The fall of 2006 should have been one of the happiest times of my life. My first book, My Sister, My Self, had just been published and I’d just completed a book tour speaking about sister relationships at bookstores and community centers across the United States.
Planning the trip, I’d envisioned how great it would be out there driving the open road alone, listening to local radio stations and getting the chance to talk with dozens of women about a topic dear to their hearts.
Although the reality of driving three thousand miles across America proved to be much more challenging than I’d expected, at least I had a backup. During our nightly phone calls, my husband of twenty-one years was cheering me on, telling me how proud he was, always encouraging me.
After three very lonely weeks on the road, I took the red-eye back east from California, stumbled off the plane and fell into my husband’s arms in tears. I was so relieved to be home, so happy to see him.
When we returned from the airport, my husband dropped me at home and rushed right off to work, which I found a bit odd; usually, he loved to stop for coffee and reconnect whenever one of us returned from a trip. I took a shower and noticed a long dark hair in the bathtub but thought little of it.
There was only one more event on the book tour later that week, and it was the one I was most eagerly anticipating—my official book launch in Montreal where I live. All my friends were coming (some flying in from New York), as were the press, my colleagues and many of the women who participated in The Sisters Project that formed the basis of my book. We were expecting close to a hundred people. It was to be my triumphant return—the best day of my life!
I spent the day unpacking and unwinding from the trip.
That evening, when my husband arrived home 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.” I stared at him and asked, “What’s over?” vaguely thinking that that was a weird way to say that he didn’t want to eat fish anymore. He answered, “The marriage. It’s over. I’m leaving you. I’m moving in with my girlfriend.”
Horrified, I watched the words take shape in slow motion as they left his mouth and hang in the air before they crumbled to the ground. Pow! Shock! I’d spent twenty-three days on the road only to be hit by a Mack truck in my own living room.
Runaway Husbands: A Bit of Perspective
Wife Abandonment Syndrome is a pattern of behavior that begins when a husband leaves his wife out-of-the-blue without ever having told her that he was unhappy or thinking of leaving. Following his dramatic revelation, he replaces the tenderness 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 enriching new ways.
The crisis of abandonment is first and foremost a crisis of identity. Much of what you took as a “given” about yourself and your world has been thrown into question. Feeling loved by your husband gave you a sense of self-worth as you saw yourself reflected in his appreciative eyes. When he rejected you, your first reaction, rather than anger at him, was probably to feel bad about yourself, internalizing his vision of you and tallying up the ways in which you weren’t the wife he wanted.
But when you regain some perspective, you will see, if you haven’t already, that a woman doesn’t have to be perfect to be a good wife. If he was unhappy, he owed it to you to include you in a discussion of his feelings.
Now that the marriage is over, you’ll need to stop taking your husband’s assessment of you as the right one. You’ll need to learn to value your own view of the kind of wife you were, and the woman that you are. That takes courage. It’s much easier to depend on others to inform you about yourself than to trust your own opinions. You need to learn that just because someone else believes something about you, it doesn’t necessarily make it true.
Like it or not, you will have to change in many ways in order to adjust to this new reality.
Here are some of the emotional tasks you’ll need to complete:
- Revise your beliefs about human nature. You now have learned that some people are capable of deception.
- Believe in your self-worth. You must stop feeling discarded, empty and less valuable than the woman who has taken your place or than married women in general.
- Get accustomed to being self-reliant and independent.
- Expect good things in your future. Don’t assume that you will always be alone or miserable.
- Stay positive! Stop yourself from becoming bitter or developing a victim mentality.
I know you can turn this traumatic event into an opportunity for growth and change. Once you understand what happened to you and accept the fact that your life is not going to unfold as you’d planned, new doors will open and you will realize that your future is in your hands. Hearing the stories of SWAP (Sudden Wife Abandonment Project) participants, I was astounded to learn how many of them bounced back, redefining their lives and launching off in new, unexpected directions.
In spite of the hurt, anger, and sense of loss, in spite of the injustice of it all, in the final analysis, it’s up to you to decide what to do with the new life you have been given. But first, we have some work to do to bring you to that point.
Here’s what Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about happiness in Eat, Pray, Love:
Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it, you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever.
As you embark on this journey, I will be your Sherpa. I will carry the supplies and do the heavy lifting, but you must walk with me along the path. We’ll stumble. We may have to double back sometimes. But in the end, we can enjoy the view from the top of the mountain with the satisfaction of knowing that we fought hard to get there.
This article has been edited and excerpted from Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife’s Guide to Recovery and Renewal (Green Light Press) by Vikki Stark. Written by a marriage counselor, the book helps women understand how their loving husband could morph overnight into an angry stranger. More importantly, however, it helps women learn how to turn the crisis of abandonment into an opportunity for growth. A worldwide community of women helping women has developed as a result of the book and the website www.RunawayHusbands.com which includes, among many other offerings, yearly retreats in Sedona, Mexico and Montreal, online group therapy and a very active Facebook group.