From Abandonment to New Beginnings
- 2006 21 Nov
Amanda left a brief note on the kitchen table.
"I’m leaving," it said. "I’ll be back later for the rest of my things."
Darren found the note on a Friday evening when he got home from work. At first, he thought it might be a practical joke. Leaving? He knew Amanda had been moody and unhappy lately, but she’d been through times like that before.
Leaving? His brain couldn’t quite process it. What did it mean? Was she taking some time away? Was she going home to her mother for a while? How long would she be gone? When was she coming back?
He poured himself some cereal, ate, and tried not to think about it. He carefully reviewed his last conversation with Amanda, on the phone earlier that day. She had sounded fairly normal, he thought.
He called her cell phone, leaving his number as a page.
When Saturday and Sunday passed with no return phone call or any other form of contact, Darren began to realize something was changing. Amanda had stormed out of the house before, angrily going for a drive for a few hours, but she had never been gone overnight without telling him where she was going.
Monday morning arrived, and Darren went off to work as usual. He kept his thoughts to himself, not telling any of his friends or co-workers about his wife’s absence. He remembers thinking that sooner or later his wife would be coming back.
He was wrong.
On Thursday, when he arrived home from work, most of the furniture and other belongings in his house were missing. Amanda had apparently come home that day and carried away "her stuff"—which included basically every useful piece of furniture as well as the sound equipment and video gear.
Darren was angry—but also in shock. Why had she taken so many things that didn’t belong to her? Where was she taking them? Who had helped her empty out his house? She couldn’t have lifted the furniture by herself.
He had a lot of questions, but no answers. He called Amanda’s cell phone again, leaving his number when she didn’t pick up. He made his page an "urgent" message this time.
When she finally did call him back, it was nearly two weeks later. "I’m divorcing you, if you haven’t figured that out yet," she said sharply. "I just can’t take it anymore, and I’m tired of trying."
This was the first time the word divorce had ever occurred in a conversation between them. With his emotions a mix of extreme shock and significant anger, Darren struggled to control his attitudes and his words.
"Can we talk about this?" he remembers asking his wife.
"There’s nothing to talk about," was her retort.
That was her final answer.
Enduring Rejection and Loss
Thousands of times each week, the scene between Darren and Amanda is replayed, with slight variations, in houses and apartments across the country. More than 18,000 divorces take place in the U.S. every week of the year, most of them by common agreement after a period of discussion and negotiation.
Yet in many cases the divorce is set in motion by just one party, not both, and it begins with a process of departure and abandonment—someone leaves. Having promised to be together "forever" and stay "until death parts us," someone changes their mind. One day they are at home, and things seem mostly or entirely normal. The next day—they’re gone, and they’re not coming back.
Darren’s emotional stress quickly became physical stress. His health deteriorated daily as the drama of Amanda’s leaving began to play out. By the time the divorce papers arrived, he was in ill health. He had been abandoned by someone he loved.
The departure of a spouse is one of the deepest shocks we can receive—all the more if it’s unexpected. Darren’s mental and emotional anguish displayed themselves in a range of physical symptoms. These were not imaginary ailments—he was truly sick. His suffering was emotional—yet it went beyond thoughts and feelings, affecting his physical health.
Divorce by abandonment is similar to death in its shock and trauma. With a lingering physical illness, such as a long struggle against cancer, our emotions have time to prepare for the eventual suffering that we’ll experience. Although our pain will still be great, our physiological systems have had time to adjust, in advance, to the possibility of loss. In a sense, we are "ready" to process our grief—we have seen it coming in advance.
However, when a soldier is killed in combat, or when a close friend dies in a tragic car accident, there is no time to prepare ourselves. The phone rings, there is a knock at our door, and suddenly our world collapses around us in a heap.
Divorce by abandonment is similar. Even if the marriage relationship may have seemed troubled or tense, when a partner makes a sudden decision to leave us, our emotions can overwhelm us. We go through phases of shock, denial, and anger that are very similar to the emotional stages that accompany the grieving of a death. We may find ourselves literally unable to function—"locked up" mentally or emotionally, befuddled by even the simplest of choices or decisions. Simply put, our emotional systems are overloaded by the bombardment of a sudden, intense, and highly negative stimulus.
Abandonment taxes our emotional responses and strains our ability to deal with other natural sources of stress within our environment. The departure of a spouse may heighten or exaggerate our reaction to other types of stress we commonly experience, including health difficulties or financial worries.
Being abandoned hurts. The mere existence of the pain surprises us, as does its relentless intensity. We suffer—and there seems to be no relief for what we are enduring.
Meg’s experience was similar to Darren’s. She came home one afternoon to find a note on the kitchen table just like the one Darren found. "I’m leaving," the note from her husband said briefly. "We’ll talk later."
Meg stared at the note for a while, not quite believing it.
"In my heart, I think I knew he was gone," she says today. "I think I already realized he wasn’t coming back; I just couldn’t think clearly. My emotions were too jumbled; it was like my brain couldn’t function…"
By the time she received what she calls "the speech," she was starting to recover her clarity of thought—enough to realize she was angry.
"I love you," she remembers her husband saying when they finally talked. "But it just isn’t working out for us to be together. I’ll always love you—but I think it’s best if I live somewhere else for a while."
Confused, afraid, angry, upset—Meg registered many emotions, but she knew enough to recognize absurdity when she heard it: "I love you" means "I’m leaving you"?
The disconnect echoed loudly inside her. "He basically said the exact same thing to our kids," she recalls with a loud sigh of resignation. "He told them he loved them but that he needed to go and live somewhere else for a while."
The ridiculousness of the claim didn’t fool Meg’s children either.
"If Daddy loves us, why is he leaving?" Meg’s daughter asked her.
"If he really loved us, he wouldn’t leave!" insisted her oldest son.
Lacking a useful or creative response, Meg just shook her head wearily and said nothing at all. Her son was right, in her opinion.
Next week: Dealing with Guilt, Shame, and Social Stigma of Divorce
Excerpted from Moving Forward After Divorce (Harvest House Publishers) by David and Lisa Frisbie. © 2006 David and Lisa Frisbie. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Since 1982, David and Lisa Frisbie have served together as co-executive directors of the Center for Marriage and Family Studies, whose primary focus is helping families adjust to trauma and change. Prolific writers and frequent speakers at workshops, camps, and seminars, David and Lisa have traveled widely in North America, Europe, and Asia. They make their home in Southern California.