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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
BRINKLEY, E. (1998). The Dynamics of Marital Disintegration. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 1. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved September 25, 2023 .

The Dynamics of Marital Disintegration
Missouri Western State University DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (cronk@missouriwestern.edu)
Marriage is a basic and vital institution upon which our society is built. In review of the literature, it is evident that sudden endings in marriages are quite common. Spousal abandonment occurs when a marriage breakup is initiated by one partner, the leaver, without much forewarning, or perceived forewarning bye the other partner, the leavee. Much of the literature focuses on divorce in general, or how divorce affects one particular gender. This research provides a more unbiased perspective on the phenomenon of spousal abandonment. It identifies some of the patterns of behavior and perceptions of both the leavers and the leavees in sudden marriage breakups in hopes that future research will be stimulated and draw implications for counseling and prevention.

The ceremony of marriage involves a symbolic joining of two becoming one. This implies that over the years of the relationship each partner`s identity comes to include the other`s. This identity shift is a normal aspect of marriage; a person`s "I" includes an identification of being part of a couple. In a long term relationship, spouses` lives become interwoven and divorce can leave a major gap in a person`s sense of "I," for whether the relationship is "good" or "bad," the identity shift implies no longer seeing the spouse as just a love object but includes the spouse as part of one`s own identity (Schell, 1990).

Spanier and Thompson (1983) find that individuals dealing with spouse initiated separation report greater distress levels. Timing also plays a role; separations without much forewarning are significantly more disturbing (Spanier & Casto, 1979). Schell (1994) suggests that human beings inhabit a literal and symbolic reality and so a divorce can symbolize a literal death that must be grieved. Stevens and Gardner (1994, p. 121) cite the work of Cassidy in saying that

`Next to the death of a loved one, a divorce is the most severe trauma an adult can experience. Every emotional reaction is possible: anger, despair, guilt, depression, anxiety, fear, loneliness, euphoria.`

It is proposed that abandoned spouses go through clinically much of the same processes as widows whose spouses have died (Schell, 1994). Physical and mental symptoms occur such as preoccupation with the lost person, guilt, restlessness, hypervigilance and difficulty sleeping (Myers, 1989).

Further, the abandonee faces bereavement without the benefit of normal community support, without the custom of rituals, and often without an internal awareness that grieving will take place. This lack of awareness can lead to denial and, therefore, prolong the grief. Shell (1994) quotes on abandoned woman as saying, "I wish he had actually died -- it would be much easier." A literal death would have led to grief but much less the feeling of rejection, and would have provided a context in which social support would have occurred. It would have included normal aspects of the grieving process that help move along the bereavement process -- a gathering of the families, the funeral and burial, the signing of legal forms, the sorting of possessions and the reading of wills. Symbolic death causes the rejected to face legal details that magnify the struggle of rejection. Schell (1994) provides an outline of the consequences of having lost a spouse through his or her decision to leave.

Initially it brings about shock and disbelief. Friends tend to provide support briefly for grief and longer for the anger that follows. Abandonees are then encouraged to move on in life. It is often not acknowledged that a death, albeit a symbolic death has occurred, not even by the abandonee. Schell proposes that this lack of acknowledgement may be symptomatic of "our individual resistance to face the many deaths that are inherent in a rapidly changing culture."

Increasingly, the best psychological theories of the marital satisfaction and divorce distress phenomena make use of the attachment theory of Bowlby. Marriage provides an opportunity to reestablish attachment relationships that were experienced in early childhood (Stevens & Gardner, 1994). Bowlby (1969) defines attachment as "the propensity of human beings to make strong affectional bonds to particular others." His theory proposes that attachments between parent and child determine the characteristic ways in which a person`s attachments are organized in adult life (Bowlby, 1980). Intense emotions arise during the formation, the maintenance, the disruption, and the renewal of attachment relationships. Loss of attachment causes sorrow and often is a phase of sorrow. Bowlby`s attachment theory, as considered by Kitson(1982), provides an explanation for not only grief over loss through death, but through separation and divorce too, just as Schell (1990) stresses. Attachment is always present in dissolving marriages. Greater feelings of attachment tend to exist the more recent the separation, and when one spouse asks for the separation. Attachment is seen as the primary cause of distress in divorce (Myers, 1989). It is a very powerful force, continuing even after the relationship has ended or is no longer rewarding (Kitson, 1982).

Bowlby (1980) presents four phases of mourning in the loss of a spouse -- 1) Numbing, 2) Yearning and Searching, 3) Disorganization and Despair, and 4) Phase of Greater or Lesser Disorganization and Despair. The Phase of Numbing lasts from a few hours to about a week and is marked by being stunned and unable to accept the news. The bereaved may carry on with normal life automatically but will feel tense and apprehensive; this calm is often broken by an outburst of emotion. Some report attacks of panic and say they find refuge with friends. Others may become very angry.

The Phase of Yearning and Searching for the lost figure occurs when reality sets in, and extreme distress, sobbing, restlessness, and preoccupation of thoughts of the lost are present. There is tendency to think that the lost will return and vivid dreams of the lost are common. Anger is also very common. The Phase of Disorganization and Despair requires the bereaved to achieve what Bowlby calls reorganization or a redefining of self. The bereaved must recognize the need of filling unaccustomed roles and acquiring new skills. If the bereaved can achieve these new roles, more confidence and sense of independence will result, they will be able to see a future for themselves (Bowlby, 1980).

