In 2015, the budding relationship I felt so excited and hopeful about was slipping into toxicity without me realizing it. Tracy and I met on OKCupid while I was on the rebound. I had recently been blindsided by a woman I was madly in love with and uprooted my entire life to move with her to Minneapolis. Within three weeks, she dumped me, and I was not handling it well. I rebounded, rebounded, rebounded right into Tracy’s arms.
She made me laugh and was exactly my type, but most importantly, she was very in to me. This felt incredibly reassuring (to my ego) after having the rug pulled out from under me by a woman I thought I was going to marry.
Though Tracy and I had multiple issues, one being that our relationship was founded on my need to feel better about my breakup, the apex issue we faced, or rather I faced, was Tracy’s monthly cycle of passive aggression, eggshell- walking irritability, and lashing out. She showed very obvious-to-me signs that she struggled with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), but the signs were not obvious to her, and she didn’t think our relationship was affected by it or that a problem existed at all.
The Red Flags
Within the first month of dating, I remember saying, “You can’t speak to me like that,” and I have no idea how many more times I said the exact same phrase in the 9 months we dated.
“You can’t speak to me like that. You can’t speak to me like that. You can’t speak to me like that.”
After two months, I asked her to seek help, and I didn’t care what that looked like as long as she was taking tangible steps to ameliorate this issue. Maybe “help” meant finding a therapist, but it could have meant journaling or taking up meditation, going to bed earlier, not drinking as heavily, anything really.
After five months, I remember laying in bed with her, taking the calm moment to talk to her about her behavior, hoping to not set her off. She told me that I was holding on to the past, that I had to let things go. If I was going to keep track of everything she said and did that was hurtful, we’d never be able to move forward. I responded trying to explain that I wasn’t bringing up the past in order to argue about it, I was trying to display a clear pattern of behavior that I wasn’t willing to endure indefinitely. If we couldn’t figure out how to break the cycle, I was not willing to move forward in the relationship. Full stop. I thought this frank conversation was a wake up call. It wasn’t.
After eight months of saying “You can’t speak to me like that,” and seeing an increase in the amount of days I worried about what might set her off (a certain word, an interpreted tone of voice, not saying anything at all, a facial expression, a posture) I left on vacation. I needed to get away from her and from my life that was causing me so much anxiety. I needed to get away for my mental health. And while I was away, I listened to her scream-crying to me on the phone about how she didn’t want an absent partner. She didn’t want a life where her partner would go away without her.
When I came back, I was received with a barrage of reasons why I needed to put more effort into our relationship. But from my perspective, if I needed to put more effort into my relationship, I didn’t want it. If our relationship was this hard with little to no benefit from the work put forth, then I was better off alone. So, I told her, “No,” packed up my stuff and left. Like, really left. I moved out of state.
Two weeks later she drove out to see me, to tell me I was right, that she fucked up, to tell me that she found a therapist and started taking Lexapro for her now diagnosed PMDD. She was sure it was a new beginning. But I had already checked out. I spent 8 out of 9 months trying to communicate my feelings, trying to communicate compassionately how her behavior negatively affected me and our relationship, trying to be understanding and forgiving, trying to come up with creative solutions. And I stayed as long as I did because I didn’t want to pull the rug out from under her the way it had been pulled out from under me when I first moved to Minneapolis. I wanted to make sure that if I ended the relationship, it wasn’t on a whim or out of the blue. I wanted to make sure it was a last resort after months of trying to make it work. But once she took the steps necessary to combat the issues we faced, I had nothing left to give. Her efforts were too little, too late and I felt nothing.
Social worker and marital therapist, Michele Weiner-Davis, refers to this phenomenon as “Walkaway Wife Syndrome” (but since we are in 2019 and marriage equality is a thing and this phenomenon certainly happens outside of marriage, I’m going to refer to it as “Walkaway Partner Syndrome” even though it doesn’t have that same alliterative ring to it. Perhaps “Bye-Bye Bae Syndrome”? If you come up with a better alliterative/punny alternative, please share in the comments.)
