By Robert L. Mues and Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC   |   August 14th, 2010

suddendiv.jpgI am pleased that Donna Ferber, a psychotherapist and a frequent contributor to the Ohio Family Law Blog has agreed to co-author this article with me! Our goal is to present both the legal and emotional perspectives of a trend that we are seeing in our professional practices: long term marriages ending by divorce when the wife has come to the conclusion that she has just “had enough” and that the husband is seemingly caught “blindsided” by the situation. The intent of the article is not a male versus female point and counterpoint, but rather a collaborative discourse that can provide insight into the complexity of the issues.

My legal analysis is in regular black font and Donna’s perspective as a psychotherapist is in blue italics

Having been a divorce lawyer for over 30 years, I see recurring themes in many of my cases.  Statistics show that there will be about a million divorces in the United States this year.  About 75% are filed by women.  More of my male clients are telling me that they are completely “blind-sided” by the divorce situation.  These are individuals in long-term marriages who have honored their wedding vows, are not abusers, and had not been separated.  This scenario is becoming so common that some lawyers and psychologists have given it a name: “Sudden Divorce Syndrome.”

While it is true that women may file more often than men, it does not necessarily follow that they WANT a divorce. They simply have surrendered the hope that the marital relationship can change. It is only after years of feeling ignored, devalued, invisible and unheard, do women finally pull the plug and file for divorce. The term, “Sudden Divorce Syndrome,” implies that women throw out their marriage as impulsively as they change shoes. A man may be shocked by the news that his wife wants “out” but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t given plenty of warning. It usually means he wasn’t listening. “Sudden Divorce Syndrome” assumes impulsive behavior on the part of the woman. Nothing is further from the truth.  Perhaps a better term would be “Shocked Divorce Syndrome.” That certainly is an accurate description of these men who find themselves blindsided.

I have represented both the man and woman in these situations.  Here are my impressions of what I am seeing.  Men and women think and react very differently.  Often, the woman will monitor the relationship for a period, and will by nature attempt to fix it.  The man may perceive this as nagging or complaining.  The man then may become more distant and withdrawn.  As time passes, without counseling, neither party is happy and their needs become unmet.  The wife may suppress her feelings for a period in hopes that the situation will change.  Ultimately, the wife concludes that her only choice for happiness is to separate and to file for divorce.  The man is caught unaware of the situation, and even if he offers to change, he has missed that opportunity.  The woman says that she has become tired of “talking to the wall.”  When I inquire of her what is wrong she will answer, “Everything.”

As a psychotherapist in private practice for 25 years I see this happen with regularity. The struggle and ambivalence women experience about leaving their marriage cannot be overstated. And often they struggle for a really long time. When I ask women “how long have you been unhappy?” I find that most respond with a time line that represents roughly half the life of the marriage. In other words, a woman who is married for 20 years will often say she has been unhappy for 10 years. Again, there is nothing sudden about these decisions. Women don’t leave on a whim. On the contrary, many of them stay too long.

Prior to seeking a divorce, they frequently show up in my office on the referral of their family physician. They have headaches, digestive problems, insomnia, depression or anxiety. These can be symptoms of living in an untenable relationship for years. These physical ailments are manifestations of what happens when we live our lives in a way that goes against our value system. It puts us “ill at ease” or in “dis-ease” and when we make change to remedy the situation, these ailments often abate. I have heard countless women exclaim, “I had no idea how much stress I was living with, until I ended my marriage.”

According to an article, Sudden Divorce Syndrome, written by John Sedgwick in BestLife Magazine, one in four men who were divorced in the previous year said they “never saw it coming. These statistics are supported by an AARP poll.  Only 14 percent of divorced women said they experienced the same unexpected shock. Dr Lori Buckley says, “The warning signs are usually there, but the male mind is simply not very adept at recognizing them.  When women make up their mind that the relationship is over, they stop talking about the relationship.  Men interpret a woman’s lack of complaining as satisfaction.  But more often, it’s because she’s simply given up.”  And just because a man has been married for a long time and has been a good financial provider, there is no reason to assume all is well.  That is exactly when divorce statistics swell.  Many women, as they approach age 40, believe it’s now or never for getting their life back on track.  It’s the same phenomenon as older wealthy men trading in their long-time partners for trophy wives, only it’s the women who are dropping their men. To read more of Mr. Sedgwick’s opinions on this topic and how he believes that men pay a premium in emotional cost in divorce, click here.

