I Didn’t Even Know You Were So Unhappy…

What’s going on when a long-married women suddenly announces she wants to divorce and her husband is caught utterly off guard? This is one of the more common scenarios that I experience as a marriage counselor and it has been referred to as the “walk-away wife syndrome.” It will be helpful to shed some light upon what has happened leading up to this crisis moment.

The wife is often the one who feels responsible for checking the emotional pulse of the marriage. If she feels like they are not connecting or spending enough time together she will voice her concern to her husband. If he responds, then she will be happy again and life will go on. But if he does not respond, she will gradually increase the frequency and intensity of her pleadings. She will go about getting his attention the best way she knows how–but her efforts only make him more distant. She perhaps doesn’t understand how fundamental differences in the way men and women think can appear to be problems of the heart and she may simply not be aware of numerous effective techniques for getting him to respond in the way that she desires. As her frustration grows, her complaints gradually expand to include, well, everything: his ability to provide for the family, his parenting, his love making and even his personality. The more she tries to get his attention–and the more he feels criticized–the more he distances emotionally.

If this continues unabated, eventually she decides she can no longer live the rest of her life like this. So she devises an exit strategy. This may take several months or even years to execute. She may go back to school so she can earn more money. She may decide to wait for their youngest child to finish school. She may wait until she meets another man. Whatever her strategy entails, she will typically stop complaining as she moves forward with her plans. Her husband, of course, interprets this absence of complaints as, “everything is okay again.”

Fast forward… Suddenly the big day arrives when she tells him that she’s going to divorce him. He can’t believe it. He even says, “I didn’t even know you were so unhappy.” This seals the deal for her–all of this time together and he didn’t even know she was unhappy? This is usually the very first time that she takes real action concerning the marriage. Before now it has all been talking. Unlike talking, action gets his attention because action is a man’s language. Now it becomes real for him. And almost immediately he responds by contacting a counselor, reading self-help books on marriage, attending seminars, and he even begins talking to other guys about his relationship and getting their advice. He starts doing absolutely everything he can think of to win his wife back.

Unfortunately, for her it’s all just too little, too late. Nothing he does changes the way she feels or gives her sufficient reason to have a change of heart. She thinks his sudden efforts are all just for show and if she were to take him back, he would quickly revert to his old ways. But in reality, he has realized exactly how much he has to lose and how terrible losing it would be. This isn’t just an act or temporary change. He is truly a changed man with new priorities. He has finally become the man she wanted all along!

For a woman reading this and finding similarities with her own relationship, I would encourage you to not give up–especially now when you are so close to achieving your original goal. If you leave now, your husband will very possibly become an affectionate and attentive second husband to his next wife–all courtesy of your costly investment. The changes he is making are real and you are the one who deserves to benefit from them. Consider also that if you leave and remarry you may have to repeat this entire painful process all over again with another man. But this time, with countless added complications such as step parents, divorce lawyers, child support, and visitation. Why not refocus on putting this marriage back together and learning a few of the techniques that are more effective at getting your husband to respond the way you want. I have watched many couples pull their marriage out of this nose dive at the last minute and go on to fall in love all over again.

I also want to give you something to reflect on. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to reconciling is an attitude of righteousness. This is where one partner is viewed as generous, understanding, long-suffering, reasonable, wise, sensitive, and justified, while the other partner is viewed as their polar opposite. Sometimes both partners arrive at my office sharing this attitude–both agree the woman is in the right and the man has failed. But this attitude can prevent her from forgiving and moving forward. Not to mention the attitude is probably inaccurate. It’s just not that simple. Very often, the seemingly “obvious” solution to fix a relational problem doesn’t work or even backfires. But instead of concluding that particular solution is flawed and trying other approaches, we just assume the worst about our partner. Repeat this for several years and you get exactly where you guys are now. You just didn’t know that other less obvious solutions–even counterintuitive ones–might have quickly fixed your problems at the outset. I’ve observed the best outcomes happen when both partners share responsibility for the marriage getting off track, forgive one another, and agree to start over fresh.

© 2010 David Bentley, MA, NCC