‘Walkaway Wives’ Hit the Point of No Return
Carolyn Baber had been married to Daniel Baber for 16 years when she decided to walk away from the relationship in 1997.
Unhappy for several years over her husband’s growing criticism of her, she had asked, even pleaded, with him to see a marriage counselor. He refused, saying he was too busy, expressing his view of therapy with a litany of expletives. She tried again and again, amplifying his withdrawal and rejection. Finally his refusals became the marriage’s death decree.
“He drew the line and said our marriage was never going to change,” said Carolyn Baber. “I felt I deserved to be happy. I didn’t want an unfulfilling marriage. I didn’t think there was any hope.”
So at 36, with two teenage daughters and a successful career as a radio station marketing executive, Baber filed for divorce. She asked her husband, for whom she felt no love anymore, to move out of their home. She would find a more fulfilling relationship, she hoped, with someone else.
Baber was what marital therapist Michele Weiner Davis calls a “walkaway wife.” Davis, who is based in Illinois, uses the phrase to describe women who give up on unsatisfying marriages to emotionally inept and hard-to-reach husbands. She borrowed the term from journalist Paul Akers, who coined it in a 1996 magazine article in which he explored why greater numbers of women file for divorce compared with men. (According to 1988 government statistics, Akers wrote, 65% of all divorces were petitioned by women with children.) Indeed, women have filed the majority of divorces since the 1950s, said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.
“When it comes to actually hiring an attorney and saying, ‘I am done,’ women, more often than not, are the ones giving up,” said Weiner-Davis, author of the new book “The Divorce Remedy” and the bestselling 1992 book “Divorce Busting.”
But women don’t usually leave until they think they have tried everything. “In the early years of the relationship, women are the primary caretakers of the relationship,” said Weiner-Davis, whose Web site https://www.divorcebusting.com has message boards dedicated to walkaway wives and walkaway husbands.
When the emotional gas tank reads empty, said Weiner-Davis, a wife usually pursues her husband for more time and closeness. He hears requests for closeness (or to see a therapist) as nagging complaints, some of which are complaints or criticism, she said. The more a woman pursues her husband for emotional connection, she added, the more she inadvertently pushes him away.
The pursue/withdraw dynamic is among the most corrosive relationship patterns, regardless of which gender does what, said Susan L. Blumberg, a Denver-based clinical psychologist who co-wrote the 2000 bestseller “Fighting for Your Marriage.”
In a 1996 national telephone poll of 1,000 couples, researchers at the University of Denver found that 46% of couples reported the husband withdrew more; 26% said the wife withdrew more; 17% said both withdrew depending on issues, and 15% of couples said both partners always confront the issue.
“Most significant is that the couples who said they never withdraw did better [on rating their relationship for] happiness, commitment, friendship and fun than the others,” said Blumberg. “Withdrawing--whether it is the man or woman--is destructive. People don’t really understand the importance of intimacy in the big picture. In the walkaway-wife syndrome, leaving comes down to a lack of intimacy and a feeling that there is nothing waiting for them in the relationship.”
Once the walkaway wife hits the wall and loses hope, said Weiner-Davis, she begins developing her “exit strategy.”
“For many women it is ‘I am leaving my marriage when my youngest graduates from high school,’ or ‘when I go back to school’ or ‘when I meet another guy”’ said Weiner-Davis. Years often pass while she hatches a plan, during which time she stops trying to save the marriage or connect with her husband, she said.
“From the husband’s perspective, no news is good news. ... In short, she stops complaining, so he assumes everything is OK,” said Weiner-Davis. “Until she says, ‘I want a divorce.”’
At which point, said Weiner-Davis, husbands often respond, “I had no idea you were unhappy. Why didn’t you tell me?” This drives the last nail into the marital coffin, she said, because the wife is incredulous and enraged that her expressions of dissatisfaction have fallen on deaf ears for so many years.
Looking back, Daniel Baber said he heard his wife’s statements of unhappiness but didn’t believe the situation was serious enough to make her want to leave. Besides, he said, since he had a degree in psychology, he felt he knew everything a therapist would tell him. When his wife announced she wanted a divorce, he was shocked, scared and devastated.
“My perception was that the problems we were having were the problems we had been having for 16 years, but I didn’t think it was something she would want to divorce me over,” said Baber, who owns a car dealership in Huntley, Ill. “I was a typical male. It is like that line in that Paul Simon song: ‘A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”’
Women who are walkaway wives feel justified in leaving because they think they have tried everything, but they have actually only said everything, said Weiner-Davis. Women are verbal; men are more responsive to action than to words. The real tragedy of the walkaway wife scenario is that when she files for divorce, when she has finally done something, he is moved to act, Weiner-Davis said.
“This is when most husbands who value the marriage are willing to do anything to keep their wives from leaving,” said Weiner-Davis. “They are calling for therapy, buying self-help books and doing marriage workshops.”
Suddenly, roles are reversed. Husbands become the pursuers; wives the pursued.
For some walkaway wives, who’ve spent years barricading their wounded feelings, it is too late.
“‘Why now? It is too late,’ the wives will say,” said Weiner-Davis. Some women don’t believe the changes will last. Other women make the leap of faith that their husband’s transformation into Mr. Sensitivity is more than situational.
Weiner-Davis doesn’t advocate women filing for divorce to get their husbands to sit up and take notice. Rather, her hope is that women will find constructive ways to move their husbands to be more responsive. “I say in my divorce-busting seminars, ‘I never met a man who, when his wife nags, wants to spend more time with her,”’ said Weiner-Davis.
Research shows that the best way to modify someone’s behavior is by positive reinforcement. “Catch them in the act of getting it right and bring on the fanfare,” she said. “A classic is a woman who says, ‘I need more help in the kitchen’ when he does the dishes. Instead of saying, ‘Thank you,’ she says, ‘Why don’t you wipe off the counters?”’
Rare is the woman who has petitioned for divorce who will give her husband another shot. By that time, the walkaway wife is gone emotionally and physically. The only way a husband can wend his way back to her heart is if she will give him another chance and forgive him. Carolyn Baber was just such a woman. Daniel Baber started seeing a marital therapist when he was served with divorce papers. Later, the couple saw the therapist together. After a two-month separation, they reunited; the divorce papers remained unsigned.
“I realized I can’t control other people, but I can control myself,” said Daniel Baber, who said he realized he blamed his wife for imperfections in his life and the marriage. “I found every other person outside of myself to place blame. It was a revelation. Now, instead of being critical, I can be appreciative of my wife and family. We both have been able to recognize the patterns of behavior that were destructive to our marriage and have all the affection and love without the crap.”