Beware the runaway husband

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Vikki Stark's world collapsed just before dinner.

"I'm making fish," she told her husband.

"It's over," he replied.

"Okay," she said, thinking of the chicken in the refrigerator, "we won't have fish."

"No, the marriage is over," her husband said. "I'm moving out."

The announcement came as a complete shock to Ms. Stark, a family therapist who had been happily married - or so she thought - for 21 years.

Her husband's sudden flight, and his new insistence that he had been miserable for years despite all indications to the contrary, threatened not only her vision of the future, but also her memories of the past.

Had her marriage, her happiness, all been a lie?

How could the person she thought she knew best in the world devastate her like this?

Ms. Stark grieved and raged and eventually the scholarly side of her mind started to ask questions. She had just written a book about sisters and was set to start researching the bond between brothers and sisters. But now the mystery of out-of-the-blue divorces seemed more compelling.

Ms. Stark put out a call for women who had been similarly dumped and received dozens of responses. The Sudden Wife Abandonment Project was born.

The acronym - SWAP - is no accident. In the vast majority of cases she encountered - including her own - Ms. Stark says the husband bolted a long-term marriage for another woman.

Heartbreak and betrayal are nothing new, of course. But the very abruptness of Ms. Stark's experience differentiated it from other divorce stories she knew. Rather than the slow, painful downhill slide of a failing marriage, her divorce was more like being pushed off a cliff. One minute, everything was fine and the next minute, it was over.

As she interviewed other women, Ms. Stark realized that what seemed so random to her actually followed a distinct pattern.

First came the apropos-of-nothing announcement, delivered with neither warning nor fanfare. One woman's marriage of several decades ended with a text message.

Then there was the bizarre reasoning.

Ms. Stark's husband told her that he was leaving because his daughter from a previous marriage had called off her engagement six months earlier.

One woman she interviewed said her husband wanted a divorce because after 30 years of marriage, he had decided that Aquarians and Capricorns really weren't compatible. Another man told his wife that he had to leave because he couldn't stand the drivers in Nova Scotia.

Of course, usually the real reason was another woman. Most women interviewed for the study said their husbands left straight from their home to their new girlfriend's house - or moved the new girlfriend in right after kicking them out.

The final blow in "sudden wife abandonment," Ms. Stark says, is what she calls the Gaslight syndrome, after the 1944 movie in which a husband tries to convince his wife that she is insane by, among other things, dimming and brightening the lights in the house while claiming not to notice the flickering. The husbands who left told their exes that they had never been happy in the marriage, leaving them to wonder whether they could trust their own memories.

Ms. Stark reread greeting cards her husband had sent her the year before his bombshell just to remind herself that their loving marriage wasn't all in her head. ("I love you with all of my heart and thank you for the myriad joys you bring me. You are the rock of my life. Then, now, always!")

"You have to believe in your lived experience," a friend told Ms. Stark, advice she took to heart. Many women she interviewed were devastated, even years after the split. "It feels like he plunged a knife into my chest and turned it," one woman told her.

Sudden abandonment doesn't happen only to women; men are victims too. Ms. Stark heard from one man who e-mailed her at 4 a.m. asking to participate in her study. But she believes it's more common for men to want a sudden divorce, if only because women are more inclined to talk issues over while men yearn for a clean break.

In hindsight, there are often clues: business trips that turned out to be romantic getaways with the girlfriend, for instance. Ms. Stark belatedly realized that she was part of a pattern; she was her husband's third wife, and he had split from both exes suddenly.

Abruptly cutting friends, lovers and relatives out of one's life is a warning sign, Ms. Stark says - though she doubts anyone would ever anticipate being suddenly dumped by their life partner.

"I didn't do the math," she says of her ex-spouse's previous marriages. "Of course I thought we were different; we were in love."

On her website,, Ms. Stark is seeking more women to interview for her project, which will eventually become a book, Runaway Husbands: Making Sense and Bouncing Back from a Divorce You Didn't See Coming.

When women fall apart after being dumped by their husbands, she says, they often rebuild themselves in new and exciting ways - pursuing a new career, going back to school, or just emerging as a different, stronger person.

And they find different ways to get over it. One woman turned her wedding ring into a toe ring, which she crushed against the ground every time unwanted thoughts of her husband entered her mind.

Ms. Stark's research into sudden divorce has given her a much-needed outlet, though she acknowledges that she's not exactly a disinterested observer. Still, she says she can maintain her professional standards while trying to educate and comfort those who are going through the same trauma she survived.

"I am an interested researcher," she says. "I want to give them something to help them through the night, to help rebuild their lives."