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How to Cope With Spousal Abandonment Syndrome

When a marriage fails to thrive, there are usually a few telltale signs that suggest divorce may loom on the horizon. Interactions between spouses become increasingly stiff and unpleasant. Spouses avoid one another. Priorities seem to change, giving way to multiple disagreements. Everything just feels, well, hard.

But what if one spouse doesn’t see the end coming? What if they came home one day and their spouse is just … gone? Packed up, moved out, and ready to start a new life without them?

When a marital breakup occurs abruptly and without warning, one spouse is typically left reeling with shock and grief. They wonder what went wrong and feel like they’re drowning in a deluge of feelings – the feelings that inevitably come with the unexpected loss of a relationship so vital to one’s identity and well-being. 

There’s a name for this predicament. It’s called spousal abandonment syndrome.

What is spousal abandonment syndrome?

Spousal abandonment syndrome is not a disease. It doesn’t refer to the myriad emotions and stressors you may deal with if your spouse leaves you abruptly, either. Rather, it’s a term coined to describe the societal trend of spouses just picking up and leaving their families without any warning.

What reasons lie behind spousal abandonment?

If your spouse leaves you abruptly, one of the top questions you may be asking is, “Why?” 

Although understanding the reason behind a spouse’s quick departure probably won’t fix the marriage, for the sake of closure, it can be helpful for you to understand all you can about the circumstances.

Unfortunately, a spouse who leaves abruptly may never disclose their real reason for leaving. And in no-fault states like California and 16 others where you aren’t required to state your grounds for divorce, it’s possible that you may never get the clarification you desire.

That said, there are several possible reasons why one spouse might leave the other without warning:

  • An affair
  • A mid-life crisis
  • Financial difficulties
  • Mental illness
  • Physical illness

When spousal abandonment is criminal

If a spouse ceases to provide care, support, or protection for a sick spouse or dependent child – and they live in an at-fault divorce state – it is considered to be desertion or willful abandonment. 

Although we apply the term “criminal” here, it doesn’t mean the abandoner goes to jail. But the spouse who was left behind can choose to divorce the abandoner using the grounds of “desertion.” In such a case, the court can order the abandoner to provide financial support to the spouse or children from whom they walked away. And, if children are involved, the court may decide to terminate the abandoner’s parental rights. You may also qualify for an annulment.

Note that if you intend to claim your spouse criminally abandoned you (and is therefore obligated to provide you with continued financial support), you must be able to prove the abandonment. You must also prove that your spouse refused to communicate with you and that they had no other justifiable reason for leaving.

If that sounds overwhelming (and it probably does), don’t go it alone. If you’re filing for divorce on the grounds of abandonment, it’s a good idea to consult a lawyer first. You’re going to want to armor yourself with other types of assistance as well. (We provide more information at the end of this article, including links to resources you can use.)

Grappling with the consequences

If your spouse abandons you, the barrage of feelings you experience can be overwhelming. Any or all of the following emotions would be completely understandable:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Extreme sadness and depression
  • Self-blame
  • Self-doubt
  • Guilt
  • Low self-esteem
  • Emptiness
  • Numbness
  • Loneliness

Note: If you’re unable to see a light at the end of the tunnel at this time, know that there is hope. And if you find your mind wandering toward thoughts of self-harm or suicide, know that there are kind people who want to help save your life. Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. 

In addition to an overwhelming storm of emotions, the spouse left behind may also be dealing with any or all of the following as a consequence of the abandonment:

  • Poverty
  • Debt
  • Homelessness
  • Food insecurity
  • Lack of access to healthcare
  • Inability to get to work (due to lack of transportation)

Grieving the loss of the spouse who left

In many ways, the sudden loss of a spouse due to abandonment is similar to the sudden death of a loved one. 

For healing to occur, you must allow yourself to move through the cycle of grief. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote a book on death and dying in 1969 in which she posited that there are five distinct stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. 

According to Kübler-Ross, the stages do not come in the same order for everyone, and some people do not experience each stage. You can read more about the process of grieving divorce here. If you need help, you might consider therapy or a divorce support group.

Wife abandonment syndrome

A term you may have heard that’s similar to spousal abandonment syndrome is “wife abandonment syndrome.”

Coined by psychotherapist Vikki Stark, founder of the website runawayhusbands.com, Wife Abandonment Syndrome reflects a more specific situation in which a husband leaves a wife seemingly out of the blue – and typically for another woman.

In the years since she was abandoned by her own husband, Stark developed her own nature-themed list of stages through which a person must go when they are abandoned by their spouse. She encourages her readers to see where they are “at” in their process:

  • Stage 1: The first stage is the tsunami, when you are shocked by the news and feel like you are drowning. 
  • Stage 2: The next stage is the tornado, in which your thoughts wildly spin as you grapple with the complexity of your new life situation. 
  • Stage 3: The third stage is the thunderstorm, in which you feel overwhelmed and unsure when the next bolt of thunder will strike.
  • Stage 4: The fourth stage is the ice storm, in which life feels like a cold, callous place where you seem to have lost your footing.
  • Stage 5: The fifth stage is the fog, in which the world still feels gray, but the intensity of your pain is somewhat muted.
  • Stage 6: The sixth stage is the sun shower, in which some of the “ice” begins to thaw and you fluctuate between good and bad days and times. 
  • Stage 7: The seventh stage is early spring, which can be likened to a muddy, chilly start of something new and hopeful.
  • Stage 8: The eighth stage is a temperate summer day, a time when you realize you’re actually enjoying life again, and the future seems bright.

To read about Stark’s take on wife abandonment syndrome and how long you might expect to agonize over the abrupt disappearance of a spouse, read her blog, How Long Does it Take to Recover from Wife Abandonment?

Reaching out for help

If your spouse leaves you abruptly, survival should be your immediate and number-one goal. And secondarily, you may need help moving forward with a divorce or annulment. Hello Divorce may be able to help with this (you can see our affordable plans here). 

You will get through this, but you shouldn’t have to do it alone. Surround yourself with helpers. There are more of them than you might think. Your helpers, to name a few, are your friends, family, and members of your community such as the clergy, your physicians, and perhaps a good lawyer to inform you of your options.

In addition to these folks, consider working with a caring therapist and joining a support group for people who have found themselves in similar situations. Here are a few resources we recommend:

Divorce therapist: A divorce therapist can help you heal from the trauma caused by Spousal Abandonment Syndrome. Read our Guide to Therapy During and After Divorce to learn more about divorce therapists.

Mental health therapist: If you would like to work with a mental health therapist who is not necessarily a divorce therapist, visit Psychology Today’s Find a Therapist search engine.

Divorce support group: The internet gives us access to myriad divorce support groups. Some adhere to specific topics or themes. For example, you might be able to find a support group of people who have been through a situation similar to yours. Read our article on Divorce Support Groups and Coping with Divorce to learn more.