My husband left me the day I returned from twenty-three days on the road for a book tour for my first book. I had driven all alone from Boston to Atlanta, across the midwest and then from San Francisco to San Diego, giving readings at bookstores in towns along the way, on the move, day after day after day. It was rough.
When it was over, I took the red eye back from San Diego. My husband picked me up at the airport and I fell in his arms in relief. I remember the softness of his brown leather jacket caressing my cheek as I hugged him tight; secure in his love, I was so happy to see him.
He dropped me off at home and went to work. When he walked in the door that evening, my world as I knew it shattered. He had an odd expression on his face and muttered, “It’s over”. I was mystified. He repeated, “It’s over and I’m leaving you right now for another woman.”
I stared at his face and was shocked to realize that I didn’t recognize it. It was as if his familiar features had rearranged themselves and hardened. The light had gone out of his eyes and instead, they had turned cold. Later, I sat on the bed crying hysterically as he threw his stuff from the closet into plastic bags. He seemed unfazed. He really seemed not to care.
Where had the man I had known gone? The one who grabbed my hand whenever we were walking down the street. The one who showered me with love and affection. Who had written me a card on our anniversary a few months earlier that read, “You are my rock, you are my life!”
That was more than a decade ago and since then, I have dedicated my life to helping women who are going through the same trauma that I experienced. I guide them from ground zero through their painful obsessing, numbness and grief, till they can reach the other side of this nightmare and rebuild their lives.
Although there are many aspects to wife abandonment, the primary one which every woman struggles with is understanding how someone who cared for her so profoundly could just stop loving. How could that light go out of his eye? How could he disconnect so completely? It is very troubling and scary because if someone you felt so close to can turn against you so categorically, how can you trust anyone? It redefines the nature of all relationships and leaves you alone, not only in the physical sense, but also existentially. And that is why Wife Abandonment Syndrome is so devastating.
When I was studying psychology, I learned of an experiment by psychologist Dr. Edward Tronick, director of UMass Boston's Infant-Parent Mental Health Program, called the Still Face Experiment. In the experiment, a mother warmly interacts with her one-year-old baby girl and the baby responds delightedly. Then the mother assumes a still face and no matter what the baby does to engage her, the mother doesn’t respond. The baby becomes more and more agitated, screeching, arching her back and reaching for her mother wildly.
Watching it now moves me profoundly because that baby is us. Our loss of our sense of safety and the security of knowing what to expect from a person we depend on completely who then stops responding and gives us a still face stirs a panic inside. The world temporarily stops making sense.
During those early months post-abandonment, women obsess endlessly about how this could have happened. How could he change and not care? The primary task of recovery is to answer that question for herself. She needs to understand the flaw in the personality of her particular husband that permitted him to have been attached for so long and then so cavalierly detach from her and typically jump to another as if she and the affair partner were interchangeable. He focuses on getting his needs of the moment met without regard for the damage done.
I understand that sometimes marriages fall apart for all sorts of reasons and can accept that men or women feel the need to leave. The unique aspect of Wife Abandonment Syndrome however is that in leaving, the husband turns against his wife with disregard for her distress. His eyes turn cold.
The task then for the wife in recovery is for her to be able to detach eventually but because she doesn’t possess that same internal flaw, for her it is not so easy. Moving on, she will need to find the courage to accept that many other people are capable of making secure lasting attachments even if her husband was not.
Click here to watch the Still Face Experiment and please share with us your own experience of your husband’s eyes turning cold below.