By Michele Weiner-Davis
For the past two decades I have devoted myself to helping couples work out their differences in order to keep their marriages and families together. This marriage-saving passion is not based on religious beliefs nor do I think that divorce is morally wrong. My divorce busting bias is simply based on my firm conviction that the vast majority of problems that people are experiencing when they consider divorce are, without question, solvable. Over the years, I’ve had countless experiences of helping near-the-brink couples reinvest in their marriages and fall back in love again. That being said, there is one particular situation that I find particularly challenging. I refer to it as, “The Walkaway Wife Syndrome.”
Do you know that two-thirds of all the divorces that are filed in our country are filed by women? This is not to say that women take their commitment to their marriages lightly. They don’t. Most women believe that they have tried everything humanly possible to turn things around before throwing in the towel. Nonetheless, women are walking away from their marriages in droves. Why? Although there are a variety of reasons that might account for this mass exiting, there is one reason that, in my mind, stands out above the rest.
During the early years of marriage, a woman tends to be the emotional caretaker of her relationship. She makes certain her marriage remains a priority, insisting on quality time together, meaningful conversation and shared activities. When a woman feels close to her husband, all is right in the world. However, if the marriage takes a back seat to other commitments, she pursues her husband for more connection by having frequent heart-to-heart talks. If these tête-à-têtes are successful, the marriage blossoms. If not, her complaints are no longer confined to her feeling unimportant. She begins to find fault with many other aspects of their relationship. He hears, “If I had known what kind of father you’d be, I never would have had children with you,” or “What can’t you pick up after yourself? You’re just like one of the kids.”
Suffice it to say, these complaints hardly prompt him to want to spend more time with her. And so, she quietly plans her exit strategy. She tells herself, “I’ll leave when my youngest goes to college, or “I’m going to find my soul mate and then I’ll leave this marriage,” or “As soon as I can support myself financially, I’m outta’ here.”
Exit strategies often take years to execute and during that time women are focused on fortifying their resources, not fixing their marriages. The absence of complaints has their husbands believing that things have improved; they’re out of the dog house. “No news is good news,” they tell themselves as they obliviously continue to lead separate lives. But then “D-Day” arrives and their wives inform them that the marriages are over, triggering shock and devastation. “Why didn’t you tell me you were this unhappy,” these men protest, words that finally nail the marital coffin shut. It is then that they start to recognize the importance of their wives and their children. They become desperate to save their marriages.
It is said that people don’t change until they hit rock bottom and I can tell you first hand that the bottom doesn’t get any lower than the earth beneath these men’s feet. The threat of divorce generates true soul-searching. These are the men who readily schedule appointments for therapy, sign up for marriage seminars, read every self-help book they can get their hands on, seek spiritual connection and even risk vulnerability by discussing the f-word (feelings) with friends and family. Gradually, they become the husbands these women have been wanting.
But for so many women it’s “too little, too late,” or “I know this is not going to last. If I stay in this marriage, you will go back to your old shenanigans,” which, though completely understandable, is nonetheless, tragic. That’s because, rather than feign “appropriate husband behavior,” most of these men sincerely undergo a personal transformation that shifts their priorities forever. They typically make great second husbands. Every time a near-walkaway wife or her husband enters my office, I’m determined to do what I can to open her heart and mind to see the profound changes in her man. I’m often successful, but I must admit, this is one of the trickiest clinical knots to untie. I’d much prefer that couples really grasped the concept that time together is of utmost importance and that nagging, though well-intended, almost always backfires. That’s why I’m a huge proponent of marriage education. Falling in love is easy, staying in love is another matter. People need information and skills to stay in love. If I had my way, I’d teach myself out of a job.