What is walk away wife syndrome?

With over a million marriages that will end in divorce each year, about two-thirds of those divorces will be filed for by women. So, what is the Walk Away Wife Syndrome?

After the honeymoon, wives are usually the caretakers of the marriage. They carefully notice the ongoing quality of their intimate bond, continually monitoring the level of closeness and connection. When deficits are detected, wives will do their best to call attention to the problems they are trying to fix.

And when their husbands ignore them, as they often do, they become miserable. They start criticizing him about everything under the sun… things that need to get done around the house, responsibilities for the children, etc.

Unfortunately, when women criticize, men generally retreat, and the marriage deteriorates even more.

Often husbands are dismissive, don’t respond, or make half-hearted efforts. Gottman says that part of the reasons why husbands get defensive is that as the wives become increasingly unhappy, they start “kitchen sinking” their criticisms.

“You never take out the trash on time.  You always leave your clothes on the floor. If I told you once I told you a hundred freakin’ times clean the basement. You never have time for me anymore etc. etc”.

The walk away wife believes change is impossible

Every week, I talk to these wives.

They have convinced themselves by now that the problem is with their husband and not between both of them.

When wives ratchet up their nagging and criticizing, husbands get more defensive and withdraw. And then the marriage breaks down even further.

Usually, after several years of cajoling, and then criticizing, the wife concedes. She becomes utterly convinced that there’s absolutely nothing that will ever change.

Contempt seeps in. She begins to fantasize about divorce. She might tuck some money away, pursue additional training or education, or take other concrete steps to prepare for her eventual “freedom.”

The Walk Away Wife may even rationalize that reconciling the handling of the children and divorce is not so important.

And while she is dreaming of divorce, she “goes dark” to her husband.  She stops complaining or nagging.

She cultivates a “whatever” mindset…and doesn’t try anymore… because deep down she doesn’t care anymore.

I’m glad that’s over with…

Unfortunately, her husband is all too quick to notice that all is quiet on the marital front…and his attitude is “I’m glad that’s over with.” He is clueless. He thinks that silence equals contentment.

Sometimes these men call me right after their wives calmly drop the bomb. I ask: “Was there an event recently in your wife’s life, a close death, a divorce, graduation, a certification, a promotion, or a new job?” They usually say… “well, yes… how did you know?”

Timing is of the essence in these marriages. Complacency and a “let’s wait and see” attitude is deadly, and by the time husbands act, it might be too late. She may have checked out past the point of no return.

And their kids have a ringside seat. Helplessly watching their families unravel.

Michele Weiner Davis explains the walk away wife

Michele Weiner-Davis is a legend in couples therapy. Her expertise is “Divorce-Busting. One of her videos in the CTI collection is the “Walk Away Wife Syndrome.”

Michele says that most women turn to divorce as a final solution when in their minds, they have exhausted all other options. Typically, women value and attend to their marriages, but now women are walking away from their marriages like never before.

Why? Culturally, several factors are contributing to the Walk Away Wife Syndrome, but Michele believes she understands the primary reason.

As I mentioned earlier, women are socialized to be the emotional caretakers of their family relationships. Wives tend to prioritize marriage, monitoring amounts of quality time together, meaningful togetherness, and shared past times. When women feel connected to their husbands, there is peace in our time.

Marriage is taken for granted by many husbands

However, if the marriage is delegated to the back seat, the wife will tend to ardently pursue her husband for more connection, asking or demanding more frequent interaction.

The capacity for husbands to accept influence and connect with their lonely wives determines what happens next.

If the husband learns to manage his anxiety, and tunes into his partner, understanding what is needed… well, that would be helpful.

But unfortunately, too often, she gets a little shrill because she’s being ignored. Her harshness is not endearing. Emotional Gridlock usually follows. The couple has become stuck and remains stuck.

Women get angry when they feel powerless. A part of the husband’s brain lights up to offer: “Do you really want to spend more time with… her?” 

At this point, maybe the wife is getting ever more desperate. She may drag her husband to therapy. But in the hands of the all-purpose therapist, they often leave more aggravated than when they first showed up.

In some cases, the husband will flat out refuse to attend counseling. But at some point, a tree falls in the forest, and it doesn’t make a sound. In the Walk Away Wife Syndrome, the wife stops complaining.

I mean, she stops all complaining.

Most husbands describe a sense of profound relief.

This is a false sense of security

These wives are planning to leave or have already made elaborate exit strategies.

At some point, often after the death of a parent or sibling, divorce of a sibling, or job change, wives inform their husbands that they are done.

The marriage is over. The Walk Away Wife does precisely that…she walks away.

Her husband is usually thrown for a loop and utterly devastated.  “Why didn’t you tell me you were this unhappy?” he wails.

Those words finally nail the marital coffin shut. In the Walk Away Wife Syndrome, she’s shocked and disgusted that he mistook her silence for anything other than what it was: misery and profound hopelessness that any change was possible.