Bowlby`s idea of reorganization of the bereaved having to redefine their identity brings to the mind Erikson`s theory of identity which also greatly relates to the institution of marriage and its disintegration. Erikson`s psychosocial modality of identity is to be oneself and to be able to share being oneself with others (Erikson, 1959). The achievement of identity, therefore, must come before the achievement of intimacy, and intimacy with another is a sharing of one`s identity. Intimacy as Erikson defines it is to lose and find one`s self in another (Erikson, 1959). Intimacy with another human being, therefore, has a great impact on a person`s identity. When this intimacy or attachment is severed, identity is enormously affected, just as Bowlby demonstrates through his attachment theory and idea of the need to reorganize.

Erikson`s counterpart to intimacy is distantiation, the readiness to repudiate, to ignore or to destroy those forces or people whose essence seems dangerous (Erikson, 1959). A spouse who abandons resembles this distantiation. Spousal abandonment happens to both men and women and affects men and women in different ways. The current literature takes a very segregated approach in exploring the phenomena of spousal abandonment for each of the sexes.

Amanat and Wiebmer (1985) employ the developmental theory of Erikson to explain spousal abandonment of women. They consider Erikson`s theory to be male oriented, saying that his eight stages of the life cycle (Trust vs. Mistrust, Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt, Initiative vs. Guilt, Industry vs. Inferiority, Identity vs. Diffusion, Intimacy vs. Isolation, Generativity vs. Stagnation, and Integrity vs. Despair) are colored by the concept of autonomy, it being more socially encouraged and desirable in males. Author of the article, "Women`s Difficult Times and the Rewriting of the Life Story," Helson (1992) agrees with this notion and notes the observation of feminist critics in their comparing of literature that heroic stories of men most often begin in the youth stages while stories of female heroines are told as though the woman`s life, her heroism, begins upon marriage.

In order to achieve identity and then intimacy, a person must first relinquish attachment needs of childhood and become more autonomous. Further, the stages of generativity and integrity are heavily intertwined with work achievements and work to establish identity in the world. A person`s work achievements and independent identity in the world do not coincide with furthering attachment and bonding with another person (Amanat & Wiebmer, 1985). Amanat and Wiebmer present the notion that Erikson presents the female identity development as including attraction to and dependence on a male. A female`s identity has much to do with intimacy, therefore, her identity is "contaminated by bonding needs" (Amanat & Wiebmer, 1985).

The authors also find Mahler`s theory of individuation as a source of explaining spousal abandonment of women. Mahler`s theory includes several stages (in the first three years of life) necessary to accomplish "object constancy." The autistic presymbiotic stage is marked by isolation, self-stimulation, and attraction to human contact. Attachment, bonding, dependence, clinging, and imitative thinking are present in the symbiotic stage. The third stage necessary to achieve object constancy is separation individuation. It involves rapproachment, anxiety, ambivalence, fears of engulfment-abandonment, and mutative thinking (Amanat & Wiebmer, 1985).

Mahler and Erikson`s theories both depict a male who is detached, distant, and individuated. But, it is assumed that during the intimacy stage the male does "demonstrate adequate bonding capacity." So, since women`s achievement of individuation is inferior to men`s, they tend to play a "dependent-passive, masochistic role with a heavy emphasis on self-depreciation." For women there is a natural fusion between identity and intimacy. This fusion between often leads to oppression and trauma (Amanat & Wiebmer, 1985).

Amanat and Wiebmer have defined what they call Women`s Integrity Trauma Syndrome (WITS) as "only one of the manifestations of this total picture." For, they relate, since a woman`s "natural" relationship style tends to be symbiotic, when feeling inferior she often enters into a dyadic, authoritarian relationship. Such a relationship would be one of dominance, submission, and complementarity. It would likely include a Type A (dominating, controlling, oppressive) male, and a Type B (passive, dependent, masochistic) female. The woman would receive her sense of identity or validation and integrity by being part of this relationship. She would idealize her husband, be socioeconomically dependent, experience guilt and shame, and display a false sense of romance. Her ultimate fear, and ultimate devastation, when and if it occurred, would be abandonment (Amanat & Wiebmer, 1985).

Such a woman`s dependence would exploit her husband, making her feel a sense of control. The dominant, demanding male feeling superior, would encourage his wife`s dependence. His need to be idealized would promote feelings of guilt and helplessness in his spouse. He would usually be committed to a long term relationship even when he feels exploited and persecuted (Amanat & Wiebmer, 1985).

In their work with twenty-two middle-aged women whose husbands abandoned them, Amanat and Wiebmer (1985) found the women to be lodged firmly in the development needs and authoritarian dyads. The women experienced a sense of loss and annihilation, a loss of a sense of purpose, an intense self-blaming, a suicidal ideation, and physical symptoms. Their symptoms were viewed as more resembling "self-threatening traumas than typical grief reactions of denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance." The authors describe three phases of the Women`s Integrity Trauma Syndrome.

The initial phase or alarm phase, like in post-traumatic stress disorder syndromes, lasts several days to weeks. It characterized by feelings of shattering annihilation, hyperemotionalism, severe guilt, depression, shame, worthlessness, humiliation, helplessness, bitterness, and multiple fears. The woman may also experience a survival challenge, blocking of thoughts, suicide ideation, somatic complaints, a sense of vulnerability, and a profound sense of nothingness (Amanat & Wiebmer, 1985).

