June 7, 2010 -- Three years ago, Montreal author and therapist Vikki Stark took the red-eye flight home from a book tour, eager to be back in her loving husband's arms.
"He picked me up and uncharacteristically went off to work," she said. "Usually we want a connection."
But that night – after a 21-year marriage –- when Stark told him she bought fish for dinner, he replied, "It's over."
"I said, 'Fine, we'll have chicken' –- so he didn't like fish," she said, to which he responded, "I'm moving out."
"My husband had never breathed a word of an unhappy marriage," said Stark, who was 57 and whose husband was 59 when he bolted. "In fact, he had been quite a loving and attentive husband and I felt 100 percent secure in my marriage."
After surviving the devastation and then the anger, Stark embarked on a new life course, studying what she now calls, "Wife Abandonment Syndrome."
She created a website, Runaway Husbands, and solicited responses from women who had been wronged. Stark said she wanted to know, "How is it possible to maintain the fiction of being married when they were planning their escape?"
As a therapist, she had counselled couples on divorce, but Stark was completely unprepared for the disintegration of her marriage.
"How do you deal with the hit to self-esteem when you feel like an old dish rag he threw away?" she said. "How do we turn anything life throws at us for an opportunity for growth?"
More than 400 of women aged 45 to 60 from around the world responded to her online survey, and their stories were mind-boggling.
Some husbands left "hit-and-run" text messages or Post-it notes stuck to the television, while others dropped the bomb in the most mundane moments -- eating cereal or putting on socks.
They said things like, "I can't take do this anymore," or, "I never loved you,'' or, "Our marriage was never good," or even, "You have knee problems and I love to go hiking.''
One woman who had been married for 25 years found two notes on her kitchen counter next to a grocery list, one for her and one for their son. "I have to leave, we don't have much in common anymore," her husband wrote.
Another woman drove her husband to work: "Everything seemed fine," she said. "He kissed me and I told him I loved him."
Two hours later she received a text from him that he wanted out.
A third woman said she kissed her husband goodbye at the airport and never saw him again. When she went to pick up him up, their son, who had travelled with him, reported that his father had been sent out west on an "indefinite assignment" with his company.
Now, Stark has documented the stories in a new book, "Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery," and offers resources and support on her website.
Runaway Husbands Are Pillars of Community
The hallmark of these men is they seldom show any remorse or concern for the marital wreckage they leave behind, according to Stark, they just pick up and don't look back.
They are often pillars of the community: doctors, dentists, professors, pastors, little league coaches, who seemed to be involved with their families and community.
"People look at the couple and see them as having the model marriage," she said. "That's part of why it's so devastating to friends and family -- if that couple could split up, what marriage is secure?"
In 95 percent of the cases, Stark found, the men ran to other women, almost always younger, but surprisingly not "trophy wives."
"The girlfriend is not sexy and gorgeous," said Stark. "Often she is rather ordinary, not as accomplished as the wife and looks up to him and laughs at his jokes and makes the man feel like he's king of the world."
Many wives reported their husbands were "disgruntled and unhappy" at work, and figured they couldn't leave the job, but could change partners.
According to Stark's research, these runaways appear attentive and engaged before they check out, never mentioning discontent. They are typically "conflict avoiders" and described by their wives as "narcissistic."
But when they blurt out the news, their reasons are "nonsensical, exaggerated, trivial or fraudulent," she said. Oddly, she reported, most of the men leave between October and January, perhaps because their unhappiness is amplified by holiday stress.
"Quite a number of men and women have affairs, and I can understand where marriages do break down," she said, "but to leave without involving a spouse at all?"
When they jump ship, they almost always have another woman in the wings or, as in Stark's case, a longtime lover.
"It's like a parasitic relationship," she said. "He depends on his wife, and when he finds someone else to boost his self-esteem, he hops from the wife to the next partner."
When women seek help, often therapists don't understand how devastating it is, said Stark.
"Reality is distorted and the sense of betrayal is huge," she said. "If I can't trust 'George,' who I trusted with my heart and mind, who can I trust? You start to question all relationships."
When ABCNews.com did a little research of its own, two middle-aged women revealed the excruciating pain they endured after being abandoned.
Sandy and her husband from Tennessee had just celebrated the birth of their grandchild and their 30th wedding anniversary.
"He was a husband everyone thought was too good to be true, and as it turned out he was just that," she wrote.
Sandy's 55-year-old "runaway husband" had an affair with a younger co-worker, whom he moved in with and eventually married.
"I still struggle with the loss of my family as it was, and my children are broken-hearted," she said. "I have dated quite a bit, but as soon as it gets serious, I ended everything. I suppose I just do not want the commitment for fear of the pain."
Recovery from Wife Abandonment Syndrome Takes Time
Rhonda of New York state said she discovered a credit-card bill for flowers after a 30-year marriage.
"He admitted he had been having an affair for eight months," she wrote. "I had no warning whatsoever, did not suspect anything."
Her runaway husband never married the other woman and has had several girlfriends since, telling their daughter he was having a "mid-life crisis and would never get over it."
"I have never dated or gone out with anyone since," said Rhonda. "I sometimes wish that he would come back and I find it hard to let go of the past."
Stark said that in order to recover, women need to follow a path through eight "transformational stages."
The first, when the catastrophic news hits, is like a "tsunami." The erratic emotional turmoil progresses through the "thunderstorm," to the "ice storm" and later to the "sun shower" and "early spring."
It often takes two to three years to go through the process of healing and to develop a strong, new sense of self.
For Stark, who felt that her "whole world had shifted on its axis," finding others and knowing she could help them was healing.
Recently, she even got an e-mail from a man in Australia who said he was worried because his mother was abandoned.
Though there are few signs, Stark said the women who do survive have a "world of their own" -- careers, volunteer jobs or personal interests while married.
An annual marital check-up can also sometimes give a bit of warning.
'I look back on my marriage and we were pretty easy going and congenial and there wasn't much fighting," said Stark. "One of the things we didn't do so well was I never said to him,' How are we doing?'"
Still, she urges women not to blame themselves or even regret that they once "loved with your whole heart."
Some women even say they have grown through the experience.
"After they've recovered, many women who were seared to the bone have rebuilt their lives on a new platform," according to Stark. "Many of these women started doing things they could never have imagined."
One middle-aged woman took up canoeing and kayaking and stroked her way –- physically and metaphorically –- to the finish line. Six years after being abandoned by her husband, she had a world record-breaking time and had, "washed that man out of my hair."
"There's no magic formula, but the sadness will lift," she told Stark. "You will get there, one paddle at a time."