Michele Weiner-Davis is a legend in couples therapy. Her particular expertise is “Divorce-Busting.” One of the videos in the CTI collection is authored by her and is called the “Walk Away Wife Syndrome.”
Two-thirds of all divorces filed in the USA are filed by women. Women turn to divorce as a final solution when in their mind, they have exhausted all other options. Women value and attend to their marriages, but now women are walking away from their marriages like never before. Why? Culturally, there are several contributing factors, but Michele believes she understands the primary reason.
Davis tells us that in early marriage, women are socialized to be the emotional caretakers of their families 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.
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 take 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 when she’s being ignored. Counter to what you might imagine, her harshness is not endearing. 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 the 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 the very definition of 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 marriages are over. The walk away wife does exactly that…she walks away.
The men are usually thrown for a loop and utterly devastated. “Why didn’t you tell me you were this unhappy?” they wail.
Those words finally nail the marital coffin shut. In this Walk Away Wife Syndrome, she’s shocked and disgusted that he mistook her quiet for anything except what it was: misery and profound hopelessness that change is 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.
Keep in mind that your partner, the Walk Away Wife, has found that it has been a safer strategy with you to build a wall around herself. At some point, she most likely did want you to know that she felt unsafe or resentful, and probably wanted you to 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 defensive and argumentative. Women get angry when they feel powerless.
Walk Away Wives typically pursued their partners for more time and closeness. 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.
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
This is why skills such as “softened start-up” and learning to make a complaint and not a personal attack are such essential elements of Gottman Couples Therapy. This “dance” of pursuer/distancer is a highly corrosive, but very treatable issue in 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.
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. The well-being of your husband or wife 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 spaces and your body are well groomed and cared for. Dress well. Be respectful when you communicate, but be brief and be gone.
If there are little things in the environment that annoy her, attend to them quietly. Pick up after yourself.
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 maybe go into couples therapy together and do what it takes to understand each other 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 the 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?”
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.