Phase two of WITS is the reorganization phase. This phase is marked by a prevalence of symbiotic clinging and attachment. Common responses include alcohol or drug use, regressive behaviors, nightmares, and hypochondriasis. The last phase of WITS is the adaptation phase and Amanat and Wiebmer (1985) observe it to be almost impossible to achieve because of such complicating factors as a "concreteness of formal thinking," a lack of social support, or limitation of interests. It is also noted that a failure to make progress in this adaptation can lead to psychotic reactions (Amanat & Wiebmer, 1985).

The authors propose some interesting implications for the therapy of WITS victims. They report finding it necessary to accept clients` sense of nothingness because when they tried to "talk them out of it," the women`s feelings of annihilation increased. When the women felt that their feelings of nonexistence were accepted, they were more trusting of the therapist and their own perceptions (Amanat & Wiebmer, 1985).

The therapists then could allow the women to self-blame. The therapists found that becoming "somewhat of a `replacement` for their lost dyadic halves" helped the women to "develop trusting alliance and gradually work them out of their misery" (Amanat & Wiebmer, 1985).

Madeline Bennett, author of the book Sudden Endings, and herself a victim of what she labels Wife Rejection Syndrome, also offers some insight on the phenomena of female spousal abandonment. Bennett`s work, although biased, provides a thorough psychoanalytical explanation of sudden rejections in marriages, especially of wife rejection for she feels that it is more common. Bennett describes Wife Rejection Syndrome as the husband`s defense mechanism against overwhelming feelings of anger, shame and guilt, resulting in his abandonment of his wife.

The author sees her informal solicitation of twenty-five wife rejection cases as evidence for its commonality. She used three sets of questions to separate the cases of abandonment to be classified as wife rejection syndrome. The cases she evaluated included the wife`s account of her husband`s integrity, the wife`s expectations for marital longevity and the wife`s report of her magnitude of shock. These criteria were an attempt to screen out fragile marriages, especially marital breakdown due to drug or alcohol abuse (Bennett, 1991).

Many commonalities were found in these interviews. The rejected women reported their husbands to have been well-regarded in the community, to have left hastily without remorse, to have expressed elation at their decision, and to have followed up with acts of persecution, either, or both financially and emotionally. Much of the motivation for researching and writing of wife rejection syndrome for Bennett came after she sought therapy and found no satisfactory treatment or information. She says that the therapists were pessimistic and unwilling to counsel her and her husband together. They suggested that she stay away from her husband and seek individual therapy. Bennett, reports, however, that she found psychoanalytical therapists as more willing to discuss the syndrome and treat the family as a whole (Bennett, 1991).

Another characteristic Bennett says that she observed of therapists of "other persuasions" was that they appeared to blame the wife. She reports that many of the therapists that she interviewed in seeking therapy thought that "the seeds of wife rejection germinate over a long period of time," that an observant wife could not "be blind to such deterioration." Bennett, as a victim, disagrees. She describes the wives` "blindspot" as "innocence about the reversibility of good and bad" (Bennett. 1991).

Bennett uses the framework of object relations and compensatory psychological defenses to develop an interpretation for behavior that seems to defy reason and common sense. She finds explanation for the behavior of a husband who seems happy in a marriage taking steps to dissolve it without telling his wife, who separates from his wife in haste, then exaggerates his grievances, and who after abandonment acts as if he were the wronged party (Bennett, 1991).

The theory of object relations, briefly, is relating to others less as a autonomous persons but as reflections and refractions of our own personal fantasies and fixations. In regards to wife rejection, Bennett terms this "bad object rage"--the delusion of husbands that their poisonous feelings of self-hate have been transferred to their wives. This helps justify the irrational anger and punishment of their wives that occurs after the rejection -- they are carriers of all the bad of themselves that they need to disown. Bennett calls this strong aversion the Chernobyl effect. The husband treats the wife as if she is radioactive, as if her physical presence is threatening to him (Bennett, 1991).

Of course, something must trigger all of these negative feelings. Bennett notes that in the pattern of rejection, in this chain reaction, there is most commonly a trauma -- for example, a business failure or loss of employment. This trauma is what triggers the projective identification, the husband`s transplant of his aggressive and destructive feelings onto his wife. They substitute the wife for all of the bad that they see in themselves because they cannot tolerate it (Bennett, 1991).

Bennett cites more psychoanalytical research in her attempts to explain rejecting husbands` persecution of their wives. Everyone at one time, experiences a trauma, a great failure in life, not everyone, though, rejects and blames his spouse. Explanation for such persecuting actions, Bennett believes, are found in the research of self-disorders (Bennett, 1991).

Character and self-disorders are characterized by the tendency to avoid introspection and transfer responsibility for all failings to outside sources. Bennett observes the narcissistic personality, one of courting admiration, repulsing criticism, and denying dependency, as one defining the rejecting husband. How do such narcissistic personalities transpire? Bennett comments that loving wives do not compensate for unloving parents. She cites research that children who have a lack parental approval and support of individuality cannot rely on their own emotions, have no sense of real needs, are alienated from self, cannot separate from parents, and constantly depend on affirmation from others. Bennett also cites the good-mother, bad-mother research of Melanie Klein, psychoanalyst. When a child experiences a lack of parental approval, the bad-mother perception is reinforced and all proceeding intimate relationships are affected. Bennett labels this phenomena as a "bonding crisis," and adds that often, when one intimate relationship is ended, a new one is quickly developed to compensate (Bennett, 1991).

