"I came home and that night my husband came home from work, and I said to him, 'I bought fish.' And he said, 'It’s over!' and I said, 'Okay we’ll have chicken,' figuring he doesn’t like fish anymore, and he said, 'No, it’s over. I’m leaving you. I’m moving out right now.’” - Vikki Stark
Did your husband leave out of the blue? Unfortunately, it’s not an uncommon occurrence. In today’s episode we interview Vikki Stark, world class family therapist and expert in Wife Abandonment Syndrome. She is the author and editor of several books, most recently Planet Heartbreak: Abandoned Wives Tell Their Stories, which was published in October.
If your husband suddenly left, this is an episode for you.
To get more information on Vikki, check out her resources below:
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Shawn: Today we have Vikki Stark, Family Therapist, Author of Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal. Also, editor of Planet Heartbreak, Abandoned Wives Tell Their Stories. Vikki, welcome to the show.
Vikki: Hi, Shawn.
Shawn: So why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got interested and involved from your personal experience, and the subject of abandoned wives.
Vikki: Sure. I’m a family therapist and I had worked with families for over thirty years. I have been a marriage counsellor and a divorce counsellor. Ten years ago, I believed that I was in a very happy, secure, long-term marriage of 21 years. Until the day my husband sort of tapped me on the shoulder and said, “It’s over.”
I’ll tell you specifically what happened because it’s a great story. I was on the road with my book tour with my first book which is about sister relationships, and I came home and that night my husband came home from work, and I said to him, “I bought fish.” And he said, “It’s over!” and I said, “Okay we’ll have chicken,” figuring he doesn’t like fish anymore, and he said, “No, it’s over. I’m leaving you. I’m moving out right now.”
This came to me as complete bull from the blue because I thoroughly believed that he was happily married, I was happily married, that we were a really solid couple and it was pretty devastating. He did actually move out immediately. He’d had a girlfriend for six years, which I remarkably, as a marriage counselor, did not know about. Then my life just turned on a dime. It was so shocking to me, that I didn’t see it coming. He had never mentioned that he was unhappy or thinking of leaving. I just had to understand how somebody could morph overnight from being a loving, caring, sweetheart of a husband, into a stranger who actually turned on me and became very aggressive and angry. I was just flabbergasted.
A few months after this happened I sort of took myself up off the floor. I started researching this topic of husbands who leave out of the blue. That led to something called the Sudden Wife Abandonment Project, or SWAP. I started contacting women all over the world who had experienced a similar thing. So I did an online study and a face to face study with four-hundred women and the thing that took my breath away was that there was such distinct parallel between my experience and the other woman who had the same thing happen. So I started to recognize that there was a pattern here which I call Sudden Wife Abandonment. It was just really shocking. That’s sort of what led to the book that I wrote which is called Runaway Husbands, which has developed into a community world wide of other women who had experienced something like this.
Shawn: So why don’t you tell us what the characteristics are of sudden wife abandonment?
Vikki: Sure. There are ten of what I call hallmarks, of sudden wife abandonment. Of course we know in our culture, lot’s of people get divorced and husbands leave, and wives leave.
In wife abandonment syndrome it’s very very distinct. Prior to the separation, the number one is that the husband had seemed to be an attentive emotionally engaged spouse. The wife really looked upon him as trustworthy and involved.
Number two is that the husband never said he was unhappy in the marriage, or thinking of leaving.
Number three –and this happened over and over again with the women that I’ve heard from –the husband typically blurts out the news that the marriage is over out of the blue, in the middle of a mundane domestic conversation like mine where I said, “I bought fish.” And he says, “It’s over.”
Number four, the reasons he’s giving for leaving are nonsensical, exaggerated, trivial or fraudulent. Very often the husbands come up with these bizarre reasons and the wife is like, “What? You’re leaving because I left too many shoes by the front door?” or “I didn’t clean up the crumbs on the counter?” The reasons that are given are just baffling to the wife.
Number five, by the time the husband reveals his intentions to leave it’s too late. It’s not like the wife could say, “Let’s go for counselling” or “Let’s work on it.” He’s made up his mind and he’s really out the door.
Number six –and this is the really devastating one –the husband’s behavior changes radically so that to his wife he seems to become like a cruel and vindictive stranger. My husband and I, I felt were tremendously close, and from the moment that he left I didn’t recognize him. Very often women say it seems their husbands have become an alien, and he’s just so different.
