Jada Pinkett Smith is a classic case of Walkaway Wife Syndrome.

Despite the intimate nature of their ongoing revelations, it’s hard to look away as Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith continue to publicly share details of their marriage breakdown.

One of the most surprising and confusing revelations came from Pinkett Smith, who revealed in an excerpt of her upcoming memoir, Worthy, that she and Smith separated years before the infamous Academy Award Ceremony slap.

She wrote: "I am unclear on the reason why Will is so upset. We had been living separate lives and were there as family, not as husband and wife. But when I hear Will yell 'wife' in the chaos of the moment, an internal shift of 'Oh s**t... I am his wife!' happens instantly."

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In response, Smith said via an email to The New York Times that Pinkett Smith’s memoir "kind of woke him up", making him realise his wife had "lived a life more on the edge than he’d realised".

"When you’ve been with someone for more than half of your life," he added, "a sort of emotional blindness sets in, and you can all too easily lose your sensitivity to their hidden nuances and subtle beauties," he wrote. 

This type of disconnect – where a husband is blindsided by separation, seemingly unaware of his wife’s growing discontent and dissociation from the marriage – isn’t uncommon.


It’s called Walkaway Wife syndrome. And while Pinkett Smith has scaled back implications of an impending divorce –telling the US Today Show she and Smith were actually working hard at saving their marriage – for many women, there is no coming back from this point of no return.

What is Walkaway Wife Syndrome?

Sometimes referred to as 'neglected wife syndrome' or 'sudden divorce syndrome', Walkaway Wife Syndrome is exactly what it sounds like – a wife (or partner of any gender) has decided to walk away from their marriage. They’ve reached the end of the road and decided there’s nothing more that can be done to save their relationship.

Of course, Walkaway Wife Syndrome is a heteronormative term for a phenomenon that can occur in all relationships – and no matter the gender identity or sexual preferences if the people in the relationship, the pattern is the same.

To the person leaving, the breakdown of their marriage is anything but sudden. But the spouse being left behind often feels totally blindsided.

"Typically, women will try everything they can think of: asking, begging, pleading, fighting, ignoring, tolerating, berating etc," says relationship counsellor Susan De Campo.

"And they will reach the point where they have simply run out of ideas to have their partner acknowledge their requests – for support, more kindness, more assistance with the mental load of parenting and running a household, more practical help around the house, getting some 'me' time etc... And they will say, 'I cannot do this any more.'"

When the other party is blindsided, says De Campo, that speaks to the lack of emotional connection that underpins the relationship. 

"Like, seriously, when she was sobbing and saying she just felt completely unsupported and you responded with, 'Well I work 50 hours a week, isn't that support?' ... Didn't it occur to you that she was unhappy in the relationship?"


What causes Walkaway Wife Syndrome?

When couples break up, it’s easy to assume a single pivotal moment prompted the separation. Often though, it’s a culmination of ongoing unresolved conflict; a series of needs that have gone unmet for a long period of time, which triggers a process of disconnection. 

This is especially common for women, says De Campo.

"I often find it comes down to the needs of women and men. Men want to feel cared for – fed, loved, happy with their work, appreciated. Women want to 'feel heard', supported with the mental load of life, acknowledged for the effort it takes to make child rearing look do-able, given warmth, affection and care without feeling like there's another agenda... and that's the tip of the iceberg," says De Campo.

"Couples end up in what I call an 'excel spreadsheet' type of dynamic, where they're itemising all their good deeds, and eventually deciding their list has outweighed their partner's for too long."

Statistics indicate around 70 per cent of divorces are initiated by one partner, without the knowledge or agreement of the other. And while it can happen to either the husband and the wife, women are more likely to request a divorce. 

Poor communication and complacency are often at the heart of slow-burn separations that come as a shock to one party. While men often complain that their partners expect them to be mind readers, many women feel their concerns are dismissed by husbands who deem them over-emotional, dramatic, needy, or a nag. They feel they've given their partner ample warning that their behaviour is unbearable. They're just not being listened to.

Negative conflict responses, continued over a long period of time, can ultimately lead to one partner feeling as though they’re been taken for granted or that the relationship is a lost cause, before they begin to slowly check out of the relationship.


Negative responses might include:

  • Failing to address conflicts when they arise. Instead, the husband gets defensive, and disengages from their wife in an attempt to limit conflict. This leads the wife to feel unheard and dismissed, prompting a perpetually argumentative state that only ends when the wife checks out.
  • Refusal to change. When a man says, "I am who I am", their partner may spiral into a state of desperation and "pleading" for change, manifesting those feelings in a range of ways, from despair to rage, to no avail. This ongoing dynamic results in disillusionment, and eventually checking out.
  • Stonewalling – also known as the silent treatment – occurs when one person completely shuts down in a conversation and refuses to communicate with another person. It’s a common response to overt displays of distress and can be incredibly damaging to relationships. When done deliberately, stonewalling is considered a form of emotional abuse. At best, stonewalling or shutting down, is an unhealthy response to unresolved conflict, ironically causing perpetually delayed resolution, and further exacerbating the issue.

When people feel as though they’re not being heard – or even listened to – despite trying desperately to get through to their partners, they may look elsewhere for support, communication, and validation, further exacerbating the disconnect.

The point of no return.

In her work as a relationship counsellor, De Campo says she often spots the party who has "turned the corner". 

"It is quite common for one party to check out before the other," she says.

This manifests in a variety ways, from emotional disconnection to having an affair.

"Someone might stop emotionally investing in the relationship – for example, they won’t be bothered to engage in an argument, intimacy stops – emotional and sexual," she says. 

"Interestingly, even when this happens and there is a noticeable shift in the relationship dynamics, people often tell me they were blindsided when their partner says, 'I’m done.'"

This can be further complicated when women engage in a lengthy private grieving process while still going through the motions of marriage, before telling their partner of their intention to leave.

"Coming back from this place takes so much work and effort from both people," says De Campo. 

"Unfortunately, the hurt and disappointment that has infiltrated the relationship makes vulnerable work too tough for many."

Feature image: Getty.