for, or excited about. If you want some help or an outside perspective in working with your partner’s monthly mood modifications, you may also consider checking in with a mental health professional or a health care provider, either together, or encourage him to go on his own.

All in all, a critical part of emotion management is recognizing that the emotions are there in the first place! So far, sounds like you’re on the right track to being a responsive partner.

Last updated Jul 21, 2023
Originally published Dec 26, 2014

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