Number seven, the husband shows no remorse. Rather, he blames his wife and describes himself as the victim.
Number eight, in almost all cases the husband has been having an affair and very often moves in with the girlfriend.
Number nine, the husband makes no attempt to help his wife either financially or emotionally.
Number ten, systematically devaluing the marriage, the husband denies what he had previously described as positive aspects of the couple’s joint history. Not only is the wife present and future changed but he goes back and he says, “Remember that trip that we took to Italy and you thought we were having such a great time? Well I hated every minute of it.” And so she’s just totally confused. “How could that happen? That’s not what I experienced.”
There are these very distinct hallmarks that person after person has recanted to me, that their husband has left them the same way.
Shawn: This isn’t just personal experience? You said how many people were a part of Runaway Husbands that you surveyed?
Vikki: Initially it was four hundred. I would say in the past ten years I’ve heard from thousands.
Vikki: Thousands and thousands. People read the book and if you go to Amazon.com and read the reviews on the book, the book makes a tremendous difference to them. I wish I had it when my husband left. You feel like you’re crazy, you feel like, “How did I not see the signs?” You feel like, “He’s blaming me for everything, was I really to blame?” You feel like you’re really losing it and you feel like you’re completely alone. You feel like you’re the only person in the world who this bizarre thing has happened to. Since we’ve developed this Runaway Husbands community, and we have this website which is runawayhusbands.com, it’s an opportunity to break that sense of isolation. Also, for people to have an explanation. Like what happened, and how did somebody change in this way.
Shawn: So if you’re what you think is “happily married”, what might be some warning signs that a woman should look out for that could lead them to a situation where they might become abandoned later down the line?
Vikki: Right. I don’t want to make every happily married woman who might be listening to the show, get all nervous now that their husband is going to walk out, out of the blue. It’s not a typical thing, it’s an unusual thing. If I look back to my own marriage, there are certain signs that perhaps even if you’re husband is not telling you that he’s thinking of leaving, and that things are changing.
Some of the signs are: does he suddenly seem unhappy with this life, even if his complaints are not about the marriage? If suddenly he hates his job and he’s just miserable about his job. Do you notice a personality change? Does he not seem like himself? Is he withdrawn and suddenly irritable and sort of barking at you and barking at the kids? Are his habits changing? This happened with my husband. I couldn’t understand why he went out and bought all this red gym clothes. It was so unlike him first of all to go to the gym. Second of all, to wear like red clothes. It was really bizarre. Is he dyeing his hair? Is he getting a tattoo? Did he buy an expensive car? Those are just some of the many tip offs that something might be changing.
This seems to be a big one; do his values seem to be in flux? Is he adopting ideas that he used to belittle? Or belittling things that he used to value? Let’s say he used to say, “I would never do such a thing.” And now he’s saying, “Yeah!” That’s an important thing and I would always do this thing. What that means is that he’s rebuilding his identity with the other woman because there’s almost always another woman on the scene that’s sort of shifting his value system. Is he taking mysterious business trips or disappearing for periods of time? Has he frequently started to mention some woman at work telling you about her innocent way?
Often the men who are in our Runaway Husbands community, work in careers in which they are in positions of power or authority, such as professors, pastors, or business executives where they might come in contact with young women who look up to them. Those are a bunch of signs, even if you see those signs it doesn’t mean that your husband is thinking of leaving. But if you put them all together, they’re pretty common for the women who have experienced wife abandonment.
Shawn: From your research and from your experience, why would a husband, from your research, leave all of a sudden? I imagine from the husband’s perspective it’s not a sudden departure but certainly to the wife it is. What causes that shift and that way to react?
Vikki: Exactly! You’re so right. Very often the husbands have been agonizing about it and thinking about it, and sort of planning and may be tremendously ambivalent about it, until the moment that he reaches the tipping point, and then there’s no turning back and he’s a runaway husband. He’s running as fast as he can.
