Carl called Couples Therapy Inc. when his wife of 22 years calmly told him she was moving out. Amy was about to sign a lease in an apartment two towns away, closer to her new job.
Carl was flabbergasted. He knew Amy was unhappy a few years ago, but things had calmed down since then. She seemed to be more accepting of their life together. She even, (finally, he thought) began to do things on her own rather than bugging him to go out.
He was so shocked he asked her, "Why, Amy? Why now? We've finally been getting along, and now you are leaving?! I thought you were happy!"
Amy looked at him with a coldness and distance he had never seen in her before. She told him, "If you thought we were getting along, Carl, I don't know what to say." and she walked out.
Carl called our office, panicked. In our Meet and Greet telephone call, Carl said he didn't see this coming. He would do anything it took to keep his marriage.
I asked Amy how she felt. She said flatly, "I'm doing this weekend for the kids, but nothing will change.
"I've tried for years to get through. I suggested couples counseling many times, and he refused. Now he wants counseling, but it's too late. It's hopeless.
Amy is a walkaway wife.
What is walkaway wife syndrome?
Women file for two-thirds of all divorces. There are particular marital dynamics that create what Michelle Weiner Davis calls the "walk-away" wife.
Wives are the primary emotional caretakers of married life, according to both Davis and Gottman. As Davis says, they look at their "relationship watches" and ask themselves, "Have we spent enough time together? Are we feeling emotionally close? Have we taken a getaway to be alone together?"
If the answer to those questions is no, wives often make attempts to reach out and reconnect. How they do this, of course, is very important. Doing this with gentleness and complaining is what Gottman calls the "Softened Start-up."
Complaining effectively is less likely to provoke a response he calls "defensiveness." In contrast, if they criticize, husbands are less likely to be responsive and can tune them out.
In either case, when a husband becomes defensive, even a soft complaint can turn into criticism. This pattern of interaction creates an escalating pattern of fighting. This is likely to worsen over time.
The couples fighting turns unproductive. Neither partner feels heard, understood, respected, or taken seriously. It feels hopeless, and the walk-away wife begins stops trying to connect.
In this walkaway wife syndrome, the pattern worsens. Date nights become miserable and stop. Interactions become one hostile exchange after another.
Goodwill is lost, and they fall into Negative Sentiment Override. Neither gives the other the benefit of the doubt. The marriage works poorly, and a predictable cascade of negativity happens in which both partners feel lonely, distant, and misunderstood. It becomes easier to keep your distance than to engage.
As Amy stops complaining or criticizing, she disengages and withdraws. She begins to exclude Carl from her decisionmaking. She begins to craft a separate life.
The pattern often goes like this:
Signs of walkaway wife syndrome
- She stops complaining. She begins to believe that she can't make an impact on her husband and that he doesn't care. She believes she has tried to beg, plead, fight, cajole, or threaten, and it has had no effect.
- Her husband takes this as a sign that she is finally happy rather than hopeless. He begins to enjoy the peace and quiet, free from negative interactions.
- His passivity confirms to her his lack of investment in her or the marriage.
- Communication deteriorates to "information exchange."
- She rejects his sexual advances or initiates none of her own. If the couple has sex, she is silent and uninvolved.
- She begins to turn to other people to share her joys, sadnesses, disappointments, and victories.
- She creates activities and social networks that don't involve him.
- She focuses on her career and gets a better job to make more money. She is preparing for an independent life. She might stop wanting to share financial resources if the couple did before.
- This typically goes on until some big event occurs in her life. It might be a death in the family, a child leaving home, a big raise, or a promotion.
- She now dispassionately tells her husband that she is moving out or filing for divorce, and he is shocked and devastated.
- He puts the nail in the marital coffin by saying: "Why? I thought we were getting along so WELL!"
- She thinks or says: "You thought that the last several years of silence and disconnection was "getting along?" This marriage is even more hopeless than I thought!"
Carl loved his wife but was very disengaged from himself and his emotions. Feelings made him uncomfortable. When she expressed her feelings for him, and wanted him to return those feelings, it made him uncomfortable.
When Amy tried to engage with him, he was wary. He saw her efforts as an intrusion or an effort to try to control him. He learned to be sarcastic, change the subject, or ignore her to create distance.
