Sudden Divorce Syndrome

One in four men who will get divorced this year don't have any clue that it's coming. Here's how to avoid that surprise.
By: John Sedgwick; Photographs: Matthu Placek

December 19, 2007

Like every husband who suddenly turns into an ex, Martin Paul, a pleasant, unassuming 51-year-old, knows exactly where he was when it happened. He was sitting on the back porch of his pricey hilltop house in the Boston suburbs one sunny Saturday morning, relaxing over coffee.

Paul is a professional collector, primarily of coins, but of other rare objects as well: Sonny Liston’s ring belt; a submarine that appeared in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me. It wasn’t easy to build up his collecting business, but he had finally got it humming, and he was pulling down close to seven figures a year. Plus, the oldest of his three sons had suffered a frightening brain injury, but after two years of treatment, he had finally recovered enough to go to college. For the first time in a very long while, life was good.

And so, that Saturday, he wanted to tell his wife he was thinking about finally easing off a little. They’d started going on expensive vacations in Europe and Hawaii, and he figured she’d be pleased at the prospect of taking more trips together, or at least at the prospect of seeing him around the house a little more, and not buried in his basement office. He had met her in graduate school over a quarter century ago, and they’d had their ups and downs, but he was still crazy about her. And he thought that, with a little more time together, she’d be crazy about him again too.

But no. She scarcely listened to any talk of retirement, or of vacations, or of anything he had to say. She had plans of her own.

“I want a divorce,” she said.

Paul was so stunned that he thought he must have misheard her. But her face told him otherwise. “She looked like the enemy,” he says. He started to think about everything he’d built: the thriving business, the wonderful family, the nice life in the suburbs. And he thought of her, and how much he still loved her. And then, right in front of her, he started to cry.

That night, he found a bottle of whiskey, and he didn’t stop drinking it until he nearly passed out.

Things turned shitty very fast. His wife took out a temporary restraining order, accusing him of attempting to kidnap their youngest son. The claim was never proved in court. Then, with the aid of some high-priced lawyers, she extracted from him a whopping $50,000 a month—a full 75 percent of his monthly income. Barred from the house, he was not allowed regular access to the office he used to generate that income. (On the few times he was permitted inside, his wife did not let him use the bathroom. She insisted that he go outside in the woods.) “My lawyer kept telling her lawyers, ‘You’re killing the Golden Goose,’ ” recalls Paul. “But they didn’t care.”

Crushed by the payments, and unable to work, he soon faced such a severe cash-flow crisis that he had to declare bankruptcy. His wife still did not relent. She charged that Paul had been abusive toward one of their sons. Paul says the charge is absurd, but it did its work, limiting his visitation rights.
Paul was sleepless and nerve wracked; his spirits plunged. He still missed his old life with his family. He missed the sound of it—the bustle of all the activity, the life. “I can’t stand the silence,” he says. “I miss hearing my wife breathe as she lay in bed beside me.” In his desperation, he twice overdosed on prescription medication, but managed to call 911 each time before the drugs took full effect, and medics rushed him to the hospital in time. “I don’t want to die,” he says wearily. “I want to live. But I can’t live with this torture.” He did manage to keep a few mementos of his former life. Pictures, mostly. But also the kids’ baby shoes. “I was always the emotional one,” he says. “But that’s all I have—the shoes, a few pictures. That’s all. I used to be jovial, happy. But not now. I’m a broken man.”

Sudden Divorce Syndrome. You won’t find it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that bible of psychiatric illnesses, but you will find it in life. In a 2004 poll by the AARP, one in four men who were divorced in the previous year said they “never saw it coming.” (Only 14 percent of divorced women said they experienced the same unexpected broadside.) And few events in a man’s life can be as devastating to his physical, mental, and financial health.

“I meet men all the time who are going through breakups, and it’s very common for them to say it caught them by surprise,” says Los Angeles–based sex therapist Lori Buckley, PsyD, host of “On the Minds of Men,” a weekly relationship podcast on iTunes. The warning signs are usually there, claims Buckley, but the male mind is simply not very adept at recognizing them. “When women make up their mind that the relationship is over, they stop talking about the relationship,” she says. “Men interpret a woman’s lack of complaining as satisfaction. But more often, it’s because she’s simply given up.”

To understand how common this scenario is, consider figures provided by John Guidubaldi, a former member of the U.S. Commission on Child and Family Welfare. Nationwide, Guidubaldi reports, wives are the ones to file for divorce 66 percent of the time, and, in some years, that figure has soared to nearly 75 percent. “It is easier to end a marriage than it is to fire an employee,” says Guidubaldi. If she wants out, it’s over. “You can get a dissolution of marriage on the basis of nothing.”

Oftentimes, men have a divorce sprung on them in midlife, when their kids are more self-sufficient and they’ve finally started to think they were over the hump. Like Martin Paul, they could start to relax. But that’s exactly the time of life when the instance of divorce begins to swell (another occurs shortly after marriage). Joe Cordell, of the law firm Cordell and Cordell, which specializes in ­representing men in domestic cases, attributes this to wives deciding as they approach age 40 that it’s now or never for getting back into the marriage market. It’s the same phenomenon as rich guys trading in their long-time partners for trophy wives. Only it’s the women who are shedding men.

