Dear Ask Alina,
My wife announced this weekend that she wants a trial separation. I was shocked at her announcement, as I thought we had a good marriage. I am honestly so confused. This is so sudden. We have two beautiful children, she is a stay-at-home mom, I always encourage her to spend time with her girlfriends, and we always take vacations. She says there is no one else, she just is not happy. I do not want this marriage to end, what do I do?
Unfortunately, your story is not unique. Fortunately, I have seen many couples improve their marriage when they are both interested in doing the work. What you are witnessing is a walkaway wife syndrome. The truth is that your wife did not suddenly make this decision. I am assuming the two of you have had many arguments about the same topics, maybe attempted to problem-solve the situations, but ultimately the patterns continued.
Walkaway wife syndrome is a term used to characterize a woman who has decided she can no longer stay in the marriage. If you look back at her behavior, you will see that there were signs. Those signs may include: She makes more plans without you than with you, she looks happy talking to friends and annoyed talking with you, she has become distant, she no longer asks for your attention, and she no longer starts or continues arguments. These are the accumulation of all the years of conflict and unsolved patterns that ultimately brought her to a place of giving up. She probably has been contemplating this move for a long time. She most likely has a plan of what happens next. And she finally has worked up the courage to tell you.
You still may have a chance, but you will need to work hard. The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists sees a 98% success rate of couples staying together once they commit to marriage therapy. A study conducted by the American Psychiatric Association shows a 75% success rate of couples staying together after commitment to marriage therapy. However, a couple usually ends in divorce when at least one partner has already decided to separate and is using counseling to “break the news.”
Ask your wife if she is open to therapy. Make marriage your number one priority—that means it is a priority over children and work. Spend a day looking for and interviewing therapists. Make a small vetted list of prospective therapists and give it to your wife to consider. Then both of you make a choice of who to work with. As you are searching for a therapist, keep in mind that both of you should feel comfortable with the therapist. Finding a therapist is kind of like finding a life partner—there needs to be a good “fit.” This is one of the times when vanity is acceptable…do you like what the therapist sounds like, looks like, and do you feel like you connect?
Couples therapy alone is not enough. Invest time in yourself and spend time introspecting your role in this marriage. Ask yourself the following questions. Do you show your wife how you feel about her? Do you know her love language? Do you speak to her in her love language?. Do you bring external stressors into your marriage? Do you know what your triggers are? Do you listen and act on her needs?
Start to make changes. Create space every day to talk with your wife, not about tactical family needs, but about the two of you. Remember the time when you first started dating? Create space to start to get to know each other again. Ask questions about her feelings, her dreams, her worries. Listen.
Take responsibility, no shaming or blaming. Find activities the two of you can do together to bring back fun. Be attentive. Compliment your wife to others when she hears you.
Work on creating new habits. For this to work and be sustainable, you need to make changes. Who you have been as a husband has not worked, you must develop new behavior.
Relationships do not improve overnight, but they do improve when both people are committed. Continue to work on yourself and the relationship. When you find yourself once again in a complacent space, know this is a sign for introspection.
Alina Baugh is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. Ask Alina is for informational purposes only. This article does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.