Michelle Wiener Davis is one of the stars of the psychotherapy circuit. She has enjoyed a long, and well-regarded, career as a couples therapist. Back in the early ’90’s she came up with an approach to salvaging frayed marriages, wrote a book called “Divorce Busting” and a cottage industry was born. Among her excellent insights was the notion of the “walk away wife syndrome.” I love it because it so accurately describes a dynamic I have seen in my office many times over the years. It works like this:
A woman in a marriage or intimate relationship is feeling disconnected from her partner. This distance is extremely lonely. She will reach out to him, trying to get him to understand her distress. He doesn’t get it, in her view. Over time, she becomes frustrated and even a bit desperate. This incredible, and legitimate, need she experiences may never be acknowledged and touched. She may become more critical in her distress. He just withdraws.
Then one day, it happens. She decides she is done. She says to herself, “I am leaving when ________________.” Fill in the blank – “when I get a job”….”when the last child is out of the house”….”when I finish school.” Sometimes it might be, “when I find another man.” Once she has made that decision, though, she stops being so angry and frustrated…..because she….is…..done. The criticism stops. Things overtly are more peaceful around the house. He, of course, thinks he has died and gone to heaven. Friends as how his marriage is and he’ll say, “Great.”
Then the even she has waited for occurs. And with that, she leaves. He is shell-shocked. “What happened?” he asks. “How could this happen? We were doing so well.” As Weiner-Davis notes, this may be the first time he really, really gets the level of her desperation. He understands what he needs to do. However, usually it’s too late. She has moved on emotionally. She is done fire that represents her emotionally commitment to this relationship is extinguished. It is over. She has walked away.