Discussion Topic

Runway Husbands - The Abandoned Wife Syndrome

Posted on 05/03/10, 01:50 pm
My sister sent me an AMAZING article that appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on Saturday. It describes my situation almost exactly and it's given me some insight and comfort. I thought I'd share it with you, for anyone who's gone through or is going through what happened to me. I gained some comfort in knowing that there is an epidemic going on and I'm but one of many casualties. I went to the author's website http://www.runawayhusbands.com/ and bought the book; will let you know what I think of it. Hopefully I'll receive it soon

Runway Husbands - The Abandoned Wife Syndrome

Author Vikki Stark, whose husband left her after 21 years of marriage, unravels the clues to why attentive, loving husbands bolt.

The autumn day in 2006 when Vikki Stark's life changed forever started as such days usually do -- unremarkably.

The family therapist and author had just returned to Montreal after a gruelling 3,000-kilometre trip to promote her first book My Sister, Myself, and was looking forward to spending a few quiet days with her husband of 21 years.

Her husband, a South African who was "so devoted ... the personification of honesty and decency," had kept her company via attentive calls throughout her trip, and before she left, had lovingly signed cards that said "Thank you for the myriad joys you bring me!" "He was an unusually affectionate and warm sweetheart," she recalls. "We had a healthy relationship."

So nothing could have prepared her for what transpired on that fall day. Spark spent a happy afternoon unpacking. Then her husband returned from work. "I threaded my arm through his, gave him a squeeze and said, 'I bought fish.' He looked at me rather strangely and said, 'It's over.' "

For a moment, Stark wondered if he no longer ate fish. Then he said the words she thought she'd never hear: "The marriage. It's over. I'm leaving you. I'm moving in with my girlfriend."

At first, Stark didn't believe him. But by the end of the evening, he'd laid it out in crushing terms: he'd been having an affair for six years, although they'd broken up five years before because he wanted Stark to care for him during his liver transplant; he'd secretly taken his sabbatical with his girlfriend to South Africa, all the while calling his wife to say how lonely he was; and while Stark was on the road, he'd moved his lover into her bed. "His girlfriend has been at my house, cooking dinner in my kitchen and sleeping in my bed," she says, with painful clarity. "I hate to sound dramatic, but it felt like he'd stuck a knife in, turned it and then watched dispassionately as I sat there bleeding."

What could she have done differently? Did she miss the signs of an affair? According to Stark, such questions tormented her as she searched for answers, which she unravels in her latest book, Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal. Although it took ages to get over feeling like she'd been "hit by a Mack truck in my own living room," she was also able to use her training to study what she has now dubbed "Wife Abandonment Syndrome." Based on interviews and a survey of 400 women, Stark says she's come to terms with some of the "eerily similar" behaviours runaway husbands display. "From what they would say, where they would be sitting, the time of year, what they did subsequently and how angry and resentful they became after they left, it became clear that there was definitely a pattern at play."

Almost to a man, the husbands were principled people, spectacular spouses, affectionate lovers and devoted fathers who "were the envy of the wife's women friends." None of the marriages had a history of unresolved or serious issues, although by the time the husband made his announcement during a seemingly off-hand moment such as when doing the dishes or taking out the garbage, he was already well-prepared for his move, often with another partner. In many cases, the reasons for leaving were inane to the extreme. According to Stark's survey, one man said he realized after 38 years that Sagittarius and Capricorn "just don't mix;" another said his wife left too many shoes at the back door.

In 44 per cent of cases Stark studied, the husband left between November and January; nearly every one later became hostile or virtually disappeared.

Such was the experience of Catherine Smith, 53, who works for a biotech firm in Victoria, B.C. Although she wasn't living "a fantasy marriage," she says her hard-working partner was "my confidante and my best friend." However, when he returned from a holiday in India and Bhutan in 2005, he suddenly announced he'd fallen in love with a woman on the trip and that a psychic had told them they were soul mates. He immediately moved out, ignored Smith's requests for couples' counselling or contact, and soon married his new partner. He now lives in Switzerland and has seen his 13-year-old daughter once in the past year.

"Everyone was shocked and asked why I didn't see it coming," she says. "But I couldn't -- we didn't have serious issues. Initially, he sent me a couple of letters saying this was the most courageous thing he'd ever done, that he had so many responsibilities and for once, he was doing something for himself."

According to Stark, such rationalization is one clue to why otherwise responsible, attentive and loving husbands bolt. She cites a study at Illinois' Northwest University, in which researchers studying a person's morality versus comfort with wrongdoing found surprising results. "People who assess themselves as exceptionally good cut themselves more slack in certain situations and may even give themselves license to act unethically," she says. "It's the 'I gave at the office' mentality. Similarly, men who run away from their marriages may feel that their former good reputation should be enough to excuse this current little transgression."

Stark believes the behaviour is actually founded in the past. Since boys are not typically encouraged to attach 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." And 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."

It sounds too neat, and perhaps does not account enough for the other side of the coin -- the play between husband and wife, their sex life, the tacit and perhaps blind assumption that all is well when there are, in fact, small injustices that grow into irreparable rents in the fabric of a marriage.