I can’t agree more that men interpret a lack of complaining as satisfaction. However, if we examine those statistics they are, in fact, not very different. One in four is actually 25% which is not so dramatically different than 14%! In truth, women are as likely to overlook their husband’s dissatisfaction. Frequently men feel ignored and replaced by their wife’s dedication to children. The women is then blindsided when the man decides to divorce or she discovers an affair. Men and women often take each other for granted, minimize problems, over focus on career, money issues or child- rearing. It is well documented and obvious to the casual observer that most couples spend more time watching television or on the internet than engaging in dialogue. Both sexes hold responsibility for this lapse in connection.

Dr. Ned Hostein, MD., a Harvard-trained public health specialist and the Board Chairman of Fathers and Families, explains that there is a physical toll from divorce brought on by excess stress.  He notes: “The top 5 causes of human stress are: 1) the death of a child 2) the loss of a spouse 3) the loss of a home 4) serious financial woes and 5) losing a relationship with a child…Four of these five are involved when someone goes through a divorce…  According to a study done by the American Journal of Psychiatry, blood pressure and cholesterol levels rise and the risk of heart disease and coronary failure increases sharply.  Other problems associated with Sudden Divorce Syndrome include diabetes and cirrhosis of the liver, in part because distraught people may turn to unhealthy behaviors, like drinking, after a break up.  Statistically, divorced men are nine times more likely to commit suicide than divorced women!”

I question the above statistics. If Sudden Divorce Syndrome is not even a recognized diagnosis then how can we attribute diabetes or cirrhosis to its existence? Diabetes is clearly related to obesity and poor diet choices and cirrhosis often occurs after years of abusing alcohol.

I also would like to provide another resource regarding life stressors. According to Answers.com, the top 10 stress situations are:

Death of spouse
Divorce
Marital separation
Jail term or death of close family member
Personal injury or illness
Marriage
Loss of job due to termination
Marital reconciliation or retirement
Pregnancy
Change in financial state

While divorce is stressful, I think we do a disservice to all involved when we skew the information. All parties feel badly enough without frightening them with distorted statistics. Furthermore, if you look at the above list, you will see that stress also results from “happy” occasions. Stress is a part of life. We cannot avoid it, but we can learn to deal with it in healthier ways. Excess food and abuse of alcohol are examples of unhealthy coping choices.  Let’s be clear- people have choices in their behavior. It is not a foregone conclusion that everyone who divorces gets cirrhosis or diabetes! Let’s not paint pictures of victims of divorce. Let’s encourage healthy choices and support empowerment and resilience.

Typically, the husband will often believe it is fundamentally unfair that the wife should receive half their married property and retirement account, and often spousal support.  His entire plan for “enjoying retirement” is dramatically altered.  These cases are very difficult for the abandoned spouse.

Each partner actually experiences two divorces. One is the legal divorce and the other is the emotional divorce. While the couple experience the legal divorce on the same time line, the emotional divorce happens on individual time lines. So, the woman who says” I am done” is emotionally divorced before she begins the legal process.  She may present as logical, cool and “all business”. Her husband may see her as unfeeling and heartless.  Her detachment indicates she is emotionally divorced. He may, on the other hand, not even have begun to work on the emotional process of divorce. I have seen this in reverse as well. The man has emotionally “moved on” and the woman doesn’t know what has hit her. The chasm created by the gap in their emotional process can often play out in the legal area. In short, the further apart a couple is in their emotional uncoupling process, the more likely an acrimonious legal divorce

The best advice I can offer is to seek the services of an excellent marriage counselor as early as possible if you have any suspicion that your spouse has become disenchanted or withdrawn.  Discuss it candidly, and with professional help you may be able to work through the issue. If your wife is bringing up the same recurring marital issues, you had better pay attention. And my advice to men is to stop living in a fantasy world.  The complaints may or may not be valid, however they are real to your wife, and you’re going to have some major problems if you ignore them. Don’t wait until the process server slaps a divorce complaint in your hand!

