- Approximately two-thirds of divorces are initiated by women.
- Walking away from a marriage brings a mix of positive and challenging feelings.
- The "left-behind" partner in a divorce may experience a wide range of emotions. Plan accordingly.
Women who make the decision to leave their husbands or long-term partners have been branded “walk-away wives” in popular media and the complementary term for the spouse she’s leaving becomes “the left behind.” Breaking it down into these two halves may make logical sense—when a relationship falls apart, someone has to be the one to metaphorically leave the relationship and literally leave the shared home.
Regardless of who is left in the family home, research does show that women are more likely to initiate a divorce than their husbands (Rosenfeld, 2017). In fact, some figures suggest that close to 70 percent of divorces are initiated by women.
Walking Away With Heavy Baggage
Feeling the urge to leave a marriage isn’t the same as actually deciding to walk away from the relationship (deGraaf & Kalmijn, 2006). Not everyone takes action, but here are the core reasons marriages fall apart:
- Relational concerns—when the relationship stops being adequately satisfying
- Behavioral problems—abuse of some form, addiction issues, disruptive behaviors in the home
- Infidelity—this isn’t always a "make or break" issue, but it is the breaking point for some
- Responsibilities not equally shared—this can be household chores, family accounting, childcare, pet care, or some other couple-relevant obligation
- Values—differing values are often not revealed until after the vows are spoken, but shared values are a key protective factor for long-term relationships whereas differing values can create rifts that grow with time
Divorce rates have declined, and this might reflect the pattern of marrying at later ages than in previous decades. However, once the benefits of dissolving a marriage tip the scale and outweigh the reasons for staying in the marriage, the decision to leave is made.
When the Door Closes
Research shows that the initiator of the split enjoys significant psychological relief early after the divorce as they’ve often suffered significant emotional distress during the period prior to making the decision to leave. While a burden is lifted off the initiator as the divorce occurs, the “left-behind” husband won’t be hit by the psychological blow until the door closes behind their wife (Parker et al., 2022). Before leaving, wives enter preparation mode where they gather the energy, resources, and readiness to communicate their plans to leave ... or they just go.
There is a sense of control experienced as they engage in these tasks and when they announce their plans, there is a sense of empowerment. A spouse may be totally blindsided by the news their partner wants a divorce, but this cluelessness only adds fuel to the fire that is driving the partner to leave the marriage.
After the Dust Settles
Unfortunately, divorce can have significant financial consequences for women due to the continued gender pay gap and the caregiving for children that often falls fully on a mother’s shoulders. Men may experience a significant decline in subjective well-being after divorce, but their financial stability often increases.
Managing as a Leaver
To help maintain your emotional well-being, If you are the leaver, it’s important to minimize the frequency with which you encounter your ex-partner. Post-divorce encounters can be psychologically distressing and, depending on the behavior of your ex-partner, emotionally devastating. A “left-behind” spouse may respond in a variety of ways, but here are three common positions taken:
- Accept the Decision and Move Forward. This is the “best-case scenario.” When a separation or divorce has been a mutual decision and has been discussed and planned out, moving forward and starting a new solo journey is easier for both individuals. Men often suffer more than women as the marriage falls apart, due to the loss of their primary support system member, when the inevitable end of a marriage is addressed and worked towards by both partners, men can prepare emotionally for the split and work towards rebuilding their identity and sense of self.
- Express Hostility and Resentment. They may experience extreme anger towards their wives and seek retaliation for the emotional wrong they feel they’ve endured. In severe cases, they may try to continue their controlling or abusive behavior through whatever means they can. Disrupting financial arrangements, using children as weapons, and harassing behaviors may be tools used by some. Even “good sport” partners may allow bitterness or even fury to creep into their interactions with their ex-partner after a split. Passive aggressiveness, demeaning comments, disrespect, controlling behaviors, and other just-under-the-surface attitudes may color further encounters. Remember, men often turn their sadness, helplessness, or symptoms of depression outward, which translates into anger for many. The grief they feel is real, but their ability to express it may be stymied by cultural and personal barriers to expressing emotions that communicate vulnerability.
- Work to Win You Back. They may be in shock that their marriage has come to this point. They may apologize for their poor behavior or their inability to be a strong partner in the relationship. They may beg you to come back. They may make promises that your departure was the wake-up call they needed, and they will toe the line and pitch in going forward.
To minimize the disorder that a divorce can create, it is essential that women have clear plans and steps laid out prior to their departure from the marriage. Two key areas are finances and support.
- Financial issues are often what keep marriages together past the point they are supportive of either partner’s well-being. Having your finances organized and a clear means of support opens up the path to ending the relationship.
- Have a strong support network in place, as well. A solo life can be a relief to an unhappy marriage, but recognize that you’ll benefit from having important people in your life who care about you. Whether it’s instrumental support or emotional support, we all need to have people who are there for us.
- If there are children involved, recognize that solo parenting isn’t easy. Ensure you have your support network solidified. Make sure that your kids’ well-being and social worlds are prioritized as much as possible. Everyone needs to know there is someone they can turn to when they need to express their positive and negative feelings, whether it’s anger, sadness, or fear.
Opening a New Door
Leaving a relationship can instill a sense of control and feelings of empowerment. It can take effort to maintain that momentum, so keep your friends and family close as you navigate the new path that offers you the chance to create the life you need to thrive. And don’t fall too far or too quickly into the next relationship that arrives. Spend as much time, if it’s a year or a decade, finding stability and groundedness as a solo traveler on your life’s journey before buddying up too closely with someone new.
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de Graaf, P. M., & Kalmijn, M. (2006). Divorce Motives in a Period of Rising Divorce: Evidence From a Dutch Life-History Survey. Journal of Family Issues, 27(4), 483–505. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X05283982
Parker, M. L., Diamond, R. M., Ledermann, T., & Tambling, R. R. (2022). The beginning of the end: A revised inventory of divorce initiation. Family Relations, 71, 1619-1636.
Rosenfeld, M. J. (2017). Who wants the breakup? Gender and breakup in heterosexual couples. In D. F. Alwin, D. Felmlee, & D. Kreager’s Social Networks and the Life Course, pp. 221-243.