His BIG BIG Book told of a history of an alcoholic father and a distant and self-absorbed mother. He had taken a job that required technical skills but where he needed little verbal or social skills. That's the way he liked it.
Sex was the only avenue he knew to feel closer to her.
Carl didn't want to be known. He didn't want to talk about himself. When he got home, we wanted to be left alone to have a few beers, watch the game, and chill. He felt that as long as he worked hard and provided for his family, he was doing his part in the marriage.
Amy met Carl when she was in high school. She saw him as the "strong silent type" and found him very physically attractive. But as her two children got older, she wanted and needed more connection.
She tried to talk to him about "innocent" subjects to get him to talk. She asked him what his favorite movie was as a child. She remembers vividly where she was when she asked him.
He whipped around and snarled at her, "What difference does it make, Amy?! Stop asking stupid questions." It was at that moment, Amy told me, that she believed the marriage was over. If he couldn't answer an innocent question without becoming hostile, there was nothing she could do to change him.
She suggested marriage counseling several times, but each time he refused. It was at that point that Amy began to pull away and focus on herself.
The weekend couples therapy retreat
This couple chose an intensive couples therapy weekend. Amy entered as most walk-away wives do: guarded and defensive. She was expecting to be told to forget the past and try and reconnect.
She simply wasn't going to do that. She had had enough of the coldness and isolation. She had tried too long and was rejected far too often. She was done. She had made her mind up: She was moving on.
Carl looked anxious and totally out of his element as he entered my office. He wanted to make an all-out effort to save his marriage. But how to do that, he didn't have the slightest clue.
In our one-on-one, Carl told me how he had responded to her announcement. Initially, he tried anger.
Then he told her how damaging it would be to the children. Finally, he told her how much she meant to him and how lost and hopeless he'd feel if she left him.
None of it seemed to have an impact.
He would do whatever it took, he told me. He was desperate and single-minded in his efforts to save his marriage and family. He just had to know what to do.
In my one-on-one with Amy, I listened to how lonely and helpless she felt for decades. She was tired of being the only one trying to connect. If it wasn't for sex, they never connected tenderly.
I told her that as the leaning-out spouse, this was a time for contemplation and observation. She had to decide whether to give it "one more try" or not. I was not there to force her into doing anything.
She had good reasons for feeling how she felt. If she chose to, she could share those reasons with Carl one last time.
But she also might want to understand what brought her into this relationship and what kept her there for 22 years. Without that understanding, she might simply replace one man like Carl with another man who had similar issues.
In our one-to-one, I told Carl that he had to stop trying to convince her to stay. That just drove her away. Instead, I encouraged he should take a look at the man in the mirror.
For the first time, Carl was now motivated. He was now willing to do what he was unwilling to do. He had to look into himself, open up, dig deep, and talk about his history and inner world.
Amy was surprised to hear that Carl remembered being asked about his favorite childhood movie. It was a painful memory he shared with her then. It involved his father getting increasingly drunk through the show and making a scene. It was a memory he preferred not to think about.
He admitted that he saw Amy's desire to get close as just another threat to his sense of self. He was ashamed of his past. He felt like she would feel like he was a failure, just not good enough. It was a message he grew up hearing.
Amy felt different as she listened to her husband. For the first time, he was talking about himself, with no expectation of her. He wanted to be known by her, even if it meant losing her, he said.
I asked him if he felt like talking about his childhood somehow made him seem weak and undesirable. To him, the answer was obvious: yes.
He talked about how he cut off from her to maintain this wall so that he didn't have to feel anything. He told her that he didn't blame her for wanting to leave. It would probably take years for him to do the work. But he now knew what he had to do to heal from his abusive childhood.
But he wanted to do it not only for her and the kids. He wanted to do it to be a better man.
Embracing yourself in the face of uncertainty
There is a scene in Raiders of the Lost Arc where the hero faces a pit in front of him and an angry mob behind him. He's been told that there is an invisible bridge right where he stands. He crosses his arms around himself and steps out.
That's what Carl was doing, taking a risk with no promise of safety. And that act would make him a better second husband if Amy no longer wanted him as her first.
Amy did gain greater respect for Carl's openness and honesty over that weekend. She knew they had a lot to do to reconnect, but she was now willing to try.