What to Do If Your Spouse Goes AWOL: Inspired By Serial Season 2

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One of the big surprises of 2014 was the huge success of the Serial podcast, which is or was a spinoff of the relatively popular This American Life podcast put out by Chicago Public Radio. It was pretty much the first podcast to ever reach such a huge audience, with an average of 8 million people downloading every episode on iTunes alone.

The first season told the story of the murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school student, in 1999, for which her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed has at the time of my writing been in prison for almost sixteen years. Producer Sarah Koenig interviewed witnesses, uncovered many inconsistencies in the case as presented to the courts, and opened up a proverbial can of worms that is still wide open.

I was one of the people listening avidly to the first season of Serial, so I’m pretty excited that the second season has started. Sarah Koenig promised “some time in 2015,” and she waited until just last week to debut her new story.

This season’s podcast is going to pick apart the story of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was allegedly held captive by the Taliban for five years in Afghanistan — but again, this is a story with a lot of complexity, suggestive details and inconsistencies. Well chosen, Sarah.

To prep you for Serial season 2, this post is going to mix some key background information with a bit of legal perspective on what to do if YOUR spouse goes AWOL — whether from your life, your marriage or just from financial obligations. Enjoy!

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Were there signs?

This is the age-old question that gets asked every time someone does something absolutely incomprehensible. The serial killer was “just a normal guy,” the rope bridge “looked pretty safe,” and your spouse never seemed like the kind of person to just pick up and take off.

According to other soldiers who knew Bowe Bergdahl, he was basically a normal guy before he disappeared — a disappearance that is now being looked at by many as a desertion of a very strange kind. “He was focused and well-behaved,” soldier Jason Fry has said.

But also, Bergdahl did say to Fry at one point, “If this deployment is lame, I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Afghanistan.” So there’s that.

There was also the weird fact that, according to soldiers in his unit, on the morning he went missing, he stacked all his stuff up neatly, except for his compass, which went missing with him. Not enough for you? He also apparently mailed his computer and other possessions — inexplicably — to his parents prior to his disappearance. So … yeah. There were signs.

I think you can safely assume, if your spouse gets distant and starts mailing all of his or her possessions away, that there might be something fishy going on. What’s tougher to get a handle on are the psychological signs, and the emotional ones. Is your spouse going distant because they’re stressed about work, or because they want out?

When a spouse walks out on a marriage, it sometimes means walking out on the children of the marriage as well. Some states call this desertion and others call it abandonment. In either case it’s generally grounds for divorce.

The exact definition of abandonment varies, but usually it means the spouse has been gone for one to two years, has not made any financial contributions, and refuses to reconcile if they are in touch at all.

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What should be done?

When Bergdahl went missing, a huge amount of military resource was put into trying to track him down, and there was a lot of controversy surrounding whether or not the US government should negotiate for his release (ie. “negotiate with terrorists”). For much of the time he was gone, he was the only US soldier being held as a prisoner by the Taliban, so it was fairly high-profile.

If you think your spouse is about to go AWOL (or worse, they already have), you probably lack the resources of the US military in trying to hold them accountable in your marriage. There are some things you can do, however.

If you have children, you can file for temporary custody, which is likely to turn into permanent custody once you finalize the divorce. You can also ask the court for a temporary order of child support. In extreme cases, you can ask the court to terminate parental rights of the deserting spouse, if they are seen to be an unfit parent.

Once the spouse has been gone from your marriage for two years, and one year in some states, you’re in a good position to file for divorce.

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What really happened?

But getting a divorce doesn’t answer the biggest question that some spouses have after being deserted. The biggest question, of course, is “Why?” Why did the person just leave, instead of resolving the situation in some other way? How could they leave a life you created together, without a second thought? And so on.

In my experience, satisfying answers to this question are few and far between. Usually, the simple answer is “avoidance” — some people just can’t deal with having grownup conversations. In a few unfortunate scenarios, people had already started a new life with someone else. You might find out why your spouse went AWOL in time, or you might never get the answers you feel you deserve. And this can be infuriating.

In the case of Bowe Bergdahl, finding out what really happened is the whole point, or so it seems. Some people claim he left a note saying he was going to “start a new life,” but the note hasn’t been since produced. There are stories of his being kidnapped and tortured by Taliban captors, and as many stories that he walked away with them on his own free will. And there are apparently a LOT of strange little ins and outs of his story that just don’t add up.

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For the Deserted

Sadly abandonment is not that uncommon as a grounds for divorce, but luckily it’s fairly easy to resolve from a legal standpoint. Once your spouse has left you for a certain period, it’s hard for the courts to deny you a divorce — but you’ll want to have legal counsel to ensure that you get what you deserve out of the situation.

If your spouse has gone AWOL, feel free to contact me for advice on your specific situation. If you’re an abandoned military spouse, you might find this site helpful in understanding your options.

If you’re interested in listening to Serial, either the last amazing season or this coming one, you can download it here. If you’re interested and you’ve never downloaded a podcast before, here’s what to do.

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