Getting honest and facing reality is a heart wrenching and difficult decision.
Lately, I’ve gotten a string of emails from gay men who are married with children, asking what to do. Some tried conversion therapy for many years. Others married when they were younger because it was expected of them. All suddenly find themselves in a precarious position. The battle is intense. They love their families, but the struggle to hide their gay identities is taking its physical and mental toll on them. “I’m so lonely and scared,” one letter read, “I’m shaking with the fear of what will happen next.” Another letter asked me to respond with his wife’s best interest in mind.
There is no quick and easy answer. Every situation is different, though one author and therapist, after counseling with hundreds of couples in mixed orientation marriages (one partner is gay) declared that all such unions should be instantly terminated through divorce. I have friends in mixed orientation marriages who would disagree.
If you find yourself in this situation, there are several things to consider. First, regardless of the pain you feel, keep in mind that this transition is about more than just you. Quite frankly, any man who walks out on his family for another lover, male or female, isn’t much of a man, in my opinion. And just because you are gay doesn’t necessarily mean the marriage has to end. There are some practical steps you can take to walk through this very confusing and difficult time.
Get a support system
Almost all of the men who contact me struggle with intense loneliness. Most have been living with their secret for years, or even decades. Even those who have friends often feel a deep sense of despair because they don’t think they can be honest with them. If they belong to a conservative church, they are certain they will lose what little support they do have.
The very first piece of advice I give to men in this situation is to build some kind of support system with people who you feel are safe. Contact the local chapter of a PFLAG group, call your town’s LGBT center if you have one, find a gay-affirming church, or a therapist who won’t shame you. If you identify as a Christian, get on the discussion board of the Gay Christian Network and start talking.
When we’re lonely it’s easy for our thoughts to spiral into depression. We can’t think clearly and decisions we make under those circumstances are not always the best ones. Before doing anything else, get connected to other people and begin building a support system.
It took me six years to get honest with myself after my wife left. I was so far down in the hole, lying about who I was, I believed it. The anxiety and depression were debilitating and everyone around me paid the price. Honesty is one of those things we avoid because it’s incredibly painful. A lot of us reason that if we are gay, then “this” will be the ultimate outcome. “This” can be the loss of possessions, jobs, friendships, family, church, or our view of God. Honesty is frightening because it leads us to the unknown. Our minds spin in the “what if’s.”
If your wife is asking you for complete honesty, give it to her. You are not responsible for her actions, reactions, outbursts, anger, fear, or rage. You are responsible, however, for allowing her to express all of those things while you exhibit as much compassion as you can muster.
Honesty goes both ways in a relationship. Just as you hope to feel safe by sharing your deep, dark secret, help her to feel safe by allowing her time to vent and process. Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of a situation, emotions are not always reasonable. Sometimes they are raw and usually they are a culmination of past events or other experiences. Her reaction may not simply be about your coming out, but she may carry feelings from other experiences that trigger a deep sense of hurt, betrayal, or anger.
Honesty will not always feel like it is the best policy. Sometimes it feels like the worst thing you can do to another person. However, when you are honest you empower yourself and your wife with knowledge. With everything on the table, better decisions can be made in the best interest of all those involved.
Sexuality and gender are two of the most misunderstood concepts in our culture, but most often in conservative religious organizations. LGBT people have been demonized, disenfranchised and disregarded for decades from the political-religious machine. It’s not uncommon to hear non-religious parents in the PFLAG groups I’m involved with bemoan their fear that their children will go to hell. Our culture has been so inundated with fundamentalist distaste, even non-Christians know the Bible’s “clobber passages.”
While no one has yet pinpointed why someone is gay, there are many theories gaining traction as we learn more about genes, neurology and biology. Homosexuality is common in nature. It most certainly is not caused by demons, a poor childhood upbringing, or sexual abuse, though popular concepts among some conservative organizations. Mental health professionals agree, and over 50 years of research prove otherwise.
Similarly, the conservative church did not always see homosexuality as the “sin” it sees today, which divides families, political parties and society in general. It is a concept less than 100 years old. The word “homosexual” first made its way into the Bible in 1946. Homosexuality as a concept did not appear in the United States until around 1920. For a comprehensive look at the social, political, psychological and religious history, I recommend the book, Walking the Bridgeless Canyon, by Kathy Baldock.
Scriptural interpretation is as divisive today as it was in its inception. The Bible itself records disputes among Christianity’s founding apostles. I address some of these issues in a blog I wrote some time ago called, Why I Don’t Talk About Scriptures. For an alternative Scriptural point of view to the more recent conservative viewpoint on homosexuality, read Matthew Vine’s book, God and the Gay Christian.
For men coming out later in life, I recommend the book, Finally Out, by Dr. Loren Olsen. Dr. Olsen, a psychiatrist, addresses the psychological issues and needs of men who are coming out when they are older. He beautifully weaves his own story and experiences into the book, helping to make the research, facts and information even more relevant and interesting.
Make Decisions Together
Depending on the relationship you have, or have cultivated with your wife, making decisions together may seem strenuous, or may not work at all. If possible, talk openly and talk often. She will feel empowered not only by information and honesty, but by having you present in the conversations.
I recommend finding an impartial therapist who can let you make your decisions and help you implement them. It is not helpful to have a therapist who only supports one person. In some instances, you may be better served going to separate counselors and then talking to each other afterward.
How your relationship will look in the end, is up to you. One man I know, who came out to his wife after 40 years, decided to stay with her. Simply sharing his “secret,” was enough to make him happy in the relationship. Others I’ve known decided to divorce, allowing both people to find more fulfilling relationships, but working together as a family to raise the children. Then there are those who chose to stay married, but allowed each other to bring another party into the relationship. Certainly not conventional, but it works for some. There is no single answer that fits every relationship or every couple.
Unfortunately, there can be a lot of suffering in families, whether children are involved or not, when one spouse comes out as gay. It’s rarely an easy transition. Allow room to process feelings, have open dialogue, and give each other patience to learn and grow.
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