From time to time, the Straight Spouse Network is asked by counselors, pastors, and mental health professionals how they can help straight spouses whose husbands and wives have come out, especially in the early stages when they have first discovered that they are married to someone who is LGBT. Because many counseling professionals have never encountered anyone in this post-disclosure situation before, WE’RE GLAD YOU ASKED so that you will be effectively prepared.. Below are key points based from our experience and research studies, which we believe will you to help you most effectively help straight spouses heal, move forward, and regain their lives whether they divorce or remain married.
For starters, it’s important to recognize that no two straight spouses are alike. When a straight spouse reaches out for professional help, she or he may have known that her or his spouse was LGBT for some time, or the discovery or disclosure may have taken place just a few days before. Some straight spouses are white hot angry. Others are depressed. Still others know just what they want to do or don’t at all. Some spouses come for counseling in partnership with their LGBT spouses, to save the marriage or to work out a plan for amicable divorce. Some spouses are abused and in need of protection, whether they come to you alone or as part of a couple. Some are married to LGBT persons who are mentally ill or who are addicts. Other straight spoues are mentally ill or addicts themselves. In sum, straight spouses are an extremely diverse group of men and women with many different conditions, situations, and possible solutions.
On our website, you can find specific resources and connections to materials which may also help you understand how best to help straight spouses through their post-disclosure trauma. Our founder, Amity Pierce Buxton, has published scholarly articles on the participular issues straight spouses face and specific stages of their coping with their spouses’ unexpected disclosure, informtion to help professioals counsel straight spouses and mixed-orientation or transgender-nontransgender couples. Her book, The Other Side of the Closet, is important reading for anyone working with mixed orientation couples or members of their families. Unseen-Unheard: Straight Spouses from Trauma to Transformation presents spouses’ own words as the move from shock to eventual resolutio. Printed copies of her scholarly articles are available to you if you contact us. You can also contact Amity through our website if you have specific questions.
Our website also offers you a list of recommended readings that address family concerns, as well as those that straight spouse and their LGBTQ spouses face.:
Most of all, we want you to know that it is really helpful when you start working with a straight spouse to recognize the individual person before you – that is by Affirming, Respecting, and showing Empathy for that person Very often a spouse’s ‘initial experience with therapists and counselors are met with difficult questions – ie, “what did you know, when did you know it,” “ how could you not know”, “let’s explore how you avoided knowing”, and “Really? How can you be sure?”. Some of these questions may be helpful at some point in addressing specific issues, but in the beginning straight spouses are typically shattered as individuals, and in need of Affirmation, Respect, and Empathy.
You may find that straight spouses who consult with you are disturbingly depressed, suicidal, or white hot angry. In these states, there aren’t a lot of people who want to reach out and help. It can be really uncomfortable for counselors meeting with clients angrier than they have ever seen anyone. It’s helpful to know that some spouses need to get angry. The disclosure of one’s spouse as an LGBT person shakes the straight partner. Sometimes after living with unknown deceit for so long, the straight spouse’s core is pretty shaky anyway. Anger helps such shattered persons forge a new core, a new strength.
It’s important however to help straight spouses realize that anger is the start of profound change, and not the permanent way of life. If they stays angry, they will melt down and self destruct. But if they are helped to move forward to being renewed in strength and outlook, that is where healing begins and continues.
By the way, it’s not unusual for some spouses to stay angry for a very very very long time. Unfortunately, some stay locked in anger – a result of not being Affirmed, Respected, and being denied any Empathy, often for many years.
By all means, encourage straight spouses who come to you for help to contact us. We provide free, non sectarian peer to peer help and support through online communities, personal phone chats, and local group meetings in some areas. We are international, with contacts throughout the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, India, and parts of Europe and South America.
It is very important for heterosexual men and women who find they are married to or partnered with someone who is LGBTQ to know that they are not alone, and that there is someone, somewhere, who understands their experience and has come through it. We stress confidentiality and safety, and help each other work toward the best solution for each individual person and family. Some of us remain married to our spouses, most are separated and divorced.
If you are a counseling professional, don’t be shy about reaching out and letting us know how we can help. We are happy to do so!
When I first spoke to any of the pastors at my church about my divorce it was merely out of necessity to inform one of them that they would not be seeing our family attending events as a family unit anymore. Frankly, I simply couldn’t stand hearing about what happened last week when my husband was there and I wasn’t. I had to let one of them know that I had filed for divorce. It had been several months since I had filed, so I asked if we could meet and talk.
I didn’t expect what happened next.
In the midst of me trying to be matter-of fact about the whole thing, my pastor kept asking questions about why we were divorcing and I kept trying not to blurt out “because my husband is gay” because my husband was in such angry denial. I wasn’t prepared to utter the words out loud that day.
But after the persistent questioning I spilled the entire truth there in that church office. My husband is gay, he is in denial and has me so caught up in a web of emotional abuse and lies that I have finally decided to get out.
