It sounds like a scene from a movie. A happily married woman comes home to find her husband’s left her with only a quick goodbye note stuck to the fridge. Or maybe she walks in as he’s closing up his suitcase. She’s shocked – it’s so sudden, they are so happy, she has no idea. The husband is stone-faced and tells her he hasn’t loved her for a long time. That he’s been miserable for years. And just like that, he leaves forever.
Sadly, this is something that happens to women all over the world, as psychotherapist and author Vikki Stark has found out. She began speaking to women about this type of experience 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.
Stark published her book Planet Heartbreak: Abandoned Wives Tell Their Stories in 2016 and runs the website Runaway Husbands as a meeting point for women who have experienced the sudden, unexpected end of their marriage.
According to Stark, yes. “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 sudden, abrupt end to their marriage. Typically, it’s people in their 40’s, 50’s or 60’s and often in a long-term relationship.
Stark has found that women do also leave suddenly but there’s a clear difference between the sexes. 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.”
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.
To add to the pain, husbands who leave abruptly often diminish the marriage and the life they had with their wife. They might say, for example, “I never loved you,” or deny enjoying the last vacation that the wife recalls as being wonderful. According to Stark, this discounting is necessary for the husband. In order to be able to leave suddenly, he must convince himself that the marriage no longer holds value for him. For the wife, this exacerbates the pain as the perspective she has had on her marriage as a happy one begins to dissolve.
While the wives may not have had any warning of the impending departure, Stark’s research has produced seven warning signs:
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.
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.
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.
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 discussion 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.”
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.
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.
An important step in recovery will be talking to a therapist. 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.
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