Runaway husbands: When your loving partner walks out of your marriage without an explanation

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What makes wife abandonment syndrome so devastating is not merely that her husband decided unilaterally to leave the marriage. Rather, it's the way he does it. Illustration photo by Getty Images
What makes wife abandonment syndrome so devastating is not merely that her husband decided unilaterally to leave the marriage. Rather, it's the way he does it. Illustration photo by Getty Images
  • It happens suddenly and without any warning. One day, you're happily married to a man so affectionate and attentive, you're the envy of your friends.
  • The next day, he's a cold stranger who announces he's found someone else just as he walks out the door.
  • And even though you are left distraught and alone, he's resentful and blames you for his actions.
  •  Isolated as you may feel, you're far from alone.

If you have been left by your husband without any explanations, you've just experienced 'wife abandonment syndrome' and, according to Canadian psychotherapist and author Vikki Stark, it's far from unusual.

Stark coined the term after she interviewed more than 400 women worldwide about their experiences for her book, Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal.

In each case, she says, the women experienced "eerily similar" events, from the time of year their husbands left to how they announced they were going. And while the women's recovery time varied from a few months to years, even the process they went through was startlingly similar.

"What makes wife abandonment syndrome so devastating for a woman is not merely that her husband decided unilaterally to leave the marriage. Rather, it's the way he does it," says Stark, whose loving husband of 21 years suddenly left her for a woman he was having an affair with in 2006.

"It's just not fair for a man to walk out on his wife without having let her know that her marriage was on the rocks. Most people find that recovery takes longer than they thought it would," she says. “It's a complex process to renovate a reality that you may have spent decades constructing."

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According to Stark's research, wife abandonment syndrome differs from straight infidelity in several ways. Before they leave, abandoning husbands are, typically, principled people, spectacular spouses, affectionate lovers and devoted fathers who are "the envy of the wife's women friends”, says Stark.

None of the marriages she studied had a history of unresolved issues, although by the time the husband announces he's leaving during a seemingly casual moment, like taking out the garbage, he's prepared to move in with another partner. In many cases, the reasons for leaving are inane to the extreme.

According to Stark's survey, one man said he realised after 38 years that Sagittarius and Capricorn “just don't mix"; another said his wife left too many shoes at the back door. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's departing husband announced he'd only stay if he won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. He didn't, and immediately left her for another woman.

In 44 percent of cases Stark studied, the husband left between November and January. And unlike infidelity, where the cheating husband may feel guilty and ashamed, nearly every abandoning husband became resentful, hostile and blamed his wife for his behaviour.

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Why do apparently loving husbands suddenly abandon ship? Although motivations vary from person to person, Stark says she noticed a trend dating back to the husbands' upbringing. As children, if they were discouraged from being close to their mothers, "they're stuck with an inherent paradox - if they seek out their mother's warmth, which they need in order to feel secure, they risk having their very identity questioned". As men, “they need their wives desperately, putting them on a pedestal, but deep down hate the very fact that they need them so much - that hunger makes them feel vulnerable".

As a man hits midlife and feels "his power is on the wane, he may subconsciously blame his wife for not protecting him from that blow to the ego. As his disillusionment with himself builds, so does the case against his wife, who is often at the height of her powers at midlife. Then, to preserve his identity, the decision is made to escape from that person whom he perceives as causing his diminishment."

 READ MORE | 4 women on surviving or leaving a bad marriage: 'I thought worrying about my happiness was selfish'


According to Stark, there are seven critical steps and realisations to go through that enable recovery from wife abandonment syndrome.

Remember the chaos won't last forever

Count on your usual routine to guide you through the initial shock. “Don't think about the future beyond what your next task of the day is: 'Oh yes, it's 6 o'clock - now I must eat something for dinner'. If you continue to just do the next thing, eventually you will find your way to solid ground," says Stark. And while you're still reeling in shock, don't make drastic decisions about your life, job or circumstances. "You need to recognise you are not thinking properly and your job at the moment is just to survive - to make it through the days until you can start to function again."

Accept your marriage is really over

"The wife often gets stuck in the rut of struggling to understand how things could have changed so radically, and assessing if there's anything she can do to influence the turn of events," says Stark. You might excuse his behaviour, blame yourself or his girlfriend and even try bargaining to get him back. Accept your marriage is over, says Stark. It permits you to rethink and take your future into your own hands.

Realise that he no longer cares about you

"You have to accept that even if you can't understand how it happened, your husband has had a change of heart and has nothing left to offer you," says Stark. According to Dr Paul McKenna, author of How to Mend Your Broken Heart (available from Amazon), his lack of feeling for you can be simply explained. “People who don't experience heartbreak at the end of the relationship have already left emotionally. They have thought about it over and over so that their new, exciting future feels very real," he says. The old relationship is "a piece of history to which they are no longer attached”.

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  • Before leaving, your husband had been attentive, emotionally available and viewed you as honest, too.
  • He never says or indicates that he's unhappy.
  • He announces he's leaving in mundane circumstances, like while washing up.
  • His reasons are often inane or fraudulent.
  • He's been having an affair.
  • He moves out quickly - according to Stark, 43 per cent move out the day after the announcement, 54 per cent leave within a week and 13 per cent move out before telling their wives they're leaving.
  • He shows no remorse, / blames you or describes himself as a victim.
  • After leaving, he makes no attempt to help financially or emotionally.
  • He becomes resentful and angry or drops from sight completely, even disappearing from his children's lives.
  • His behaviour changes so radically post separation, he seems like a cruel and vindictive stranger.
  • Be proud of your struggle not to sink into self-pity or make the end of your marriage into a war medal you wear for all the world to see

Control your thoughts

Try to avoid circular thinking and endlessly analysing every detail of why and how your husband left. “You're experiencing battle fatigue and find that your mind keeps whirring with obsessive thoughts," says Stark. She suggests choosing a three-word mantra like 'let it go' to replace destructive thinking, and waiting a day before acting rashly or sending angry, begging or anguished emails to your husband.

Lean on your friends

You may want to be left alone with your thoughts, but now is the time to get help. “As much as you might want to avoid needing so much support, it's part of the recovery process," she says. "Try to spread your need for support among as many friends and family members as possible. Seek help from a counsellor who understands abandonment. Try hard to be considerate of your friends and limit the desperate cries for help to those times when you really need it."

 Look toward the future

"When you find yourself suddenly alone, you're forced to rise to the occasion of rebuilding your life," says Stark. Take pleasure in accomplishing little tasks that you have never had to manage before, like balancing the cheque book or changing a tyre. "You build your self-esteem when you accomplish something that you didn't think you could."

Celebrate being single

Accepting that you're single can be intimidating, especially since it means that you will be entering a whole new social circle. "At first, women who are filled with a lot of anxiety avoid being alone at all costs, assuming that alone equals lonely. But, eventually, many recognise that not only is life just fine on their own, there's a special grace in enjoying solo time."

Consider the possibility of joining a divorce recovery group to help you make that transition.

“Be proud of your struggle not to sink into self-pity or make the end of your marriage into a war medal that you wear for all the world to see," adds Stark. "And most importantly, learn to love yourself and not to fear your time alone."

Do you have a relationship story to share with us? Tell us about it here

Credit: / Magazine Features

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