Over the years in my practice I have heard “Marriage counseling doesn’t work”. The problem is not that it doesn’t work, but that marriage therapy is not a miracle cure. If you have physical symptoms, the sooner you seek medical help, the less drastic, prolonged, painful and costly your treatment will be. The same is true for a marriage showing symptoms of distress. The sooner you address the problem, the more likely the marriage can be saved. One final piece of advice, if your partner says he/she is having a problem, just because you don’t think there is a problem, doesn’t mean you should ignore the situation. In a marriage if one person is unhappy, then something is wrong and help from a professional should be sought out as soon as possible. Don’t wait until you are dragging the corpse of your marriage into a therapist’s office.

donnabio.jpgDonna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC, is a licensed psychotherapist in Connecticut and the author of From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce, which won an Honorable Mention Award by the Independent Publishers Association. To read more about the author and her work, please visit www.donnaferber.com

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Sudden Divorce Syndrome: Reality or Myth?
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4 thoughts on “Sudden Divorce Syndrome: Reality or Myth?

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  • September 21, 2010 at 9:54 am
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    Thanks for discussing this topic–it was the first I’ve heard of it.

    I take issue with some of Ms. Ferber’s comments:

    Ms. Ferber says “A man may be shocked by the news that his wife wants “out” but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t given plenty of warning. It usually means he wasn’t listening.” That could be the case, but usually” implies that it is the case more than 50% of the time. What is the source for that statistic? It also could be that the husband was not willing to go the path of appeasement, capitulation, and/or acquiescence due to the bitterness fostered in those situations.

    Ms. Ferber says ““Sudden Divorce Syndrome” assumes impulsive behavior on the part of the woman. Nothing is further from the truth.” Again what is the source for the statement that women don’t behave impulsively? (Good luck finding that one!)

    Ms. Ferber says “These physical ailments are manifestations of what happens when we live our lives in a way that goes against our value system.” Actually they are manifestations of what happens when we refuse to accept and find healthy ways to deal with situations where others will not conform to our expectations. We have no control over people violating our value systems. We can only impact the way we deal with those situations.

    Ms. Ferber says “…if we examine those statistics they are, in fact, not very different. 25% which is not so dramatically different than 14%!” True, but there is more involved than just two percentages. 14% of the 25% of wives who have their husbands file for divorce is just 3.5% of all cases whereas 25% of the 75% of husbands who have their wives file for divorce is 18.75% of all cases—more than five times as many!

    Ms. Ferber says “In truth, women are as likely to overlook their husband’s dissatisfaction.” As shown, men are actually more than five times as likely to overlook their wive’s dissatisfaction if the number of cases where the they are surprised by the wife filing is used as the indicator.

    Ms. Ferber says “I think we do a disservice to all involved when we skew the information. All parties feel badly enough without frightening them with distorted statistics.” Siting Answers.com as an authoritative source over The American Journal of Psychiatry is just pathetic. Divorce sucks and frequently contributes to health problems no matter how much you may wish it were otherwise.

  • Guest Contributor Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC
    September 22, 2010 at 12:08 pm
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    Thanks for your comments. If you reread the list of stressors in the original article you will notice they were not taken from the American Journal of Psychiatry, only the incidences relating to heart disease were mentioned. The author links the two but depending on your source, the list of the ten top life stressors can vary greatly. On most “lists” one will find occassions such as marriage or the birth of a child being given equal weight as stress producing events. The point was that stress is simply part of life and cannot be avoided. No one is saying divorce is easy- quite the opposite-we are saying it is difficult enough without ramping up the fear factor.

  • Robert L. Mues
    September 22, 2010 at 12:21 pm
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    Pete,

    Thanks so much for your comments. Very much appreciated! This is the type of discourse that can be very valuable. I believe that some context about the genesis of our article might be valuable. As a divorce lawyer, I had on occasion encountered the term “Sudden Divorce Syndrome” even before I read the piece by John Sedgwick. After I wrote my original draft of this article, I felt a bit uneasy about it. Upon reflection, I knew that it definitely could be improved by including insights from a psychologist experienced in divorce issues and able to articulate a woman’s viewpoint. In addition, quite frankly, part of my discomfort with both my draft of the article and this topic in general was my belief that some of the information contained in Mr. Sedwick’s article didn’t correlate with my 30+ years of experience and seemed biased towards the husband’s viewpoint. That is why I solicited Donna Ferber’s thoughtful and professional insights.

    The statistics cited on this subject are pretty meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Really, the important message of our article was what Donna said about spouses “losing connection” and how the sexes reacted differently to their marital problems. Neither of us was attempting to assign blame to one sex or the other. We only hoped that we could provide useful information to increase awareness and reflection.

    Finally, I must agree with Donna that a much more accurate name for this occurrence would be “Shocked Divorce Syndrome”. Unfortunately, we don’t get the pleasure of naming it, only doing the best we can to shed light on a break-up scenario that often is very painful for both spouses.

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