Most divorces involve some drama. Divorce as a result of infidelity is traumatic. But Vikki Stark, a family therapist for 27 years, has identified an extra-traumatic type of divorce, which she calls Wife Abandonment Syndrome (WAS).
According to Stark, Wife Abandonment Syndrome is a pattern of behavior on the part of a husband who leaves his wife out-of-the-blue without ever having told her that he was unhappy in the marriage. Following his sudden departure, he replaces the caring he'd typically shown her with anger and aggression. He often moves directly in with a girlfriend, leaving his bewildered wife totally devastated. This will undoubtedly be the defining event in her life, and although recovery is a struggle, many women find that it forces them to reinvent themselves in positive and exciting new ways.
Starks book Runaway Husbands (2010) is a result not only of her study of 400 wives who were abandoned worldwide. In face to face and online interviews, one of the remarkable things was how consistent peoples experiences were, says Stark.
Here are five of the ten hallmarks of WAS that Stark identifies in Runaway Husbands:
Reasons given for husbands decision to leave are nonsensical, exaggerated, trivial or fraudulent.
The husbands behavior changes so radically that it seems to his wife that he has become a cruel and vindictive stranger.
The husband shows no remorse; rather, he blames his wife and may describe himself as the victim. In almost all cases, the husband had been having an affair and moves in with his girlfriend. The husband makes no attempt to help his wife, either financially or emotionally, as if all positive regard for her has been completely extinguished.Women know that this is a different kind of divorce trauma. It takes much longer to put their world back together. But health professionals often do not pick up on this. A lot of therapists dont get it or realize how WAS is different from regular divorce, says Stark. Therapists say it takes two to tango and you must have had your head in the sand. But it is possible for a marriage to come to an end without the wife being aware of or contributing significantly to the breakdown of the marriage. Stark should know. She, too, is an abandoned wife who felt happily married and woke up one day to find her life ruptured by the horrible wound of her husband suddenly saying he was leaving.In Runaway Husbands, she identifies 7 Steps to Recovery and Renewal that are fairly standard, like recognizing that the marriage is really over, turning your focus to the future, celebrating your life as a single person. But the hardest step may be to give up trying to get the acknowledgment and apology that you deserve. This is where the hurt lies. You know what you felt was true and real, but you will never get validation of that.
Women become obsessed and cant sleep, says Stark. They are clinically traumatized and need ways to make it through the night. Recovery is a long process that Stark has categorized by weather metaphors: Tsunami (drowning); Tornado (thoughts spin wildly); Thunderstorm (lightning bolts); Ice Storm (frozen); Fog (everything is gray); Sun Shower (you can see light); Early Spring (thaw); and Temperate Summer Day (moving forward).Fortunately, Stark can offer some coping strategies for getting through the stages of Wife Abandonment Syndrome. For instance, when your thoughts are spinning out of control and you cant turn off the voices in your head, think of them as a barking dog chained to a fence. The sound is scary, but the dog cant hurt you. Just keep going til you get to a different neighborhood.I get a phenomenal amount of feedback from women all over the world who say I thought I was alone and you helped me feel as though Im not alone, says Stark, who is now doing telephone therapy with people as well as online groups. But some of the most gratifying feedback is that therapists are reading the book and becoming aware of Wife Abandonment Syndrome. Friends get overwhelmed and cant hear that kind of processing every day, notes Stark. They start to get impatient with how long it takes to recover from this kind of divorce, which not only affects the wife, but has a big impact on children as well: even more reason for therapists to be aware of WAS.Check out the Runaway Husbands website at http://runawayhusbands.com/, as well as Starks blog at Psychology Today, Schlepping Through Heartbreak.Judy Kirkwood has done some serious heartbreak schlepping too.