Bewildered! Mystified! Incredulous! Disturbed! How many times have I heard from women struggling to recover from the sudden end of a marriage who are dumbfounded by how radically their husbands have changed? Either, he was the loving, affectionate teddy bear of a man who, having left the marriage, now looks at her with hatred in his eyes, or he’s the guy whose favorite sport was rugby who now is decked out in Lululemon, rushing to his yoga class.
Brain tumor! That’s the first explanation a woman comes up with that could explain the sudden, radical shift. Or cognitive impairment; maybe it’s the early stages of dementia. As painful as the unwanted end of a marriage is, the fact that the man she knew for ten, twenty, thirty years or more is now unrecognizable, messes with her sense of reality. Her mind is whirring. She’s obsessing, trying to make sense of how Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde.
This is a common occurrence when marriages end suddenly and the husband comes under the influence of the new woman in his life. He often leaves the marriage because he becomes spooked at the prospect of growing older and fears, “Is this all there is???” He wants something different. Once he’s exploring a fresh new life with another person, he’s excited and elated, ready to press the re-set button on his life and venture out as a new man. But along with that, he has to shed the old persona.
The stable person the wife knew often shape-shifts as he morphs into his new being. He may start to dress very differently, get new glasses, start going to the gym, change his hair, wear jewellery – make a dozen external changes that mirror the internal changes going on.
But the most profound change is in his expression of his beliefs. Things he used to find hateful or ridiculous are now front and center in his new value system and that is very confusing. The wife starts to question herself? Who was she married to all those years? Was she really misunderstanding everything? How can a person change so radically?
Case in point. One woman told how she and her husband had built their house together. They’d had a great time doing so and he would tell anyone who would listen how much he loved their home and would never move. His joke was, the only way he was going to leave this house was feet first. Then, a few years later, as he was walking out on his wife, he told her he’d never liked the house. He’d hated it from day one! Wow! That really disturbed her. Where was reality? When she tried to tell him, “No! You loved this house!” He looked at her strangely and said, “I never did —you never listened to me!” She was flabbergasted.
In Runaway Husbands, I write about how the kind of man who leaves his wife for an affair partner out-of-the-blue is often the kind of man who is very emotionally dependent on the women. He subtly moulds his identity to fit with the current woman in his life, but when he becomes attached to a new woman, his identity changes too. He looked stable during those married years together because he was with you, but once he’s moved on, he re-jells to fit with the new person he’s with. And the baffling thing is that he’s strangely oblivious to how he is now stating as fact the very things that he’d repudiated not that long ago.
I often tell women that, when their departing husband re-writes history, they need to trust their memory of their lived experience. Words have tremendous power, particularly when your husband is adamant about his revisionist view of your life together, but it is important to locate your own reality of that life and hang on to it. As mystifying as it is to witness someone who has gone through a personality transplant, it doesn’t have to erase your own experience of your life.
I’m a family therapist and the author of Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal and My Sister, My Self: The Surprising Ways that Being an Older, Middle, Younger or Twin Shaped Your Life. I can be found online at www.vikkistark.com and www.runawayhusbands.com.