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The Walkaway Wife Syndrome, Revisited

Why some men don't change.

Key points

  • Two-thirds of the divorces in our country are filed for by women, often leaving their husbands shell-shocked.
  • Many women file for divorce after years of asking their husbands for things like more quality time or meaningful conversations, to no avail.
  • One reason men shut down in relationships is due to lack of physical intimacy, which for them is a bid for emotional connection.
Source: hoffmanink/Pixabay

A number of years ago, I wrote about a pattern I had seen in my practice—"The Walkaway Wife Syndrome"—that prompted a resoundingly positive response from readers who experienced this phenomenon in their own lives. Exhausted by their many unsuccessful attempts to get their men to change, women were filing for divorce and leaving their marriages in droves. Plus, there were striking similarities in these marriages that ended in divorce.

In the early years of marriage, things typically go well. Couples focus on what they have in common and enjoy their child and responsibility-free lives together. They spend a great deal of time together building their bonds.

But life changes. Responsibilities increase. Individual interests become increasingly important. Relationships aren’t prioritized as they were early on. Emotional and physical closeness begins to diminish.

Women then step up to the plate to rekindle the early connection, asking for more time together and more meaningful conversations. But many of their husbands ignore the plea for more closeness.

Some determined women repeat their relationship requests, but when that doesn’t work, women’s requests eventually turn to complaints. Lots of them. Followed by bitterness and contempt. Contempt and bitterness are hardly catalysts for positive relationship change. So, their men pull away even further.

It’s now that women plan their exit strategy—“I’ll leave when the kids leave home,” “I will look for a new partner to get my needs met and then I’ll get a divorce,” “Once I can support myself, I’m out of here.” And in the meantime, having surrendered, women no longer complain. Because implementing their plan can take years, women suffer silently.

Then the day comes when women launch their youngest child, find a new partner, and become self-supporting, so they announce their plans to get divorced.

Because the complaining stopped long ago, their husbands thought, “No news is good news,” and erroneously concluded everything was okay. The announcement about the impending divorce leaves husbands feeling shell-shocked and devastated and willing to do anything to save their marriages. However, unfortunately, for many women, it's too little, too late.

But upon deeper examination, I’ve realized that there is another distinct pattern in these failed marriages that I overlooked.

Although the pattern I’m about to describe is stereotypical in terms of gender roles, and there are many always exceptions, the frequency with which I observe this pattern warrants mentioning.

Why men start investing less in their relationships

Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages, has been extraordinarily popular because it resonates with most readers. People have different ways of feeling loved. In my practice, it is often the case that women feel loved when their partners spend quality time with them, have meaningful conversations, and are engaged in acts of service to lighten their loads. Men, on the other hand, often have touch as a primary love language.

The problem isn’t the fact that spouses’ love languages are different. In fact, even in healthy, happy marriages, partners usually have different love languages. Problems occur when people fail to recognize their partners’ ways of feeling loved and make no effort to speak their languages. And when a person feels discounted or unloved, he or she tends to shut down and refuses to speak the other person’s love language. Each spouse waits for the other to change, resulting in job security for marriage therapists.

Here’s an example. Women often need to feel close and connected to their spouses emotionally before they’re interested in having sex or being physically affectionate. On the other hand, men often need to feel close and connected through physical touch before they’re interested in spending quality time together, having meaningful conversations, or being diligent about sharing life’s load regarding kids, chores, and so on.

When men don’t spend quality time with their wives, women stop wanting sex. When women stop wanting sex, men invest less and less of themselves in their relationships. Unwittingly, each person’s reaction brings out the worst in their partner. And on and on.

So, years ago, when I described the Walkaway Wife Syndrome, I failed to recognize that men often seek closeness in ways that are different than their wives. Men flirt. They initiate sex. They want to cuddle. They want to hug in the kitchen while dinner is being made. People who do not have touch as a primary love language just don’t see an invitation to have sex as a bid for emotional connection. But it is. In fact, it is no different than women asking men to spend more time together or talk.

The sense of rejection men feel when their wives aren’t interested in sex is profound. It makes them feel unwanted, unloved, unsexy, unmasculine, and unimportant. It makes them check out emotionally.

I used to say that women are the primary caretakers of their relationships. Perhaps. But that’s because I’m a woman. That’s because my primary love languages are time together and meaningful conversation. But the truth is, my lens was blinding me to the fact that men tend to their relationships in different, but equally viable ways.

Women in my practice say, “All my husband thinks about is sex. There’s something wrong with him. Why should I have to have sex to motivate him to spend time with me?” That’s when I pose another question: “What if your husband said to me, ‘The only thing my wife wants to do is talk. I don’t understand why I have to talk to her to pique her interest in being physically close to me?”

Case closed.

So, while it’s true that over two-thirds of the divorces in our country are filed for by unhappy women who are eager to leave their change-resistant husbands, perhaps it’s myopic to fail to notice that intractability often works two ways.

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