Most of us know someone whose spouse one day, out of nowhere said, “That’s it. I’m out of here,” and boom, the marriage was over. It’s hard to accept that it really was without warning. We have a natural tendency to think that surely there must have been some red flags. How could two people married to each other have such a vastly different view of the same marriage? So what’s really going on when marriages suddenly end?
For this episode of Conversations About Divorce I’m joined by psychotherapist and author, Vikki Stark. Stark’s most recent book is the compilation Planet Heartbreak: Abandoned Wives Tell Their Stories. Stark also runs the Runaway Husbands community. Click on the player below to listen to this episode or keep reading …
Is There Really No Warning?
Stark is a marriage counselor and psychotherapist and she started this work after her own marriage of over 21 years ended abruptly. She figured if it could happen to her, it could absolutely happen to other people.
“It’s true. People really can leave suddenly from a secure long-term relationship, and even more remarkably from a relationship that people experience as a happy marriage.”
Through her research, Stark has found women from all over the world who have experienced this. Typically, it’s people in their 40’s, 50’s or 60’s and often in a long term relationship.
Does It Happen Just To Women?
Stark has found that women do also leave suddenly but there’s a difference. For men who leave, Stark has found a distinct pattern that is present but she wasn’t able to identify such a pattern for women. Women tend to leave for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways. The pattern for men is so distinct that Stark coined the phrase “Wife Abandonment Syndrome.”
A Clinically Traumatic Experience
Stark says that when a spouse leaves suddenly, with no prior warning it is a clinically traumatic experience. Often, there is no discussion which can make the end of the marriage that much harder. “There is no opportunity to process it emotionally because you didn’t see it coming.”
Very often the husband simply leaves. He’s not interested in a discussion because the decision has been made. Sometimes, by the time he actually tells his wife, he has already left. Sometimes there’s a note on the TV or a letter on the kitchen counter.
For the wife, this is a profoundly distressing experience accompanied by loss of sleep and significant weight loss. Recovery is a long road.
“This is not a typical divorce. It isn’t just the loss of love but also of your identity and the loss of your future and the loss of your past,” says Stark.
Husbands who leave like this often diminish the marriage and the life they had with their wife. They might for example, say, “I never loved you,” or deny enjoying the last vacation that the wife recalls as being wonderful. Stark says that this discounting is necessary for the husband. Convincing himself that the marriage has little value is what enables him to leave in such a harsh manner.
7 Warning Signs
While the wives may not have had any warning of the impending departure, Stark’s research has produced seven warning signs:
- a history of infidelity or having abandoned previous relationships. This is the strongest predictor that he has what it takes to do this again
- is unhappy with life and this is not how he has been historically
- his personality has changed – he may now appear withdrawn, irritable, lack of interest in family activities
- his habits have changed – maybe he’s started going to gym, coloring his hair, he got a tattoo, changed his car
- his values have changed – he’s now belittling things he used to value. This is often the sign that he is being influenced by another
- he’s taking more business trips or has unexplained absences
- he’s started to casually mention a woman he works with
Stark says that any one of these signs on its own may not be reason for concern but when you can check off multiple signs, there is a higher probability of abandonment.
There’s Usually Infidelity
Stark has found that in 99 percent of cases, there is another woman on the scene. This means the husband is very keen to quickly wrap up the marriage because there is this other person already waiting and the husband is ready to enter into another marriage.
As emotionally distressing as this is, Stark found that the woman is often more keen than the man to move forward with the legal process because of a perceived negotiating advantage that the woman may have as a result of the man’s guilt for what he is doing.
It’s An Identity Crisis
In Stark’s experience, the majority of marriages that end in this way end in October, November and December but the time of the year, isn’t the reason. That has more to do with an identity crisis.
“Men get to a certain point in their lives and they look around and say, ‘Is this all there is? I’ve been a good father. I’ve been a good husband. I’ve been a good son. I’ve been a good provider. When do I get to be James Bond?'”
Sometimes the identity crisis can be triggered by a health scare; more often it’s triggered by receiving attention from another woman.
He Avoids Conflict
Another hallmark of marriages that end suddenly is the apparent absence of conflict. “Very often people say to me, ‘we had this great marriage and we never fought,'” says Stark.
Disagreements are present in every relationship. It’s normal. So when there is no open discussions about these disagreements, it’s more likely that one or both parties avoid handling conflict. In this situation, Stark says that the husband is likely to have gone through a period of time evaluating the marriage but he won’t have discussed it with his spouse. He’s not interested in working on the marriage. He’s waiting and biding his time. When he’s made his decision, he wants to leave as soon as possible. The last thing he wants is a “crying, screaming, raging wife.”
There’s No Reconciliation
The percentage of men who consider reconciliation in this situation, according to Stark is very, very low. “To make it palatable to leave, they have to devalue the wife in their own minds and they have to devalue the marriage.” Once that devaluation has happened, it makes it very hard to return to the relationship.
You Can Recover
Stark has some good news for women who have been abandoned like this. “Anything in life, no matter how challenging it is, can be used as a chance to improve our lives and to grow.” This can be an opportunity such as a change in career, developing more confidence, or going back to school but it’s important not to buy into his devalued perspective of the relationship and the marriage. Stark counsels people to trust their lived experience. You have to make your own voice louder than your husband’s.
Stark has seven recovery steps:
- recognize that the chaos won’t last forever
- accept that your marriage is over
- accept that your husband has changed irrevocably
- understand that he needs to justify his actions by lying, attacking you
- give up any expectation of receiving the apology you deserve
- focus not on the past but on the future
- celebrate life as a single person
An important step in recovery will be talking to a therapist – such as the ones at BetterHelp.com. A therapist will help you process the emotions around this and will be more objective than your friends, who may also get burned out supporting you.
Be assured, no matter how miserable you are feeling now, you will feel better.
Vikki Stark is a psychotherapist and author of Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife’s Guide to Recovery and Renewal and editor of Planet Heartbreak: Abandoned Wives Tell Their Stories. Find out more about Vikki’s work at RunawayHusbands.com.