It is at that moment, Davis tells us, that husbands in the Walk Away Wife Syndrome start to realize how important their wives and their children are to them. They become desperate and single-minded in their efforts to save their marriages.

Husbands typically do the worst things… Because that’s the “guy code”

Keep in mind that your partner, the Walk Away Wife, has found a safer strategy in building a wall around herself.  At some point, she wanted you to know that she felt unsafe or resentful and hoped you would understand her situation.

For some reason, that opportunity for connection was mishandled. She may have been a bit heavy-handed in her criticism, and you might have been too defensive and argumentative. Women get angry when they feel powerless, and men get reactive when they feel unfairly attacked.

Unfortunately, due to a complicated and unfortunate mix of biology, neurology, and socialization, husbands mostly hear requests for closeness (or to start couples therapy) as critical complaints. Then they defend, cross-complain, or stonewall.

Another emerging factor is the state of modern manhood. Men today are under increasing economic stress and feel devalued, dismissed, and demeaned.

The “guy code” that they were marinated in during their formative years has taught them that there is nobility is being stoic and not complaining. For some men, when their wives complain, they hear it as “You’re not good enough…you’re a failure.”

This negative internal spin, coupled with a harsh tone from his wife, might leave some men feeling isolated, depressed, unappreciated, and resentful.

Husbands are often too reactive to their wive’s criticism

As I mentioned previously, some wives can get heavy-handed with criticism.

It’s not the outcome she wants, but the more a wife pursues her husband for emotional connection, the more she may unintentionally succeed in driving him away by the words she uses when she asks for it.

Ask yourselves… what is your “the more you do this…, the more I do that” couple communication pattern

Therefore skills such as “softened start-up” and learning to make a complaint and not a personal attack are essential elements of Gottman Couples Therapy.

This “dance” of pursuer/distancer is a highly corrosive, but very treatable issue in our couples retreats.

Now that she wants out, you might be feeling a bit desperate. But if you attempt to tear down her walls instead of allowing her to take them down, you’ll remove any aspirations she may have for a hopeful outcome.

Walk away wife syndrome what to do instead

Give her space to calm down

Now that she has told you, she may feel a bit like a drowning person would feel if — as soon as he or she came to the surface — you would plunge that person back under the water.

Don’t keep texting her or leaving her messages. Let her nervous system calm down.

Curiosity and concern about the feelings your Walk Away Wife has behind that wall should be your top priority. Her well-being should be the most important thing to you; therefore, the wall can stay as long as it is needed.

So instead of acting desperate. Calm down. Relax. Don’t self-medicate. Give her space. Let her see that your personal spaces and your body are well-groomed and cared for. Dress well. Be respectful when you communicate but be brief and be gone. Be the best version of yourself possible.

If there are little things in the environment that annoy her, attend to them quietly. Pick up after yourself.

Here’s what you need to do…

Admit you blew it to your walk away wife

Look, at the end of the day, you are not responsible for your Walk Away Wife’s emotions. But if you can fess up and admit your role in the deterioration of the marriage… well, that would be a helpful and healing admission.

You can suggest couples therapy and do what it takes to understand her and work together to clear out old hurts and resentments.

Intelligent men learn to accept influence from their Walk Away Wives and eliminate their need to erect tall emotional walls.

The most important thing is to let your Walk Away Wife calm down. Clear out any sources of irritation in your shared environment. When she has shown evidence of being open to dialogue, ask to discuss science-based couples counseling as a way forward.

Great second husbands don’t want another walk away wife

Michelle Weiner Davis reminds us that men often learn through a crisis. The social science on this is clear. When men take their Walk Away Wife seriously, they often come out the other end as remarkably changed men. Michelle asks Walk Away Wives, “Why should his next wife get all the benefit of his changed heart… when you did all the work?”

Slow down walk away wife!

If you’re a walk away wife, I get it… you’re fed up. But if your husband is in a panic right now about losing you, he can’t be that apathetic. Too little too late? Yeah, I know. I get it.

But finally, your husband may be getting it as well.

Sometimes men can be very dense and self-preoccupied when you are politely trying to get their attention.

But when you told him you’re so done…did he panic?  That means you are getting through to him!  Men respond to taking action.

You’re taking action.

And finally, he’s paying attention.

Time for some good couples therapy

This is an excellent time to take a deep breath and give him another shot. You’ll need some good couples therapy.

We continually work with walk Away Wives and their shell-shocked husbands during our couples retreats.

And they accomplish the remarkable. They think about kids and divorce. They turn it around …right at the edge of the cliff.

We’ve seen so many defensive husbands craft amazing turnarounds once they genuinely get how profoundly unhappy their wives have been for so long.

I have seen many couples successfully rebuild their marriages even though it seemed an impossible task.

You put him on notice. The ball is now in his court.

Give your husband another chance. Let him prove to you that things he can be different. Keep your family intact.

