The Walkaway Wife Syndrome

Why do some women suddenly ask for a divorce? Learn about the reasons for "walkaway wife syndrome" and what can be done to help save the marriage.

By , Journalist

Women are often stereotyped as the ones more eager to walk down the aisle. But according to the American Sociological Association (ASA), they're also far more likely to initiate divorce—nearly 70% of the time.

This isn't a new trend. Data going back to the 1940s shows women have historically tended to be the initiators of divorce. It's a phenomenon that some relationship experts refer to as the "walkaway wife syndrome."

What Is a Walkaway Wife?

Also referred to as the "neglected wife syndrome" and "sudden divorce syndrome," walkaway wife syndrome is "nothing more than a term used to characterize a person who has decided they cannot stay in the marriage any longer," says Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and creator of Mental Drive.

"It's easy to think about a single act as the precipitating event for walkaway syndrome, '' Dr. Klapow says. "But the vast majority of times, it is the accumulation of a series of conflicts—some of which have been addressed or maybe all have been addressed—that do not resolve."

"At some point, the partner (in this case, the wife) decides this relationship isn't salvageable," he adds.

Wives aren't just getting fed up with husbands. They're also walking out on their wives. According to data from the U.K.'s Office for National Statistics, lesbian couples make up slightly more than half of the same-sex marriages in England and Wales, but they account for roughly three-quarters of same-sex divorces.

Why Do Wives Walk Out?

There's no perfect marriage. In time, conflict will arise. How that conflict is handled plays a huge role in whether a couple breaks up or weathers the storms that enter their union.

Several factors affect a couple's risk for divorce, such as the age of the couple when they marry, the age difference of the couple, and whether one or both were children of divorce. The most common reasons why marriages deteriorate include:

  • lack of commitment
  • incompatibility and growing apart
  • communication problems
  • extramarital affairs
  • financial incompatibility (money disagreements)
  • substance abuse
  • domestic abuse, and
  • conflicts over family responsibilities.

Women's expectations might have something to do with why they're more likely to reach their breaking point. From a young age, many girls are presented with a fairytale impression of marriage. And once they find their Prince Charming, they expect to live happily ever after.

Problems occur when the husband fails to live up to the wife's preconceived idea of what her spouse should be. As a result, she's sometimes left disillusioned. Disillusionment is a reliable predictor of divorce.

What Do Husbands Do to Cause Wives to Walk Away?

Happily married husbands don't generally set out to sabotage their marriage. But, as Dr. Klapow explains, problems can arise "when the man no longer, or slowly over time, stops engaging in the behaviors necessary to keep the relationship healthy," whether they are aware of it or not.

Those behaviors include:

  • not addressing conflicts when they arise—instead deflecting, discounting, or disengaging from the wife to limit the drama
  • perpetually arguing over the same issues and refusing to compromise or address an issue that is important to the wife—in other words, as Dr. Klapow says, "digging in and doubling down" based on his perceptions of the situation
  • basically refusing to change by adopting an "I am who I am" or "you knew what you were getting into" attitude, and
  • giving the silent treatment by refusing to communicate or sometimes even to acknowledge the wife's presence.

When women feel they aren't being heard and are being pushed away every time they bring up problems, Dr. Klapow says they will look elsewhere for support, communication, and validation.

What Are the Warning Signs of a Walkaway Wife?

In many cases, the wife's leaving may seem sudden to the husband. In fact, the majority of divorcing couples in the U.S. and the U.K. described their marriage as "happy" one year before divorcing, according to U.K. researcher Harry Benson.

But it's likely that a walkaway wife has been mulling over the idea for years. According to ASA, a person spends about two years on average thinking about divorce before ever taking action.

During that time, a woman may experience a range of emotions, Dr. Klapow says. Some of the "warning signs" for walkaway wife syndrome are when the wife:

  • starts asking herself, "Is this relationship worth it?"
  • believes the only way her husband will change is if she changes him
  • feels disengaged and disconnected from her husband (for example, she might feel like he's not concerned with issues in her life)
  • feels like the support, validation, and intimate connection she once felt with her husband are gone, and
  • begins feeling resentful toward her husband.

What Can Spouses Do to Save the Marriage?

When communication stops, resentment dominates, and one or both parties are disengaged, the relationship is in real trouble according to Dr. Klapow.

Often, couples can work out problems long before the marriage reaches that point, as long as both spouses are committed to:

  • open communication
  • compromise
  • criticizing actions rather than character traits, and
  • seeking to understand why a partner is feeling disengaged, angry, or frustrated instead of seeking to blame or deflect blame.

"This can be very challenging," Dr. Klapow says. "That's why seeking marital therapy from a licensed, experienced professional is crucial. As much as you may want to try and fix it yourself, very often, having a trained third person to facilitate discovery and problem solving is critical to the survival of the relationship."

When marriage counseling isn't an option—for example if one spouse refuses to go or is firm with the decision to walk away—it might be time to start preparing for divorce.

What Should Women Consider Before Becoming a Walkaway Wife?

If you find yourself disappointed and frustrated with your spouse and just about ready to walk away, take some time to assess your marriage.

Before you make your decision, Dr. Klapow suggests asking yourself some important questions:

  • Why do I want to leave? It's important to examine your own intentions objectively, so that you can see whether you actually have a clear rationale for leaving.
  • Why am I staying? On the flip side, you should examine the reasons you've been staying in the marriage. Are those reasons mostly emotional, psychological, and interpersonal? Or are they more logistical and material, such as finances, lifestyle, and whether you'd have to move out of the house if you split up?
  • What will life really be like after I leave? Consider the scenario—the good, the bad, the practical, the financial, and the emotional. "It's important to create an image of your life without your partner so you aren't walking into that step blindly," Dr. Klapow says.
  • What are my spouse's positive qualities? Are there things about your spouse that give you hope that your lives can be better together?

"Asking yourself these questions may create hesitation." explains Dr. Klapow, "or they could bolster the decision."

For women considering a gray divorce in their 50s or beyond, there are practical questions to take into account that can have a long-lasting impact. They include:

How Walking Away Affects Women

Of course, there's also such a thing as a "walkaway husband." But the fact that more wives walk away is intriguing, because the fallout of divorce is actually harder on women.

According to a recent study published in Current Opinion in Psychology, women experience a much greater decrease in income and many become at risk of falling below the poverty line following a divorce. Comparatively, men's incomes generally either decrease only modestly or increase.

Women are also more likely to take sole or primary custody of the kids and are less likely to remarry, leaving them juggling a job along with most, if not all, of the child care responsibilities.

So why would women want to endure all that stress simply to get out of a marriage? Perhaps because, as research also shows, women tend to have greater life satisfaction after divorce than men.

When Walking Away Makes Sense

If you decide that walking away is in your best interest, assure yourself that you can rebuild your life.

"Often, fear of being alone keeps a wife in a relationship," Dr. Klapow says. "Remind yourself that regardless of how bad it may feel, you have what it takes to be on your own."


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