It didn’t used to be this way. While divorce has been legal for nearly two centuries, it was long a topic of such mortification that it was considered a last, desperate resort. The 1960s changed all that. The free-love decade both increased the inclination to divorce and dropped the social resistance to it. The rising financial independence of women began to free them from a need to stay in a stultifying or abusive marriage. As a result, divorce soared, doubling by most measures. But the stereotypical divorce story—man marries, starts a family, meets a younger women, and leaves his wife—just isn’t as common as we are led to believe.

“Marriage changes men more pervasively and more profoundly than it changes women,” explains sociologist Steven Nock, author of Marriage in Men’s Lives. “The best way to put it is, marriage is for men what motherhood is for women.” Marriage makes men grow up. Nock observes that many men before marriage are indifferent workers, and, after hours, are likely to be found in bars or zoned out in front of a TV. After marriage, they are solid wage earners, frequent churchgoers, maybe members of a neighborhood protection association. But divorce takes that underpinning away, leaving men strangely infantilized and unsure of their place in the world. They feel like interlopers in the stands at their children’s soccer games or in the auditorium for their school plays.

Compounding this pain, men find the deck is stacked against them. The divorce system tends to award wives custody of the children, substantial child support, the marital home, half the couple’s assets, and, often, heavy alimony payments.

This may come as startling news to a public that has been led to believe that women are the ones who suffer financially postdivorce, not men. But the data show otherwise, according to an exhaustive study of the subject by Sanford L. Braver, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University and author of Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths. “The man is in a lot poorer condition than the popular media portray,” he says. “This idea of the swinging, happy-go-lucky, no-worries single guy in a bar…that’s just not it at all.” The misconception was fueled by Harvard professor Lenore Weitzman’s widely cited book, The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America.

Weitzman’s 1985 tome claimed that postdivorce women and children suffer on average a 73 percent drop in their standard of living, while the divorced men’s standard of living increased by 42 percent. Years later, Weitzman acknowledged a math error; the actual difference was 27 percent and 10 percent, respectively. But Braver says even that figure is based on severely flawed calculations. Weitzman and other social scientists ignored men’s expenses—the tab for replacing everything from the bed to the TV to the house—as well as the routine costs of helping to raise the children, beyond child support. Even the tax code favors women: Not only is child support not tax deductible for fathers, but a custodial mother can take a $1,000 per child tax credit; the father cannot, even if he’s paying. As “head of the household,” the mother gets a lower tax rate and can claim the children as exemptions. If the ex-wife remarries, she is still entitled to child support, even if she marries a billionaire. Indeed, every year men are actually thrown in jail for failing to meet their child-support obligations. In the state of Michigan alone, nearly 3,000 men were locked up for that offense in 2005.

But for many men, the real pain isn’t financial, it’s emotional: “Men depend on women for their social support and connections,” says Buckley. “When marriages end, men can find themselves far more alone than they ever expected.” In a large-scale Canadian survey, 19 percent of men reported a significant drop in social support postdivorce. Women are customarily the keepers of the social calendars, and all that is implied by that, providing for what University of Texas sociologist Norval D. Glenn calls the ­“intangibles” that can create much of a man’s sense of place in the world. More often than not, wives send out the Christmas cards; they stitched that cute Halloween costume their daughter wore in second grade; they recall the names of the neighbors who used to live two houses down. The men who bear all these unexpected burdens do so alone, in a strange place, while their ex-wives and children live in the houses that used to be theirs. For an ex-husband to enter that house can feel like trespassing, even though it was paid for with his own money, or sometimes, built with his own hands.

Long before his wife came along, a frame-store owner named Jordan Appel, 55, had built a fine house for himself atop West Newton Hill in one of the fancier Boston suburbs. He loved bringing in a wife and then adding two children. “It felt so wonderful to say ‘my wife’ and ‘my children’ and feel part of a community.” He volunteered for the preschool’s yard sale; his wife took up with a lover. Sometimes she slept with him in Appel’s own house; in time, she decided to divorce Appel. As these things go, he was obliged to leave the house, and, as it happened, the community too. Money was so tight that he ended up sleeping in a storage room above his frame shop two towns away. His ex-wife works part-time on the strength of Appel’s child custody and alimony payments, and spends time with her boyfriend in Appel’s former house. She lives rather well, and he has to make $100,000 a year to support her and the children, which amounts to 70-hour workweeks. One day, he went back to his house and discovered many of his belongings out on the sidewalk with the trash. “My body feels like it’s dissolving in anger,” he says. “I’m in an absolute rage every single day.”

“What are five of the biggest stressors a human being can face?” asks Ned Holstein, MD, executive director of Fathers and Families, a Massachusetts-based reform group for divorced dads. “One: the death of a child. Two: the loss of a spouse. Three: the loss of a home. Four: a serious financial reversal. And five: losing a relationship with a child. All of these except the first are combined in a father’s experience of divorce. People always think the man is a lone wolf and he can take care of himself. Well, he’s also a human being, and people don’t think through what that means for men.”