In her 2008 article on Psychology Today, Weiner-Davis’s description of the nagging wife and the unwilling husband grossly perpetuates sexist stereotypes. So, I will attempt to give it somewhat of a modern upgrade. (I am using the terms “Partner A” and “Partner B+” to recognize that not all romantic relationships are limited to two people.)
Partner A lacks fulfillment in the relationship for some reason. They communicate to Partner B+, but their concerns are met with indifference. OR, their concerns are met with sincere care, but ultimately nothing changes.
Partner A needs to switch strategies. They try to communicate their feelings in different, usually escalated ways.
(For me this looks like: multiple straightforward, but calm comments referencing how the behavior hurts me, then multiple serious sit-down conversations about how the behavior hurts me and strategizing how to fix it, then serious sit-down conversations while crying out of frustration and hurt, then serious sit-down conversations while crying out of anger and resentment, then me losing all patience and not being able to have the conversation anymore without a complete emotional meltdown, and then, finally, I leave the relationship.)
After months or even years of trying everything they can to solve the problem, Partner A leaves, and Partner B+ is dumbfounded how Partner A could possibly want to break up, wondering “Why didn’t you tell me you were upset? You should’ve said/done x, y, or z thing!” Partner A, at this point with zero fucks left to give, thinks, “Are you fucking kidding me? Where have you been the entirety of our relationship (or the last X amount of time)?” Partner A and Partner B+ were experiencing very different relationships.
“The threat of divorce generates true soul-searching. These are the men who readily schedule appointments for therapy, sign up for marriage seminars, read every self-help book they can get their hands on, seek spiritual connection and even risk vulnerability by discussing the f-word (feelings) with friends and family. Gradually, they become the husbands these women have been wanting.
But for so many women it’s ‘too little, too late,’ or ‘I know this is not going to last. If I stay in this marriage, you will go back to your old shenanigans,’ which, though completely understandable, is nonetheless, tragic. That’s because, rather than feign ‘appropriate husband behavior,’ most of these men sincerely undergo a personal transformation that shifts their priorities forever. They typically make great second husbands.”
Going on to say:
“Every time a near-walkaway wife or her husband enters my office, I’m determined to do what I can to open her heart and mind to see the profound changes in her man.”
And I say:
“Most of these men sincerely undergo a personal transformation that shifts their priorities forever”? Erhm… I need to see the receipts on this one.
I have been in three relationships in my adult life where I was the Walkaway Partner, and my less-than-stellar bae became suddenly so committed to changing their behavior and seeking out any help they could get to make that happen. And the two out of three times I decided to give it another go, things would be okay for a few days or weeks (never months), and then the same exact bullshit would happen again.
My Love Language is Quality Time, so my Anti-Love Language is Wasted Time. And giving romantic partners second chances has been nothing but a monumental Waste. Of. My. Time. Filling me with bitterness and resentment because not only was my partner an unapologetic, gaslighting, invalidating, narcissistic asshole for months, but they successfully convinced me that they would no longer be an asshole, and now I have to accept that I was naive enough to believe them. Being let down once again feels a lot worse after your hopes are built up.
Here is what I have learned from my experiences with Walkaway Partner Syndrome.
If your partner(s) is unwilling to hear you, understand you, validate you, compromise with you, and work with you on issues you have with your relationship when you bring it up the first time (or the second, third, or tenth time), if they are only willing to put in effort after you walk out the door, then they are not actually willing to hear you, understand you, validate you, compromise with you, or work with you. They are just unwilling to lose you. And that is not the same thing because once they have you again, that willingness to hear you, understand you, validate you, compromise with you, and work with you will still not be there.
And the time you waste on giving that person another chance, could have been spent on healing, moving forward, and building connections with people who are willing to put in the necessary effort or who are simply not assholes in the first place.
My take? And, of course, all relationships and individuals are different, look different, feel different, but my take is… if your partner brings out the worst in you, if they don’t make you feel valued, if they make you feel out of control, if they cause you more stress than peace, don’t just walk away… fucking run.