He went on to ask about how exactly I knew my husband is gay if he hadn’t said the words, and so I was forced to describe some very intimate and uncomfortable details that I wasn’t prepared to share.
I felt a certain amount of relief that I had said the words out loud and was hopeful that maybe some form of support would come of it. After all, this is a pastor whose job it is to reach out to offer support to the congregation, right?
I never heard from this pastor on the issue again.
There was never a follow-up call, no email, no contact even just to see how I was doing.
I was left wondering what pastoral care really was and why this pastor kept digging for my truth when he wasn’t prepared to support it. I fear that all my conversation did was create awkwardness. I simply chalked that up to the fact that the topic was just too uncomfortable.
I would wager that church leaders have heard just about every confession and emotional upheaval possible. Despite that, I highly doubt that their college and seminary education could have touched on how to deal with parishioners divorcing because one of them is gay, especially if the gay one is in denial and making the straight spouse’s life a living hell. Even so, why not try?
Aside from my most trusted friends and family, I kept quiet about my journey in my community in an effort to respect that outing him was not my responsibility. I pressed on. I had found the Straight Spouse Network soon after I filed for divorce, so I focused my healing journey on sharing it with others who had been or were going through the exact same thing. I healed and created a new life for me and my kids.
Fast forward to five years post-divorce. Having become a referral contact for the Straight Spouse Network and experiencing the support of the organization, I felt it was necessary to reach out to my senior pastor in an effort to be sure that the pastoral team knows about the organization. I am fairly certain that there are other members of our congregation that are in the same kind of marriage I found myself in and I want them to know that they are not alone. I didn’t want them to hit the same wall by reaching out to church leaders that I did.
I reached out to my senior pastor to get the word out about the Straight Spouse Network and we met. I feel as if the purpose of me reaching out to him seemed to get lost.
The bulk of the conversation seemed to be a barrage of questions from him trying to figure out whether my ex-husband really is gay or not. He dug for a timeline of marital conflict, divorce events and whether I know for a fact that my ex is having sex with men.
Five years post-divorce, I really do not care. It was weird rehashing how the divorce played out.
It was moot to describe the intimate details of how I knew my husband was gay. It was pointless for me to have to prove that he is gay.
If he can’t see that my ex-husband is gay now, it is not for me to prove.
I was there to share a resource so that his pastoral team would have something to give congregants who had any suspicion, proof or disclosure that their spouse is not straight. I had to repeat that mission several times during the conversation. He did say he would share the Straight Spouse Network information with the associate pastors and I hope he did.
I have yet to hear from him again.
So now what?
How can we get the word out to our churches that we exist when spilling our guts to our pastors seems to go nowhere?
When will our church leaders be ready to accept that what we say is true without doubting us? Is it that churches like mine are not ready to hear that homosexuality exists in our church?
Do they not want to believe that the act our gay spouses have put on is a lie? So many of our gay in denial spouses use their church as a stage. They want to appear straight and rely on people believing their straight act. Are churches like mine afraid to really consider what it means to have someone living a lie in positions that influence other parishioners?
Some of our gay in denial spouses are leaders for the youth, leaders for men’s groups, Sunday School teachers, you name it. Is it that churches like mine don’t want to confront their own perception of our gay in denial spouses because they have to consider how their lies might be influencing others? Are they afraid to know that men in the church are on the down low, cheating with other men while they keep their wives in the dark?
Was my pastor relieved that I had no “admissible in a court of law” evidence that my ex-husband is gay?
Is it that neither of the pastors that I spoke to actually care?
Straight spouses do exist. We deserve to not only be heard behind closed doors, but to be believed and supported.
The annual conference of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministry in Long Beach, California, was attended by a mixture of clergy, LGBT people and their parents, and one straight spouse, formerly married to a gay man – Dr. Amity Buxton. More than 160 people were present at the plenary session to hear Coadjutor Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento give the opening address on the topic of love. As was reported in the press, 5 people walked out when it became apparent that the Bishop’s talk was not about love in general, but about sex. Specifically, he stated that gay and lesbian people must remain chaste and sexual activity between them is sinful. By the end of the address, the audience erupted in anger. Within minutes, however, a board member rushed to the stage and invited the Bishop to stay and listen to personal stories of individuals in the gathering. One by one, nine volunteers walked to the front of the hall, and took the microphone to tell their “lived experience” directly to the Bishop as he sat in the front row.
All this has been reported in print elsewhere. What has not been reported is that the lone one straight spouse in the audience was one of the speakers. Amity summarizes her response:
“I recounted my husband’s decision to marry as a good Irish Catholic because it was the right thing to do and would make him happy, even though he had a gay lover unbeknownst to me at the time. I told of his gradual depression and physical ailments that developed over twenty-five years, our divorce and annulment, and his eventual death alone. At the end, I stated strongly that this painful experience was why I will not stop working toward making sure that no one else has to go through what he, I, and our children had to suffer.”