In my work with women and also in my work as a therapist – because don’t forget my job is I’m a therapist – I have men in my practice that I work with who may be thinking of leaving a marriage. A lot of the times in the runaway husband’s scenario, the guys are in their fifties, sixties, late forties, and they feel like they’ve achieved a lot in their lives. They’ve come to the pinnacle of their success in terms of work and they feel like, “What else is there? Is this all there is?” It’s sort of indicated as mid life crisis where a man feels like, “I’ve been a good husband, I’ve been a good father, I’ve been a good son, I’ve been a good worker. When is it my turn? This is my time! When do I get to be James Bond?” Particularly if they’ve been with the same wife for twenty or thirty years, sleeping with the same woman night after night, and then somebody else in the office –and it often goes this way that a younger worker or somebody who’s a colleague in some way in the office –looks up to him and he feels this sense of importance in somebody’s life. He feels like somebody really needs him. He just can’t resist it an it’s an opportunity to not feel like the same old guy, but to sort of reinvent himself as the exciting, sexy new guy, even though he’s sixty or sixty-five. I understand why it’s pretty irresistible for a lot of men to want to feel as though they have another opportunity to live life again. A lot of times men say that the other woman makes them feel alive, and very often the wife is looking forward to the retirement, and we’re going to sit at home, and we’re going to travel, we’ll be stable and it will be great!” To the husband that sounds like “Shoot me now!” That sounds like the worst thing.
So the opportunity to have a younger woman in his life – they’re not always, but they’re often the younger woman – is a new beginning for the men.
Shawn: I think that’s a very well explained answer to some of the psychology behind a man leaving. If you’re a wife and your husband one day walks out, what do you do? What’s your next steps from there? You have to maybe get a divorce, or at least you’re separated. Walk us through the process from that day and the next things that you should do?
Vikki: You know what I want to do is, I want to roll back a tape ten years before he leaves. I’m on a mission, and the mission is: For women to have a life of their own, even if they’re going to be a stay at home mom. For those women who have a career (like for myself when my husband left) I had an identity, I had a career, I had a business, I had already written a book, and so although it was really devastating for me I had another identity apart from the marriage. A lot of women don’t, who really centered their lives around the husband and the family. If they’re not working or they’re not involved in other activities or volunteer activities or whatever it is, then the day he walks out the door, there’s a vacuum. There’s a tremendous vacuum there and they become really lost because the don’t have other anchors in their lives. I’m really on a sort of a mission to really encourage women –typically men have jobs but sometimes women don’t –to have other things in their lives that can serve their lives if the husband leaves or if the husband doesn’t leave.
It’s a very important thing for women to have an identity apart from the family. So the day that the husband leaves she can then, somehow turn to the other pieces in her life and start to rebuild her life. As we know, Shawn, everything in life there are pluses and minuses. Sometimes even really negative things like getting cancer, or your husband leaving, is an opportunity to look at your life in a different way, and to develop a philosophy of life that will strengthen you. What I would like to say is that we want to turn the prices of abandonment into a screen board for change. A lot of the women who I’ve heard from in the past ten years have used this – after they scraped themselves up off the floor –opportunity to go back to school or to learn something new or to move to someplace where they’ve always wanted to live, or they have a certain kind of freedom to build their lives in various ways.
The example through me is that even though I had my career and all that, a few months after my husband left, I joined a women’s barbershop chorus. This is a pretty remarkable thing because I have about the worst voice in the world. These very kind women let me join. So I’m singing barbershop with this barbershop chorus, and traveling with these women, and going to meetings once a week, and learning the music. If I had been married my husband who was sort of a snobby intellectual would never have agreed to me being in it. I mean he would totally look down on it. I could have done what I wanted, he didn’t control me but I probably wouldn’t have done it. The barbershop chorus was a tremendous blessing in my life. It was a great experience and very positive. That’s a small example of how people can start to look at their lives and say, “What can I do to build my own life now so that I can take back my life from this experience, and not feel as though I’ve wasted the last thirty years of my life –because nothing is wasted –and make a decision about what I’m going to do the next years of my life? How am I going to make them valuable?
Shawn: No, I think that’s great. That’s great advice. Taking what one might think as a negative experience –and certainly it is a painful one but –putting a positive spin on it and trying to enjoy things you might not have enjoyed before or the rest of your life. You still might have twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years left to experience.
Vikki: Exactly. I think like anything in life it depends upon what you’re going to do with it. We subsequently after having written Runaway Husbands, recently edited a new book which is called, Planet Heartbreak. I really love Planet Heartbreak. I didn’t write it but sixty-two women who have experienced wife abandonment syndrome, wrote their stories. They are short little two/three page stories about what happened to them. I asked them each to make a title for their story and one of the women, her title is: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. It’s a lovely cliché and you hear in the stories the heartbreak that they went through, and the shock and the devastation and misery. In many of the stories you’re going to hear how the women pick themselves up and are doing something different. That’s really the important message.