Bennett offers advise to wives seeking therapy or information on wife rejection syndrome. She strongly feels that the syndrome needs to be studied so that it can be more easily assessed and alarms can sound. Bennett encourages rejected wives to go to therapists with a psychoanalytical approach so that unconscious beliefs can be explored (Bennett, 1991).

In Helson`s (1992) study of the themes of women`s difficult life times, she identifies abandonment as a commonly reported "most difficult time." She refers to the reports of abandonment as "sequelae of independence and assertiveness" because she found that all of the women who reported such an experience had become absorbed in their careers or in community leadership at the time of their spouse`s leaving. This observation is somewhat consistent with the notion of Amanat and Wiebmer of the authoritarian dyadic relationship where the woman must remain passive and dependent, imitating the thinking of and idealizing the man (Helson, 1992).

Helson (1992) too observed that the women were greatly distressed at their spouses` departures and "engaged in much soul searching in addition to reorganized efforts to support themselves and their children." The conclusion of Helson regarding women being abandoned is that such cases are representative of women`s quest for an independent identity, and to be able to work, to examine, to amplify, and to live with it. Helson also points out women`s reports of "bad partners" as a common difficult time in their lives. She says that a woman experiences her "awakening in life later that a man, usually after marriage, and that in her awakening she often becomes aware of many fears and resentments she feels towards her husband. The woman also becomes aware of many patterns that were previously taken for granted or unconscious. In discovering that her spouse has characteristics that are undesirable and unbearable, she will most often divorce as soon she summons up the strength to do so (Helson, 1992).

Men who perceive their separations as sudden often have wives who report that the marriage has been troubled for a long period and that their husbands have refused to recognize this and seek therapy. These women do eventually prepare themselves psychologically and take steps to end the marriage (Myers, 1989). Much literature regarding men and divorce notes that women are more frequently the initiators of marital separation, especially women who are less traditional in their marital sex-role orientations (Bloom & Hodge, 1981; Myers, 1986). Men not only initiate separation less, they usually perceive less benefits to separation (Myers, 1989). Further, divorce is often more catastrophic for men. That marriage is usually more satisfying for men than for women helps to explain this (Stevens & Gardner, 1994).

Major differences exist in how men and women deal with separation (Myers, 1986). Women usually have a stronger social support network in place at the time of the separation, so men as the rejectees feel more isolated (Bloom & Hodges, 1981). Men feel cut off from their vital social roles and experience a loss of social meaning and purpose. They have less day-to-day stress and responsibility but feel alienated and out of control (Myers, 1986).

The emotional toll is equal to and perhaps greater than the effect on women. Men more often commit suicide or homicide after divorce (Stevens & Gardner, 1994). It has long been known also that separated and divorced men have higher psychiatric morbidity and mortality rates than separated and divorced women (Bloom, Asher, & White, 1978). In his study of 177 divorced men, Kitson (1982) found that eighty-six percent of them reported or indicated some signs of attachment to their ex-spouse. He observed that the attachment was greater the more recent the separation and also when the separation was initiated by the spouse.

Traditionally, men are socialized to be independent, dominant, competitive, aggressive, and unemotional. They are to be the socializers and providers of the family. At work, men are not rewarded for the state or quality of their marriage, but simply for being married (Myers, 1986). Myers (1989) notes the psychoanalytical argument that exaggerated, hypermasculine behaviors are rooted in unconscious anxiety about the feminine facets of men`s personalities. Such feelings of emasculation, impotence, and passivity are common in abandoned husbands (Myers, 1989).

Anger is also a very common reaction in abandoned males (Dinnerstein, 1976; Halle, 1982). This is explainable through the psychoanalytical notion that man is having an adult reaction to the "all powerful mother-dyad"( Dinnerstein, 1976). Adler`s concepts of psychological inferiority and masculine protest are cited to help in explaining the anger in abandoned husbands. Abandoned husbands no longer fit into the societal expectations of masculinity as being valuable, strong, and victorious (Myers, 1986). Anger is one of Kressel`s (1980) stages of coping with divorce -- denial, mourning, anger, and readjustment are the four stages he identifies.

Myers (1989) poses the question, "To what degree are the abandoned husband`s rage, retaliatory fantasy or propensity to violence defenses against narcissistic injury?" Myers feels that the answer to this question lies in the level of the individual`s own personality and in peculiarities of the marriage itself. He delineates five sub-groups of angry, abandoned husbands and describes the features of each. The five sub-groups he identifies are the overtly aggressive, the passive aggressive, the depressed, the sexist, and the passive dependent (Myers, 1986).

The overtly aggressive abandoned men display clearly visible anger and openly acknowledge it. They are completely against the separation and usually refuse therapy. Some of these men are physically assaultive in the marriage and threaten future physical harm upon their ex-wives. Many of these men try to manipulate their wives into reconciliation through ploys. The passive aggressive men passively resist the separation by procrastinating suggestions of therapy, forgetting appointments, and refusing to negotiate on separation disputes. Some refuse to leave the home and demean their wives to others (Myers, 1986).

The men who become severely depressed after marital separation often exhibit suicidal and homicidal tendencies (Myers, 1986). In Myer`s study some of these men benefitted from medication and psychotherapy. Some were hospitalized. Men who are highly traditional in their roles, investing most of their energy outside of the home in quests for money, power, and status, and dismissing their wives` concerns over trouble in the marriage are classified as sexist by Myers. These men usually will not seek counseling until their marriages are unbearable or they have been abandoned. When they do seek therapy it is awkward, embarrassing and frightening. When these husbands` wives threaten or act on separating they tend to give lavish gifts (Myers, 1986).

