When you just didn’t see it coming

One minute your marriage is great; the next, your husband says he’s leaving—for good

On the evening of Nov. 7, 2006, Vikki Stark’s life imploded. The Montreal-based marriage counsellor had just greeted her husband of 21 years with a hug and the news they were having fish for dinner. “I can’t do this anymore,” he responded. It took her a moment to realize he was talking about their marriage, not seafood. “I was side-swiped,” she says. “It was as if my dog had just started speaking French.” Within the week, he’d left to join the woman with whom he’d been having a six-year affair.

Still reeling from the devastation, Stark parlayed her heartbreak into a career niche. Today, she’s the reigning authority on wife abandonment syndrome, or WAS, its fittingly poignant acronym, a behavioural pattern she has identified and one that she says is more common than we know. Her website, runawayhusbands.com, serves as a support network for strafed wives, the target audience for her upcoming book, Runaway Husbands: Making Sense and Bouncing Back from a Divorce You Didn’t See Coming, based on case studies of 224 women. The stories of betrayal and duplicity relayed on the site are straight out of film noir. One woman says her husband packed up and drove away two days after they visited her OB/GYN to plan having a baby. Another man married 33 years tried to wait for his 66-year-old wife’s inheritance to be paid out to their joint-chequing account before fleeing.

As stories on the site attest, runaway wives exist too, but their behaviour isn’t as textbook, Stark says. WAS manifests itself in an out-of-the blue announcement, often during a mundane conversation. One man left a note on the kitchen table: “I have moved out. Divorce papers served tomorrow. Don’t call me.” Like Stark, most women afflicted by WAS assumed their marriages were strong. Stark says her husband, a university professor, was always extremely affectionate and appreciative. Often, he’d send cards proclaiming “You are my rock, you are my life, today and forever,” she says. “And he never, ever once said, ‘I am unhappy.’ ”

As in Stark’s case, WAS almost always happens between November and January, timing she attributes to men being unwilling to put on a false happy holiday face. Or because their girlfriend (and there’s invariably a girlfriend in the wings) is applying pressure. It usually afflicts those in the mid-life-crisis years in decades-long marriages.

The reasons men provide for exiting tend to be flimsy. One woman’s husband told her: “You left too many shoes by the back door.” Of course, the real reason is simple, if difficult to say: he wants out. And it’s non-negotiable, a rip-the-Band-Aid-off-quickly approach to separation. Only in hindsight do wives say there were warning signs they ignored.

Divorce lawyers, who view WAS from a different perspective, say such omens always exist. “People just don’t see them,” says Toronto family law practitioner Alexandra Seaton. A classic indicator of a husband about to bolt, she says, is an unexpected, over-the-top act of generosity: “They try to appease the women ahead of time, so they buy them big, honking pieces of jewellery, or they throw big parties for them, or they go on a big holiday because they’re trying to cover up whatever they’re doing.” Seaton, who has also seen blindsided husbands sobbing in her office, believes that once you delve deeper, problems reveal themselves. “You find out they haven’t had sex for a year and a half. Or that they don’t really talk. They just assumed everything was okay.”

That describes Stark who, while ministering to unhappy marriages for decades, never took the temperature of her own: “I never said ‘How are you doing?’ and it might have made a difference,” she says. She also ignored red flags at the outset. Her husband had been married twice before and had a history of dumping one woman for another. But, as humans do, she saw herself as the exception. “We fell in love so intensely that there was no stopping it,” she says. Now she knows that if a man complains about being miserable at work, it could be code for ‘I’m so unhappy in my life.’ ” She’s also now leery of grandiose “you are my rock” sorts of declarations.

Paradoxically, Stark never ran into WAS at work. After all, it can’t happen to couples in therapy because they’re not under the delusion their marriages are hunky-dory. Which, when you think of it, makes marriage counselling an obvious if ironic antidote for WAS. Another is paying attention. And crossing your fingers.