What About The Straight Spouse?

Several years ago our country witnessed the public outing of the former New Jersey
Governor Jim McGreevy.  We watched as his wife and parents stood by his side while he proclaimed himself a “gay American”.  It’s difficult for most people to understand the heartache Governor McGreevy’s wife must have been experiencing. 

Research indicates that between two million and three and a half million spouses in the United States have been or still are married to a gay partner.  What happens to the husband or wife of a gay spouse?  As a marriage and family therapist in Levittown, PA and a former “straight spouse”, I can attest that the process of coming out is a difficult one for all involved.

After 15 years of marriage, my late husband started to explore his latent homosexual feelings.  He described the experience as understanding “the pebble in his shoe.” He was afraid of the gay lifestyle, of knowing his true self, and seemed to find comfort and safety standing along side his wife and children. My husband progressed from being traditional, family oriented and conservative to a self-absorbed man on a quest to understand his true self.  For three years, he adamantly refuted my questions as I suspected his new found homosexuality.  Finally I chose to leave the marriage even though he denied he was gay.  My instinct told me otherwise.  After several partners, he and his last partner went to Vermont to form a civil union.

My experience in working with hundreds of straight spouses and gay/straight couples has shown me that there comes a time in one’s life when the need to find one’s authentic self outweighs the need to hide behind a safety net.  The whole process, which most often involves the demise of the marital relationship, generally takes about three years.

When a straight spouse witnesses the anguish felt by his/ her partner as their true sexual identity is revealed, many spouses believe that they can help the situation by knocking sense into their partner, making them heterosexual again.  Their initial belief is that it’s a mid-life crisis.  After all, the gay spouse lived a straight life for so many years, why not try to help them continue on that path?  Most often, this path isn’t welcomed by the gay spouse because it is unrealistic.  The stages experienced by a gay/straight couple are similar to Kubler-Ross’s stages of death and dying; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Initially, divorce does not seem like a viable option because the couples often are very loving.  In my case, we were best friends.  When reality sets in, the straight spouse starts to understand why the marriage lacked the intimacy he/she desired.  Knowing that the lack of intimacy was not the straight partner’s fault comes as a tremendous relief.

Straight spouses often suffer in silence, ashamed to tell family and friends.  I encourage straight spouses to join a support group, read available literature, and share your story with others.  Support groups for heterosexual spouses exist nationally as well as in my office.  PFLAG and the Straight Spouse Network provide tremendous support and information as well as online support.

Forgiveness is an excellent topic to explore.  Forgiveness allows a reduction in negativity and increase in empathy that ultimately will lead to a more productive, healthier life for the straight spouse and for the children.  Harboring feelings of resentment and hostility toward a gay partner will only limit the world of future possibilities.

Written for the Pennsylvania Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Newsletter.
Fall, 2004.

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