The passive dependent group tend to be younger abandoned husbands who are characteristically overly dependent on their wives. Their wives often make decisions regarding work, household management, choosing recreation, buying clothes, etc., for them. Most of them marry at an early age having never lived apart from their parents before living with their wives, and so have unresolved separation-individuation conflicts. Often the wives of these passive dependent men find new living arrangements for their ex-husbands upon separation. And, the women feel a sense of renewed freedom and reduced guilt when their ex-spouses begin therapy (Myers, 1986).

Myers (1986) also explores some complicating factors for abandoned husbands. He observes that men whose wives begin a new relationship before or after the separation experience a more intense sense of abandonment and anger. Sometimes the abandoned man will express an inappropriate forgiving, understanding attitude in place of rage as an attempt to compete with the other man or to woo his wife back to him. He may, too, experience impotence, and great difficulty in achieving intimacy and equality in future relationships (Myers, 1986).

Suspiciousness and mistrustfulness is common in abandoned husbands also. What Myers calls "de novo suspiciousness" is rational but longstanding suspiciousness may have been present throughout the man`s life. He may hold very traditional sex role expectations which are accepted all around him. His suspiciousness may be deeply rooted in his individual psychopathology (Myers, 1989).

Myers (1986) addresses some implications for counseling abandoned men, but they can also apply to abandoned women. He says that therapists need to promote ventilation of feelings, regaining of self-esteem, retrusting of women (or men), reestablishment of intimacy in new relationships, avoidance of self-destructive behavior, and an enhancement of fathering (or mothering) and co-parenting skills. Therapists also need to be aware of counter-transference potentials in counseling angry, abandoned husbands, or wives (Myers, 1986).

A same sex therapist may get caught up in the patient`s anger and miss the underlying hurt, loneliness, and bewilderment. An opposite sex therapist may over nurture and provide little direction toward the development of independence. Or, the therapist may be intimidated by the rejectee`s rage and lose sight of professional objectivity (Myers, 1986). Myers (1986) also stresses that a therapist must keep abreast of important research regarding changing sex roles, incorporate this information, and give attention to their own, personal sex role evolution.

In review of the literature, it is evident that sudden endings in marriages are quite common and that changing marital sex roles play a great role in marital disintegration. Much of the literature focuses on divorce in general, or how divorce affects a particular sex. There are multiple goals for the following research. There is a need to identify patterns of behavior and specific, common characteristics in spousal abandonment. Identifying the different perceptions of events in both the leaver and the leavee can help to integrate the now delineated effects on men and women, on all those who leave and who are left. The literature indicates that is possible that specific theoretical approaches in counseling, may possess potentials for negative or positive effects can be identified.

Marriage is a basic and vital institution upon which our society is built. This research hopes to promote and encourage awareness of its disintegration through spousal abandonment, and to stimulate more research directed toward the issue directly.


Ten individuals, at least thirty years of age participated in the project. Participants who reported being left by their spouses suddenly will be referred to as "leavees." Those who left their spouses will be called "leavers." Alcohol and substance abuse were not major factors in these marriage breakups.


To recruit participants, ads were placed in two midwestern cities` newspapers and in one weekly magazine (The Pitch Weekly). Also, bulletins were circulated to the employees of a medium sized, midwestern college campus. The ads and bulletins listed the criteria of the study and information on how to respond.

Initially, the participants completed a Background Information form which collected basic demographics and some short answer questions about the marriage ending. The items on this form appear in Appendix A.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) was also completed by the participants before being interviewed. This test is generally employed to obtain information about how a person perceives and judges things. The initial intent of this survey was to have the participant complete the MBTI, and through recruitment of the ex-spouse, the MBTI preference scales of the partners would be compared.

Recruitment of the ex-spouses was not possible, so, no meaningful conclusions were made from the MBTI data. In this case, the personality survey served as an incentive for participation. Respondents seemed to enjoy receiving brief explanations of their results. The MBTI results are noted in Appendix B.

A structured interview was developed and employed to obtain an overview of the respondents` experiences. The open-ended questions on the interview fell into one the following five categories: 1) A Description of the Marriage, 2) The Process of Disintegration, 3) The Next Year, and 4) The "Big Picture" -- In Retrospect. The Structured Interview is shown in Appendix C.

Upon analysis, participants` responses to the interview questions were grouped according, not to the above categories, but to what appeared to be the key factors in each of the marriage breakups. These factors are marital sex roles, communication, conflict resolution, external factors, family of origin discrepancies, perception of spouse before and after the breakup, and the participant`s overall personal experience of the breakup. Appendix D reveals the interview items that were used to obtain participants` descriptions of each of these factors. The informed consent which respondents read and signed appears in Appendix E. The consent notified interviewees of the confidential nature of the study and made it clear that its purpose was solely for research, not to provide counseling services.


After responding to the ad or bulletin, participants were

sent the background form and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and the informed consent release. Upon completing this initial packet, the respondents returned it, and an interview was scheduled. At the interview, the open-ended questions were presented to the participants to gain an overall description of their experience

The small number of respondents in this study is unfortunate and adds to the difficulty in reaching solid conclusions with the qualitative data. As mentioned earlier, the MBTI provided no meaningful data in this study. The structured interview has revealed some useful observations though, observations that provide a less gender biased and more integrated view of spousal abandonment.

