Runaway Husbands: Wife Abandonment Syndrome

When a man leaves out-of-the-blue from a happy, stable marriage.

Posted Feb 15, 2020

The fall of 2006 should have been the happiest time of my life. I had published my first book, My Sister, My Self, about sister relationships and had set out alone on a whirlwind book tour that took me 3,000 miles crisscrossing America. The trip was great but hard—23 days in the car driving from bookstore to bookstore, eating practically all my meals at the wheel.

By the time I got to my last stop, San Diego, I was so looking forward to coming home to Montreal. I took the red-eye back and fell into my darling husband's arms in relief when he picked me up at 8 am at the airport. I was so happy to see him! He dropped me off at home and headed to work.

I spent the day getting organized but noticed a long dark hair in the bathtub when I took a shower. I didn’t think anything of it. I also was puzzled later that various dishes in the kitchen were in the wrong place. We’d lived there for years and we always kept the colander under the sink and the spatulas in the pot on the counter but now I had to search for them. Also a bit weird—but, no matter.

When my husband returned that night, I threaded my arm through his and said, “I bought fish” to which he responded, “It’s over.” I thought, weird, but said, “Okay, if you don’t want fish, we can have chicken.” And he said, “It’s over and I’m leaving you. Right now.” And he did. He moved right in with his girlfriend of six years who had been staying in my house while I was away.

Marjan Apostolovic/Shutterstock
Runaway Husbands
Source: Marjan Apostolovic/Shutterstock

That moment marked my descent into the nightmare that I’ve come to call Wife Abandonment Syndrome. Wife Abandonment Syndrome is when a man leaves out-of-the-blue from what his wife believed to be a happy stable marriage. There is typically another woman in the picture. One of the hallmarks is that the husband then turns angrily on the wife, blaming her and dismantling everything she knew as their loving joint history together. He seems to have no regard for his traumatized wife, even if he had been a loving and attentive husband days earlier, as mine had been.

After my husband left, I started researching this phenomenon and was amazed when I realized that it’s pretty common and that the features of how the men leave are almost identical from case to case. I started a study and interviewed women all over the world to whom this had happened. Based on the findings of the study, I wrote the book, Runaway Husbands, and launched the website, runawayhusbands.com. Very quickly we developed an international community of women supporting women through this terrible trauma.

This is not a typical divorce in which the wife may have seen it coming. In Wife Abandonment Syndrome, there are often no signs that the husband is unhappy or thinking of leaving, as was my case. When men leave in this way, their wives feel like they’re crazy and completely alone. When they stumble across our website, Googling in the middle of the night, they’re shocked to learn that it’s a “thing” and deeply comforted to be able to share what they are going through with others.

Recovery is a long and painful process. Initially, the wife is obsessed with understanding her husband’s motivation—how he could morph overnight from a loving husband into a cold and angry stranger? Once she’s been helped to see what was behind his actions, she will become freer to turn her focus from mourning her past to glimpsing her future.

I’m a psychotherapist so my goal in helping women in this situation is to guide them to a point where they can see this crisis as a springboard for change. The first year after wife abandonment is very rough, but with enough support, the wife left behind can start to see possibilities for her life as a single woman and hopefully, be able to flower into embracing her new life.

Over the years, I’ve developed therapeutic resources to provide help both online and face-to-face. The power of being part of a healing community cannot be underestimated—when women get together, they offer each other both strategies and support. We have a Facebook group, newsletter, online meditation group, and what we call Healing Circles—where women can meet others locally in their towns to provide support. These exist in cities all over the world.

I’m able to work personally with women through online therapy groups where we can see and hear each other, just as if we were in the same room. We meet together in yearly retreats in Montreal and Sedona, Arizona and for those that need more support, private Skype therapy sessions are available. Our community is powerful, with active participants in Australia and New Zealand, India, Hong Kong, Nigeria and Ghana, Britain, Europe, Canada, and the U.S.

I know how powerfully women suffer and grieve following Wife Abandonment Syndrome. I’ve been there. But I also know that this trauma can also be used for what is called post-traumatic growth, in which women are forced to strengthen themselves so they can manage their thoughts and emotions and develop a profound new understanding of their lives. Although they can’t see it when they’re in the midst of it, they’re not always going to feel this badly.