As such, says Stark, part of the responsibility for miscommunication rests with women because they "don't really understand men. They don't understand how important sex is to their feeling of being successful in the world. They don't understand how men think, what's important to them, how fragile they are emotionally and why they shut down when they're upset. A woman thinks that means he doesn't care, but he's shutting down because he can't take it."

That realization, she says, is critical for all marriages going forward. "I think the one thing I could have done differently is checked in. I thought if there was a problem, he'd tell me. But men aren't socialized to talk about their feelings first, and I never said, 'How are we doing?' Now, I would recommend checking in, no matter how things look on the surface."
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

Showing 1 - 10 of 21 Replies
  • Reply #1 05/03/10  2:36pm
    So glad you posted this! I ordered my copy when (I believe) Tobywinn first mentioned it back in the winter. My book order was in place BEFORE it was off the presses! It's an amazing tale of truth and wisdom, based on the author's own experience and interviews with thousands of women across the US and Canada. A MUST READ for everyone here regardless of what stage of divorce they are in!
  • Reply #2 05/03/10  9:21pm
    I have a runaway wife.
  • Reply #3 05/03/10  10:16pm
    Thankyou for posting this! I think the the question that often remains is...the why? Yes, there is always another woman, and that IS shocking when you discover it, but still the questions remain. Why, would he throw away everything he had built over 21 years, why throw away a loving wife and mother, why throw away your children...I think this post is interesting and helps to answer some of the whys. But it's true-- you can only be responsible for yourself and what you make of it is up to you. So eventually you let go of the whys? and move on to living life and all that it has to offer. :)
  • Reply #4 05/03/10  11:38pm
    It's now on my list of must reads. I think the why's and rationalizaitons can drive you crazy if you'd let them. I don't know if runaway is anyone's responsiblity but the person who did so. My ex did run away -- we have unresolved difficulties though from the first affair years earlier. I do get there being signs -- but it's a mutual responsiblity and I did understand his need for intimacy as identity, lack of ability/comfort in expressing feelings, etc. But his narcissism and inability to connect drove so much before and after the divorce. He ran the 2nd time and unfortunately as the author shared -- ran too from his children as they have some connection to me. Will be interested in reading more of the book. Thanks for sharing. Like a runaway train, I wonder if he's headed for a train wreck (and I really should let go -- but it's just my desire for a little karma now and again )
  • Reply #5 05/04/10  12:04am
    The idea of abandoners hating their spouse they desperately love, . ...is just more immaturity and fickledness.

    Answer to the whys....here you go. Any idea of the abandoner feeling SUCCESSFUL certainly does not come with pursued "sex" outside of marriage. There is NO sense of success if one gets self inflicted SHAME. Why look for rocks when one has a diamond at home. [ Much like Cowgirl's steak and hambuger]. It's the universal rule, to keep your diamond, unless one is just plain stupid. The real blow to the ego is knowing one is indeed a losser. Hence, the need to save-face. It's all about image.
  • Reply #6 05/04/10  2:37am
    Hey Cat, talk about train wrecks happening.........my ex of 6 months has spiral his business and mulitple affairs into a ditch so far deep..... it's pitiful. Thank God, I got off his runaway train.. .it can get worse! I admit to having satisfaction. Is it Karma? or Murphy Laws?
  • Reply #7 05/04/10  2:54am
    tobywinn: you are so wise. while I was the one who left the marriage the ex left long before I ever thought of divorce. He was never comitted to me and our marriage. On some level he needed me. Not sure it was ever love.

    In MHO he was running from himself. From his age, his lack of the ability to feel empathy. Yes, the image he had created to hide what he really is. With each passing woman in his life he piled shame on top of shame. Self medicated with beer and more women. To try to remove the shame he has to remove the memory of what he has done. He has to appear normal and he can't do that with me taking him to court because of another one of his lies. It's all about them feeling shame and trying to get rid of that feeling. In the end it's all about them and their perception that they are always right. Some of them don't know why; they just do on a whim.
  • Reply #8 05/04/10  6:33am

    In the preface of her book, Ms.Stark makes a statement that the "runaway wife" is becoming a more commonplace thing, and that the stories in her book can be translated for either gender. Whether you have a runaway husband OR wife, all the things in her book are absolutely true! Get a copy and read it!
  • Reply #9 05/04/10  6:38am
    I would like to add that anyone who runs away from a long-term marriage is actually running away from themselves. The fact that they so often run right into the arms of another person is just further proof that what they are seeking is that which is lacking in themselves! This sort of liaison is doomed, and the older the "runner" the better the odds that the new "relationship" will be short-lived, in that the runner's desperation to find that which is missing has the ticking of the clock accompanying it. My guess is, if we could keep tabs on all these runaway spouses, the majority of them will end up very lonely and very much alone. A fitting end for such unfit spouses!
  • Reply #10 05/04/10  7:48am
    Thanks for sharing S101, I had seen this link previously when it was posted by Tobywinn but always good as a reminder that it is not something that is lacking in us but rather something lacking in them. And as many have said, they are seeking to find this is something else (drugs/alcohol) or someone else. I just wished I had realized sooner that it wasn't about my short comings, but that it was about his.


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I want to start something for those of us that were married for a long long time. I think that we face a little different issues than those who were dating for a few years or even married for shorter period of time. Being married for so long we have older children some have grandkids dealing with teenagers and their reaction to the divorice empty nesters dating after 40 etc.