Of the ten respondents, seven were left by their spouses. Four of these leavees were women and three of them men. The three leavers interviewed were all women. No male leavers responded to share their experiences.

As aforementioned the following are considered key factors in all of the marriage breakups described: marital sex roles, communication, conflict resolution, external factors, family of origin discrepancies, perception of spouse before and after the breakup, and the participants` overall personal experience of the breakup. It appears that the reports given by all of the participants, the men and women leavees, and the women leavers, regarding these marital variables are quite similar. Of course, the leavers` personal experiences and reactions to the marriage breakups contrast to those of the leavees in most cases.

But, the overall conditions and surrounding events of each of the described marriage breakups are quite similar. In all of the marriage breakups, there existed some type of marital sex role shift on the part of one of the spouses which was not mutual. Communication in all of the respondents` marriages was never described as effective, nor was conflict resolution. A lack of, or, great decline in sexual intimacy was also apparent in each relationship.

In every relationship, an absence of "good" in-law relations was reported. Other family of origin discrepancies were also present in most of the sudden marriage breakups. The external factors surrounding and leading up to the spousal abandonments were also very alike in many of these cases, as will be realized when the experiences of each subgroup, the women leavees, the men leavees, and the women leavers are summarized. Appendices F, G, and H highlight some of the findings and comments about each of the above factors, as told by the women leavees (Appendix F), the men leavees (Appendix G), and the women leavers (Appendix H).

Characteristic of all the women leavees` breakup experiences was the presence of traditional marital role expectations on the part of the abandoning husbands. Regardless of the women`s role expectations, they all reported being quite egalitarian in all other roles except for childrearing and housekeeping. Much of the conflicts in these marriages occurred when the women began making as much or more money than their husbands.

Three of the men in these relationships offered no explanation for their decisions to leave, and now have no, or very little contact with their ex-wives. All of these women describe their husbands` abandonment as being traumatic. Some of their reactions include loss of self respect, inability to trust men, depression, thoughts of suicide, weight loss, and bitterness. Only one woman leavee now says that she sees the divorce as "positive," she says, "I changed and he didn`t." She feels that she has become more independent and mature from her experience.

Although all of the men leavees reported feeling shocked about their wives leaving them, to one of these men it was a "release." He described the roles in his marriage as being very traditional. He was the breadwinner, initiator of sexual intimacy, decision maker, and disciplinarian to the children, while she was the primary childcare giver and homemaker. This man admitted that he was unfaithful throughout the marriage, and he explained that his wife`s suspiciousness led to her great mental illness. She left him quite suddenly. After suffering a miscarriage, she left with the children and went to her parents`, never speaking to him again.

The other two men both described their marriage roles as rather egalitarian, however, these men`s wives both expressed to their husbands that they felt they needed to "be free" or that they were "limited," one to the point of considering suicide. Both left their husbands and sought romantic relationships with other women. As will be discussed later, two of the women leavers reported similar feelings as these abandoning women, and also left their marriages to seek lesbian relationships.

For all of the men the major conflict in their marriages was money. And, all expressed not being very successful in general at resolving any conflicts. None of the men leavees` marriages included good in-law relationships, and all of the men said that their own childhoods were more stable than their wives. The two men whose wives left them to seek lesbian relationships say that after leaving, their wives became "unpredictable," but more independent.

One of these men said his wife changed from being "shy and insecure" to being "selfish and opportunistic." He reported that her abandonment left him "devastated," and he suffered a nervous breakdown. The other man whose wife left him for a woman said that he was "more hurt than angry." He expressed that he felt feelings of rejection, sadness, and despair, and "acted out" by dating frivolously to convince himself that he was "okay." He, like the other man, said that friends and colleagues were supportive, but this man`s family made him feel guilty, as if they were "ashamed" of what had happened. Both of these men reported acquiring an "elevated skepticism," but are now less dependent.

In all of the women leavers` marriages, conventional marital sex roles were apparent. The husbands of these women never verbally expressed any doubts of the marriage, and only one of these women ever told her husband she was thinking about divorce. These women all agreed that when it came to conflict, their husbands were "avoiders." Again, money was said to be a major conflict by all of the women leavers. Some other points of conflict reported were division of housework, parenting, in-law relationships, birth control, and failures in communication.

All of these women felt that their husbands were "too" close to their own mothers, and two reported that their husband`s job instability made them feel insecure. Two of the women leavers, like two of the men leavees` wives, left their husbands and sought romantic relationships with other women. These two women both expressed that they felt suicidal during the end of their marriage, and became more "independent" or "in control" when they left. The other woman says she felt "excited" when she left and felt she "shouldn`t have married" her husband, that she seemed to just be following the trend and expectations of friends, for at the time, they were all married or engaged.

Although each of the experiences of the leavees and the leavers interviewed are diverse, in all of these sudden marriage breakups, there are common characteristics. In each of them there is a conflict of marital sex role expectations, a lack of open and sincere communication, general difficulty in resolving conflict, and poor in-law relationships. Most of these factors are probably common in cases of mutual marriage breakups as well, but as indicated in much literature, spousal abandonment is more traumatic than mutual divorce (Schell, 1994). And, shifts in marital sex roles or marital sex role expectations is one factor common to all cases of spousal abandonment.

The leavers in such cases either decide that their partners are not fulfilling their roles in the marriage or that they are being forced to fulfill a role that they find unbearable. While the unsuspecting leavees may realize that other factors in the marriage are not satisfactory, they are more content in their own marital sex roles, and do not realize the leavers` great desire and need to change.

