Women Who Walk Away From Relationships —​ And The Devastated Men Who Love Them

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Walk Away Women and The Devastated Men Who Love Them
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Heartbreak

"She says we're over! I can't believe she left. I don't understand. She says she's done. I want her back. I'm reading books and coming to counseling. I'm going to church. She says she doesn't want to hear it because I wouldn't do those things before when she asked me to. I love her. I can't live without her. What can I do? How can I get her to give me another chance?" 

The details may vary somewhat, but this is basically what I hear in my counseling office over and over from men whose wives or live-in girlfriends walk away and suddenly abandoned ship. They come in to see me, desperate and begging me to tell them how they can "fix it."

They aren't sleeping or eating, and clearly don't understand how to deal with a breakup. They can't concentrate on their jobs or carry out day-to-day responsibilities. They're freaked out about being alone. They're calling her and texting her multiple times a day. They're even showing up at her work or her parents' house to try and have a conversation with her.

Their world has been shattered and they'll do anything to "fix it."

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"Why won't she talk to me? She says she's told me already and I wouldn't listen. She wants me to leave her alone and stop calling and texting. I just want her to know I'm sorry and that I love her and that I'll do anything. Why is she being so mean? Its like she doesn't have any feelings anymore."

So, what happened? Did she have expectations that no man could live up to? Did she blame him for her unhappiness when she really had some bigger problem that lead to a sense of sadness or emptiness? Or, as many of these men want to know, did she meet someone else?

Or, was it him? Was he out drinking all the time? Did he spend all their money impulsively and without talking with her? Did he lose his temper towards the kids on a regular basis? Would he go out of town on business and not even bother to call? Has she discovered a drug problem or an affair?

Any of these things could have happened. They are common relationship problems. Usually, in this situation, it's nothing that big. What has often happened to these men is something counselors hear about far too often.

They've fallen victim to the "walk away woman syndrome." This isn't a formal diagnosis, but it's a pattern played out so often that prominent relationship experts write about it.

In a nutshell, the woman in the relationship attempts repeatedly to communicate her needs, and her man repeatedly fails to take her seriously enough. She eventually gives up, stops saying anything, begins shutting down emotionally, and, sooner or later, exits the relationship.

He's stunned and devastated, and finally realizes how unhappy she was and wants so much to fix it, to prove his love, to have her back. He tries to convince her that he is or will be different. She doesn't want to hear it and tells him she's done and isn't about to put herself through more disappointment. She moves on with her life and does not return to the relationship.

This scenario unfolds much more slowly most times. She starts by asking nicely. She attempts to bring an important concern to his attention. She tries to explain why a certain request matters so much to her.

He may respond defensively because he feels he's already pulling his weight in the relationship, working hard to earn money to support her and their kids, helping out, and doing nice things for her. When she says, "I know, and I appreciate those things, but..." he accuses her of criticizing and "always" fussing and nagging.

Or, he might listen and appear concerned, but secretly be thinking he just doesn't get why certain things matter so much to her. Rather than trying to understand from her perspective, or at least accepting what she says as valid and real for her, he shrugs it off and decides it can't really be that big a deal. He might humor her by making a half-hearted effort or do just enough so she'll stop being upset with him and then go back to business as usual.

She feels frustrated and disappointed, and the pattern begins. Later on, she'll likely bring the same thing (or things) up again.

She may be a little more demanding the next time. If he still isn't responsive to her requests, she may start to complain, bring concerns up less nicely, and repeat her wishes more often and more forcefully. She might cry and accuse him of not caring how she feels. She'll say he doesn't listen and that he doesn't want them to be happy.

He thinks, "This again? Really?" He again reminds her of all he does "right" and asks why she can't ever give him credit for that. He wonders why women have to complain all the time and why they're so high-maintenance.

He thinks he's a pretty good guy. He doesn't run around on her or gamble away all their money. He doesn't even get too mad when she turns him down for intimacy. Why is she always trying to change him? Does she really think he's going to fall for the water works and hysterics?

He's happy with how things are. Why can't she be? "You knew I was like this when we got together." "This is just how I am." Or, he may genuinely feel remorse and say he'll change, and he will... for a little while. He likes seeing her happy, after all, but he slips back into his usual routine.

Eventually, after months or years of this cycle, she stops mentioning the things that bother her. She stops making requests or trying to talk with him about her feelings. Many men are relieved. They think she's realized she's got a good man who just isn't much of a talker or hugger or house cleaner or whatever. He figures she's realized she can't change him and has made her peace with how he is because his good qualities outweigh the things she was complaining about.