The consequences for kids and divorce echo thru time. Divorce is neither simple nor easy. It causes pain and suffering for both of you and your children.

He just might be going through a long dark night of the soul.

These guys call me every day. Shell-shocked. Remorseful. Terrified. And let me tell you… if you divorce them, many of them make outstanding husbands with their next wife.

Are you gonna let her get him all broken-in and sensitized…on your dime?

Attention clueless husband!

If you’re a husband reading this post and your wife is nagging and complaining about you…give her a big hug and tell her that you are paying attention.

Thank her for complaining.

It means she still cares about the marriage and hasn’t given up on you yet. She’s working hard to make your love stronger. Spend time with her. Talk to her. Compliment her. Pay attention. Take her seriously. Show her that she’s the most essential thing in the world to you.

It may not look like it, but she takes no pleasure in complaining. She’s doing what she can… what she has been socialized to do… to make her marriage stronger.

Don’t squander your availability. Stop your stonewalling and defensiveness. Ask yourself, “what is she right about here?” Talk to her. Take her complaints heart-attack serious because they are.

And most importantly, be a model for your kids for the family virtues that will stand them in good stead in their futures, persistence, courage, emotional toughness, resilience, and grit.

Gottman says that the best gift you can give your children is a close and intimate marital bond. You implied that your kids could count on that gift when you brought them into the world in the first place.

Book your session today

Originally published August 15, 2016

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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  1. This article is unnecessarily misogynistically skewed as the wife being the one with the problem. She becomes "shrill" and if she can "calm down" and "be open," then things might get better? Wtf? How about if the husband grew-up and did some work BEFORE he imploded his own marriage?

  2. I think your article is a bunch of BS. It appears to me you favor the wife and put all of the work/blame on the husband. Marriage is a 50/50 partnership. As I read your article it is the Husband that must be at fault "Attention clueless husband", "If you’re a walk away wife, I get it… you’re fed up", "Look, at the end of the day, you are not responsible for your Walk Away Wife’s emotions. But if you can fess up and admit your role in the deterioration of the marriage… well, that would be a helpful and healing admission", "Admit you blew it to your walk away wife", should I go on? I call BS as it should be soul searching on both sides. Many of the comments below are of my same sentiment. This article could actually be written in the reverse from the point of view of the wife being the failure. I would not ever use your services as a Marriage and Family Therapist. You are apparently writing from the point of view that you also were the failing part of the marriage but did not have the common sense to understand that it also might be her as well!

    1. It’s the problem I’ve seen with husbands that contact us, Mike: Their wife is walking away, and they simply want help changing that. Trying to convince someone leaving you that THEY are the ones with the problem is a recipe for failure if you want them to stay and work it out.
      If you don’t want her to stay, you can do nothing, or tell her how she needs to do some personal work on herself. Tell her she’s the problem for leaving. Tell she needs help. Tell her that it takes “two to tango” and that after she does work on herself, you’ll do some too. Or you can do it together.

      The post is telling you that you can expect her to share the blame, and that’s accurate, of course, in most situations, but it’s not likely to work. –Dr. K

  3. I agree. My wife after 34 years went to individual counseling after her father passed and was put on anti-depressants. Little did I know they kill libido and suppress feelings of love. Now she wants to separate. I was never called into counseling. This is a woman who had my name tattooed on her. Was loving and devoted up until she started counseling and anti depressants. Now I'm the source of all her sadness. Therapists and the medical community that prescribe these things are DESTROYING families.

  4. The cognitive dissonance in the psychology communities false belief that women have a higher EQ, while minimizing their criticism and contempt behavior toward their long term SO, is vivid to those of us watching the pysch community try to rationalize and explain the female intrinsic biological desire drivers.
    You have come a long way by paying attention to the seduction community, in the past 15 years. but are still loath to call a spade a spade. Even with>75% statistics staring you in the face.
    Stop blaming men for women’s bad behavior.
    Let them deal with the consequences of their emotional dysregulation and hypergamy
    We don’t tolerate critical contemptuous behavior in the work environment, so telling men it’s ok from their wives is baldly hypocritical.
    If women had a higher EQ. They would know what the best gift they could give their children was.

    If women had a higher EQ, you wouldn’t be using diminishing phrases for there emotionally violent behaviors.
    Stop diminishing mens feelings for being treated with disrespect and contempt.
    Either everyone’s feelings matter, or no ones does.
    When a female tries to elevate herself by calling you a bad Communicator,
    Just say
    ‘Show me what that looks like’
    And watch her walk away.

    A female lack of insight into her emotional motivators, Is Not Mens Fault.

  5. Me and my wife after 2 years just divorced. Had been going through some issues with social media (me) and her talking all the time on phone with a ex bf who is married.Came back off a vacation texted me when need to talk bout future and there we have it. I really love my ex wife any suggestions

    1. Talk to her about doing couples therapy together. It’s not unusual for divorced couples to gravitate back to one another.

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