The descriptions of the participants` experiences have provided some idea of the patterns of behavior apparent in sudden marriage breakups, and of the perceptions and reactions of the leavees and leavers in such relationships. Further, this study has presented the experiences of men and women, not to say that spousal abandonment is more traumatic for one or the other, but to examine the dynamics of such marital disintegration more whollistically, with less bias.

Focus in most research on spousal abandonment is upon the men leavees` or the women leavees` reactions, with the research being so segregated and biased, that it appears that each "side" is claiming that the experience is worse for men or worse for women. Men and women leavees may express their feelings very differently from eachother, a man may "act out" and date frivolously, while a woman may continually cry. The key word is "express," for the leavees in this study, men and women, reported very similar personal experiences. The leavers all said that they initially felt shock followed by feelings of rejection, anger, and sadness, while the leavers all say they felt excited and liberated upon the breakup. The fact is that nobody can determine that the experience of spousal abandonment is more traumatic for men or for women leavees.

This research is an attempt to bring specific attention to the phenomenon of spousal abandonment for men and women leavees and men and women leavers. Its purpose is to stimulate more research that is not so biased that it strengthens the type of conflict between men and women that exists to cause marital disintegration in the first place. Today`s society is built upon the institution of marriage and marital sex roles are no longer purely traditional.

Spousal abandonment is a tragic event that appears to often have marital sex role conflicts at its heart. Awareness of this and continued research that can provide implications for counseling of engaged and married couples and enhance a general sense of understanding between men and women is necessary to combat the disintegration of marriage, for the well being of our society does depend on its quality.

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Appendix A







AGE__________________ SEX______________________

RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION___________________________________________


CURRENT MARITAL STATUS__________________________________________


DATE OF FINAL SEPARATION (mo/yr)_________________________________

YOUR AGE THEN______________ SPOUSE`S AGE THEN__________________

AGES OF CHILDREN THEN____________________________________________






SELF__________________ SPOUSE__________________


SELF__________________ SPOUSE__________________


SELF__________________ SPOUSE__________________



SELF: AS LEAVER____________ AS LEAVEE___________

EX-SPOUSE: AS LEAVER____________ AS LEAVEE___________


SELF: INDIVID. (# of sessions)_________________

JOINTLY WITH SPOUSE (# of sessions)_____________

EX-SPOUSE: INDIVID. (# of sessions)____________


Appendix B


Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Results

E=extrovert N=intuitive F=feeling J=judging

I=introvert S=sensing T=thinking P=perceiving

Female Leavees: ENFP, ISTJ, ISTJ, ISTJ

Male Leavees: ENFJ, INTP, INFJ

Female Leavers: INTP, ISTJ, ISTJ

Appendix C




1) Qualities that originally attracted you to spouse.

2) Good qualities you think spouse still has.

3) Primary breadwinner.

4) Primary decision maker --money house cars children other

5) Primary initiator of sex.

6) Primary initiator of talking.

7) Primary initiator of warmth towards the children.

8) Primary provider of discipline to children.

9) Success at resolving conflict/ Roles in resolving conflict.

10) Quality of sex for self (0 - 100).

11) Quality of sex for spouse (0 - 100).

12) Own time investment in parenting.

13) Spouse`s time investment in parenting.

14) Ways you depended on spouse.

15) Ways spouse depended on you.

16) Own closeness to own parents.

17) Spouse`s closeness to your parents.

18) Own closeness to spouse`s parents.

19) Spouse`s closeness to your parents.

20) Major conflicts over _______________.

21) Describe quality of own childhood.

22) Describe quality of spouse`s childhood.

23) Sudden abandonments or separations in own parents` marriage?

24) Sudden abandonments or separations in spouse`s parents` marriage?

25) Significant events possibly contributing to breakup of marriage:

a. Within the family or personal (e.g. conflicts, illnesses, affairs).

b. Outside the family (e.g. work, relatives, moving).

26) # of times doubts about the marriage were actually expressed (e.g. thoughts of divorce) by you to your spouse.

27) # of times doubts about the marriage were actually expressed by spouse to you.


A. Antecedents

1) Signs noticed in spouse`s behavior or communication indicating possible desire for separation.

2) Signs noticed in own behavior or communication indicating possible desire for separation.

B. The Ending Itself

1) What would you say were the immediate triggers for separation?

2) How did the leavee find out leaver`s desire for separation?

3) Describe the process and how long it took.

4) Were there other romantically involved people?

5) Was counseling sought now or after the end of the relationship?

6) What helped about counseling?



1) Changes observed in self (stages?)

2) Changes observed in spouse (stages?)

3) Changes observed in relationship w/ children relatives friends colleagues?

4) Describe relationship w/ spouse during this year.

5) Was (further) counseling sought?

a. Self _____________(y/n) # of sessions__________

b. Spouse____________(y/n) # of sessions__________

c. Together__________(y/n) # of sessions___________

6) Any attempts at reconciliation?

a. Own

b. Spouse

c. Mutual

7) Any new intimate relationships during this year?

a. Self

b. Spouse



1) How you saw yourself before the ending.

2) How you saw your spouse before the ending.

3) How you see yourself now.

4) How you see your ex-spouse now.

5) Your theory, understanding, explanation of what happened.

6) Your self rated responsibility for the marriage ending (0-100).

7) Your rating of spouse`s responsibility for the marriage ending (0-100).