She's likely being a little less open and affectionate, a little more cold, but he doesn't really notice. He doesn't understand that their relationship is now on thin ice.

His partner has begun shutting down emotionally. She's tired of feeling disappointed and hurt and has given up hoping that she can get her needs met in this relationship. She grieves this loss and may feel resentful, but she decides to accept reality. She stops investing so much effort and emotion, and begins making plans to change her life. 

One day, he comes home and she tells him she's leaving him. Sometimes, he walks in and finds that she's moved out already. She may inform him she's met someone else who listens and cares. He might be surprised by divorce papers. He's stunned and devastated. How could she do this to him? What happened?

RELATED: Why Women Really Leave Men They Love (What Every Guy NEEDS To Know)

When he asks her, she either won't talk about it or tells him she got tired of asking for him to show more affection, talk more, help more at home, spend more time with her, or whatever it was she needed so much. He says he just didn't realize how much those things meant to her, that he'll do them, and that he's so sorry.

He begs her to change her mind. She says she doesn't believe him and is tired of being hurt and disappointed. She doesn't want to put herself through all that again. Besides, she doesn't feel anything for him anymore and wants to move on with her life.

He can't believe how cold she's being. She seems annoyed that he's so upset. She says she wants him to leave her alone and doesn't want to keep talking about it.

Most of them are decent men who just didn't quite "get it" when their partners tried to communicate with them about needs or concerns. So many times, when these women finally leave or say they're leaving, they really are already gone and it's too late for the relationship.

After asking enough questions to figure out if this is what happened, I explain "walk away woman" syndrome. I make no guarantees about the future of the relationship, but agree that there's always hope. Some of these women do change their minds for various reasons, after all. I validate their shock and sadness and confusion. I talk to them about eating, sleeping, bathing, and getting back to work and other usual activities.

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I warn them about self-destructive choices made on impulse, like drinking too much, spending a bunch of money, or hooking up with someone else. A poorly thought through decision made out of hurt or anger can do a lot more damage and just make things worse. I let them know they'll have to decide how long they want to wait to see if she'll change her mind. My motto with this situation, as with many others, is "Hope for the best. Plan for the worst."

Once again, they need to listen to what she's saying. They need to humble and take responsibility for not listening or taking her seriously.

I encourage them not to defend themselves or make excuses. I remind them that actions speak louder than words but warn them to choose their actions carefully. I remind them that chasing will just make her run further faster, and could result in restraining orders or other legal problems.

I tell them to make clear that they love her and want things to be different, that they're committed to changing, and then to back off. I suggest they let her call or text if she decides she wants to. If they have to make contact to talk about kids or legal matters, or just can't not text or call at all, I suggest they don't do so more than a couple times a week. Keep it light and brief.

In future conversations, or when they have to see each other to exchange the kids or paperwork, I advise them to be nice and look nice. The "I'm so upset about you I haven't showered or changed clothes in a week" look is probably not going to score any points. I suggest they avoid pushing for conversations about working things out, and avoid being mopey or whiney. 

These men should work on changes they want to make for themselves and get involved in meaningful activities so they aren't just sitting around being sad. If they really do want to start going to church or counseling, do those things. If they really do want to spend more time with their kids, do so.

I warn them to do these things because they want to, not just because they hope their wife/girlfriend will notice and come running back. I tell them that may or may not happen, and if they're doing things for that reason, they'll just quit when things don't go their way and come across as insincere.

If she starts thawing a little, I let them know to take it very slow. She'll have to really see that he is different. Trust has to be re-earned. Some couples do get back together and go on to have a healthy, fulfilling relationship.

If his wife/girlfriend shows no sign of interest or a wish to come back after several months, they'll have to grieve the loss and try and learn all they can from the experience so they do things differently if there is a "next time" with someone else. 

As with so many things, this situation can usually be prevented. Some women have more expectations than any man could live up to. That is it's own problem. I'm talking about fairly typical women involved with fairly typical men, not major pathology.

Most of the time, if a wife or girlfriend brings something up, she does so because it really is important. Guys need to take it seriously, even if they don't understand, and try and do the things she says make her feel loved and appreciated.

What she needs may be very different from what he thinks she wants or needs, but she's the one who knows what those things are. A little genuine effort can go a long way towards preventing "walk away woman syndrome."

RELATED: 10 Surprising Reasons Women Turn To Divorce

Carmella Broome is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist/Intern. She seeks to help clients have healthy, fulfilling lives and relationships, and is equipped to assist with serious mental health issues, life transitions, or relationship concerns.