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Bella English

Marriage reaches an end, but she never saw it coming

By Bella English
May 30, 2010

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I recently heard that a couple I have known for several years was divorcing. It was a surprise to me; they’d seemed happy. But it was an even bigger surprise for the wife: She thought they were happy, too. Until her husband — a good-natured, low-key guy — walked out on her with these words: “I’m not happy and I haven’t been for years.’’

So much for their 25-year marriage that had produced two great kids, a family home, a retirement fund, a beloved dog, and the constellation of friends and relatives that make up the cheering section of a couple’s life.

“I never saw it coming,’’ says the woman, who was devastated. They hadn’t been in counseling, hadn’t ever had any major fights. On their 20th anniversary, five years earlier, they had renewed their wedding vows.

Weren’t there hints, signs, something amiss that she should’ve caught? I mean, if your husband was getting ready to bolt, wouldn’t you have even half a clue?

But then I came across a book written by Vikki Stark called “Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife’s Guide to Recovery and Renewal.’’ The book’s cover bears a fishbowl with one fish swimming contentedly and the other leaping out of the bowl.

Stark, a family therapist in Montreal, interviewed 400 women around the world who believed they were in a happy, secure marriage. Until the husband tapped them on the shoulder and said, “I’m out of here.’’

“They loved their husband, but more importantly, they thought their husband loved them,’’ says Stark. The couples ranged in age from 45 to 60, and the marriages were of some duration, not the drive-through wedding-chapel-in-Vegas thing.

These are not monster marriages out of a Tennessee Williams play or a Shakespearean tragedy. They’re “low-conflict,’’ as Stark calls them. In fact, most of the men seemed devoted — until they left, showing no remorse at all.

What happens is that a man turns middle- to late-middle-age and says: Is this all there is? “I’ve been the good son, the good husband, the good father, the good provider.’’ In 95 percent of the cases, there’s something else: another woman. Duh.

“The value of being in the marriage just drains away very suddenly and he’s just going to go for the possibility of a more exciting sexual relationship and hopes to refashion himself,’’ says Stark. “Very often, these men are salt of the earth. They’re very devoted husbands, pillars of the community, in positions of authority.’’

Here are some more factoids in Stark’s book: The girlfriends, though younger than the men, aren’t usually trophy-wife types. And most men leave their wives in November or December. (Do they want to save on Christmas gifts, or what?)

Here’s how some of the husbands broke the news to their wives. On the way to the grocery store. Over morning cereal. In a Post-it note stuck to the television. Worse, in a text message. Then there was the man who left two letters on the kitchen counter: one for the wife, one for the son.

Probably to rationalize their own bad behavior, the husbands say things like, “I never loved you,’’ and “Our marriage was never good.’’

One man said he was very social and his wife didn’t “participate enough’’ when they went to parties. Another said, “You have knee problems and I love to go hiking.’’

That’s nothing compared to Madeleine Albright’s husband, who, nominated for a Pulitzer, decided he’d stay if he won, leave if he didn’t. He didn’t win, and he didn’t stay.

Richard Rein, a psychologist and marriage counselor at Relationship Resources in Braintree, has seen this phenomenon in his practice — in both husbands and wives. Usually, he says, men who are dissatisfied tend to withdraw from the relationship instead of communicating what the issues are. Or, he may speak, but the wife isn’t listening, or isn’t taking it seriously.

Men tend to “fall into’’ affairs rather than plan them, says Rein. But for either husband or wife, once there’s emotional — not just sexual — intimacy with someone else, it’s a big threat. Still, statistics say that only 7 percent of affairs result in marriage. And, obviously, Rein usually sees clients who want to work on their marriages.

Many of you — and me, too — are thinking that the betrayed women Stark writes about are better off without these louses, these losers, these Lotharios. I asked her why the wives were caught so unaware. Wouldn’t you have a hint if your beloved was packing his bags?

“I’m a marriage and divorce counselor, and it happened to me,’’ replies Stark.

She was married 21 years. She was 57, he 59. “If you had asked me 10 minutes before he left to describe him, I would have said, he’s sweet, adorable, appreciative, affectionate, a nice husband.’’

He also apparently was sweet, adorable, appreciative, and affectionate to his girlfriend — of six years, as it turned out.

Stark had nursed him through a liver transplant, “killing myself to keep him alive,’’ as she puts it. One night, he came home from work and she said, “I bought fish for dinner.’’ He said, “It’s over.’’

Stark went into shock and mourning. Then she got even: She wrote a book. She wanted to understand what had happened, to help other women understand, and to give them strategies for getting through.

What do you do with your revenge fantasies? How about those photo albums that document a lifetime together?

Stark wants to make one thing clear: She’s not out to diss men. “There are a lot of great men out there.’’

But you won’t find them in her book.

Globe columnist Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.

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