8) Value of counseling.

9) Needed characteristics.

Appendix D _________________________________________________________________

Key Factors and the Corresponding Interview Questions

Marital Sex Roles

Primary breadwinner.

Primary decision maker.

Primary initiator of sex, talking, warmth to children, discipline to children.

Time investment in parenting.

Way spouses depended on eachother.


# of doubts expressed.

Signs of doubts.

Telling spouse of desire to leave.

Contact after breakup.

Conflict Resolution

General success in solving conflict.

Roles in solving conflict.

Major conflicts were over__________.

External Factors

Parental/in-law closeness.

Job changes.


Romance outside of marriage.

Family of Origin Discrepancies

Quality of childhoods.

Parents` marital status.

Perception of Spouse Before & After the Breakup

Qualities that originally attracted you to spouse.

Good qualities spouse still has.

Changes in spouse.

How you saw spouse before/now.

Overall Personal Experience of Breakup

Changes seen in self.

Understanding of what happened.

Appendix E




I agree to participate in the Sudden Endings Research Project. I will provide written answers to questions, fill out a personality survey and have it interpreted to me, and give a description of my personal history and marriage experience in response to standard questions in an interview. Participation will not involve receiving counseling.

At any time I can stop my participation in the project and refuse to allow my information to be used or published. My information will be used in the research and if published, all identifying information will removed or disguised and my confidentiality will be protected.

NAME__________________________ DATE____________________

Appendix F


Women Leavees` Responses Regarding Key Factors

Marital Sex Roles

All four of these women`s husbands held traditional role expectations; the wives were the primary homemakers and child caregivers.

Three of these women say they were equal breadwinners or became equal or higher breadwinners than their husbands.


In three of these women`s experiences, doubts were never verbally expressed by either partner during the marriage.

Three of the abandoning husbands left without any explanation.

Three of these women say they have no or little contact with their ex-husbands.

Conflict Resolution

Three of these women leavees say they thought they and their husbands were pretty good at resolving specific conflicts.

"Money," "home repairs," and "roles" were some of the said conflicts.

External Factors

Three of these women began to make more money than their husbands, or spend less time at home, right before the breakup.

Two of these women`s husbands were unfaithful.

Family of Origin Discrepancies

Two women reported discrepancies in the general quality of their own and their husband`s childhoods.

Perception of Spouse Before & After Breakup

Three women reported that they have no contact with their husbands now.

One says that her ex-husband did not change, but she said, "I did."

Overall Personal Breakup Experience

Three of these women experienced extreme sadness and two even considered suicide.

All reported an elevated skepticism of men.

One woman said that her divorce ended up being positive and that she has become less dependent.

Appendix G


Men Leavees` Responses Regarding Key Factors

Marital Sex Roles

Two of the three men leavees described their marital roles as being more egalitarian.

One was very conventional, with the husband as the only breadwinner, decision maker, initiator of intimacy, and the wife as the primary child caregiver and homemaker.


Two reported becoming more involved in work to "avoid" the problems of the marriage.

All reported feeling some shock when told by their wives they were leaving.

One has no relationship at all with his ex-wife, the others say theirs is cordial.

Conflict Resolution

All reported money as being a point of conflict.

All said that they were not very successful in general at resolving conflict in their marriages.

Two of these men`s wives left because they decided they were gay.

External Factors

One of these men`s wives was seriously mentally ill.

None of the men leavees` marriages included good in-law relationships.

Two of these men`s wives were seeing other women.

Family of Origin Discrepancies

All of these men report that their childhoods were more stable that their wives`.

Perception of Spouse Before & After Breakup

Two of these men say their ex-wives became more unpredictable but more independent.

One of these men`s ex-wives became a "religious fanatic" and suffered a nervous breakdown.

Overall Personal Breakup Experience

Two of these men say they felt hurt, rejected, and angry at first, but became more independent, although they now have an "elevated skepticism," and are less trusting.

The other man leavee felt a "release" when his wife left, saying they "married too young."

Appendix H


Women Leavers` Responses Regarding Key Factors

Marital Sex Roles

All of the respondents` husbands were the primary breadwinners.

All of these women were the primary child caregivers and homemakers.


One of these leavees expressed her doubts to her husband.

None of these leavees` husbands ever expressed any doubts of the relationship during the marriage.

Conflict Resolution

All reported money as a major conflict in the marriage.

Other conflicts reported were division of housework, parenting, in-laws, birth control, and failures in communication.

External Factors

All three women said that their husbands were extremely close to their own mothers.

Two reported that their husbands displayed a lack of job security, losing jobs, or always changing jobs.

Two of these women left to seek relationships with other women.

Family of Origin Discrepancies

Two women describe their husbands` childhood as more stable than their own, their parents having divorced while their husbands` parents marriages were stable.

Perception Spouse Before and After the Breakup

Two women reported that their husbands became more independent after the breakup.

Personal Experience of the Breakup

All of these women felt excited and became more independent when they left their husbands.

Two of these women considered suicide as an alternative to ending the marriage.

Author Note

I would like to thank the committee of James Bargar, Brian Cronk, and Phillip Wann for their support and advisement regarding this research. I also thank Daniel Claiborn who provided resources, collaborated in developing the interview, recruited participants, and conducted some interviews, and also those who kindly volunteered to share their experiences.

Correspondence concerning this paper should be addressed to Elaine Smith, 2003 Mulberry Street, St. Joseph, Missouri 64501.

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