Shawn: Exactly, and also in those stories you see sixty-two examples of people who have gone through the same experience and what happened, lessons they learned, and how every one of them emerged on the other side.
Vikki: You know how it is. When you’re super miserable –when it’s the Eckhart Tolle, Dark Knight of the Soul –and you’re in the middle of the night and it feels so dark, it feels like the morning is never going to come, and you’re never going to feel good again. We’ve all experienced that, to one degree or another. When you’re really suffering either physically, emotionally, spiritually, it’s almost impossible to see in the middle of that winter that the spring is going to come. The hope is that people will recognize that no matter how miserable you are, there is that possibility that you’re going to get through this, you just keep going and put one foot in front of the other, and you’re not always going to feel this badly. When you’re feeling it, the misery or the grief, the sense of betrayal, the loneliness, the longing, the obsessiveness, the thinking about day and night, particularly if he’s moved in with a girlfriend, in some cases he’s in the woman’s home living with the girlfriend because he could afford to buy the home and the wife had to move out –it’s a pretty big injury and it’s pretty hard to integrate that fact so that even though you’re experiencing all of that stuff and you’re so miserable, we need to remember that time is a great healer and that people can move on, and that you can feel better again. That’s one of the primary things, to recognize, the chaos won’t last forever, and to accept the fact that the marriage is really over. That’s another thing that a lot of times women in their fantasy are hoping that he’ll wake up and realize, he’ll have remorse, he’ll recognize how important the wife and the family are and he’ll come back. That keeps them connected to him even though he’s really not thinking about her.
Shawn: That’s a good last point. In every one of these cases none of the couples got back together. That said, often times a husband would come back and say, “Wow I really screwed this up.” You do have to acknowledge that things are over and you need to prepare for the rest of your life if you find yourself in this situation.
Vikki Stark: That’s really true. I think in classic wife abandonment syndrome, if all of those criteria that I read to you in the beginning are met, it’s highly unlikely that the guy is going to turn around. He’s pretty much moved on. Particularly if he’s become so negative and down putting –putting the wife down and all that –it’s likely that he’s going to move on. Yes, there are cases where down the road the husband realizes that he misses her and he wants to reconnect. Of course in some of those cases the wife has already moved on and she’s not ready to resurrect a marriage. That’s the risk the husband takes when he leaves.
Shawn: That’s right. One thing I did want to touch on since we are on the Divorce and Your Money show is, what kind of role or what advice do you give women who are not normally involved in the family finances? What would you tell them - married or not? Or going through the divorce process, how to think about their financial situation in their day-to-day finances going forward?
Vikki Stark: Exactly. I think when I said before I wanted to roll back the tape ten years and suggest to women that they get some other things going on in their lives like jobs or volunteering or whatever, definitely, women need to be an equal partner financially (at least in terms of really understanding your finances). It’s really heart breaking when the husband walks away and he knows everything about the finances, and the woman really knows nothing. I see that over and over again and then she just doesn’t know how to start. She hardly knows how to write a check. She doesn’t know how much they pay for taxes or how much the mortgage is. She knows nothing about the finances in her family. If a wife can at any point, or someone in a relationship at any point, can really sit down with the husband and go over all of the finances – and really get to know what’s going on here – it really makes a difference. A lot of the times some of the women say that one of the things that happened was that the husband was moving money around, was changing things, was having her sign papers and she didn’t really know what she was signing but she trusted him. Then at the point at which he leaves, she goes to the bank and she finds out there’s nothing in that account and your pension was taken out months ago. It’s pretty shocking but in a sense, a woman as much as you might love or trust your husband, you really need to be awake to what’s happening in your life. You never know what’s going to happen.
Shawn: That’s right. Vikki, what’s the best way for people to get more information, and to contact you?
Vikki Stark: Definitely to visit the website, which is: Runawayhusbands.com. I am always happy to help people and to hear from people. I can be reached. My email address is: email@example.com. So that’s the easy way to reach me.
Shawn: Vikki, thank you so much for coming on to the show. This is an extraordinarily important subject and I’m glad to share it with the audience.
Vikki Stark: Thank you so much Shawn for having me, I really appreciate it.
Thank you for listening to the Divorce and Your Money Show. We hope the show helps you through one of the most difficult periods of your life. Shawn Leamon is also the author of Divorce and Your Money: The No-Nonsense Guide. One-on-one financial coaching services are available at www.divorceandyourmoney.com.
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