Amity later participated in focus groups and three other plenary sessions, informing everyone in each session of the invaluable resource that the Straight Spouse Network provides for straight spouses, current or former of LGBT people and the importance of having this for our families. It was a revelation to most attendees that straight spouses have a support organization, much less need support.
At the final bilingual concelebrated Mass, Amity was gratified to hear the priest who delivered the homily validate the importance of straight spouses. He said that one new thing he had learned at this conference was the existence and unique perspective of straight spouses and of the work that Amity had been doing to provide support for them for over 20 years.
What stands out from this report is in the last statement – the priest had only then learned of the existence of straight spouses. With all the attention focused California’s on proposition 8, defining marriage as only between a man and a woman, many churches are unaware of the existence of straight spouses. If they were aware of us, a portion of the focus, energy and money allotted for the defense of marriage might be allotted for resources to help straight spouses and our families deal with profound moral and spiritual dilemmas. We need resources such as counseling, spiritual healing, renewa. It is our hope that there will be more focus on keeping us connected to the communities of faith and providing pastoral ministry that addresses our needs. rather than shunning us, ignoring us until we leave, or responding to our questions and concerns with lectures on that particular denomination’s teachings about our partner’s homosexuality.
Pastoral response to us and our families is a challenge for many clergy of all faiths and political affiliations, especially when our existence is not acknowledged. The Straight Spouse Network (SSN) is a resource for clergy to learn of our needs and perspectives. We encourage all communities of faith to plan for appropriate and ongoing pastoral response to straight spouses and their families. SSN can help them do so.
“I lost my wife. Maybe”
Those are the words of a man who has survived the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The physical disaster which caused his loss is something that few of us can identify with or imagine. His words tell us that despite events that left tens of thousands of people dead within a few hours, he’s still hoping that his wife is alive among the tens of thousands who are missing. They convey an awful uncertainty.
He doesn’t know for sure if she is dead or alive. Eventually he will know for sure, one way or another, probably within months at the most. And he’ll begin the process of grieving and rebuilding his life, with or without his wife.
Mental health experts are now finding that the timeline for recovery from a man made disaster is much longer than the timeline for recovery from a natural disaster. They point to the ongoing problems Japan will have, not just for recovery from the earthquake and tsunami, but surviving the crisis of nuclear meltdown will carry its own burdens of trust, ongoing fear of radiation damage, a loss of security.
What does this have to do with the straight spouses of gay people? Plenty. The crises of discovery, disclosure, and ongoing adjustment are also man made. Unlike other marriage breakups, the circumstances of our separations and divorces are not preventable by anything under our control. Straight spouses often enter a closet of confusion, shame, and anger as their gay spouse emerges from their closet – or they feel locked in by a gay spouse who continues to deny the obvious truth. Moreover, when there is no confirmation or affirmation from counseling professionals, clergy, family, friends or the gay spouse themselves, the straight spouse can often experience ongoing feelings of isolation, and submerged grief.
It may seem offensive to some to compare marriage to a gay person to a tsumami or an earthquake. But straight spouses often describe the moment of discovery or disclosure as an important event in their lives that rocks them to their core. A homosexual person has a lifetime to understand that they are gay. A spouse has a much more brief time to adjust, and the effect on their lives can be cataclysmic. The experience of having no affirmation, confirmation, or getting misguided advice from those who do not understand the timely process of grief, anger, acceptance, and resolution may actually prolong the time needed for the spouse to heal.
Unlike the tsunami or earthquake, the crisis of discovery or disclosure in a mixed orientation marriage is a man made crisis. It is all too often survived alone, despite the profound change to the emotional, social, and familial landscape of our lives. The Straight Spouse Network is here so that no one need be alone when facing the unimaginable experience of discovering a spouse is gay. There is life, healing and hope. It takes support, understanding, and healing takes time. Lots and lots of time.
We’d like to thank Deborah Moskovitch, author of The Smart Divorce, for her recent article in Huffington Post about straight spouses and healing. She extensively quoted Amity Buxton, and Amity’s research findings about the stages of our recovery, and the time involved. She further stated that she intends to apply Amity’s research to her own counseling practice.
Its so difficult for many of us to find a good competent therapist who is willing to work with us on all our issues, including the process of emotional and sexual recovery directly caused by being married to someone who is not heterosexual. We are very encouraged that Deborah has posted these six stages of recovery, and hope that other marriage counselors and therapists will see them and learn.
We’re also encouraged by the active discussion that follows the article. Much of it as usual is about being gay, or how gay people are perceived – but there are a few nuggets in there about us as well, and how we are impacted.
Deborah also interviewed Amity on her program The Smart Divorce on Divorce Source Radio.
We are appreciative that this resource for therapists is so accessible. We suggest that if anyone is dealing with a therapist who seems to not have much experience with mixed orientation couples or straight spouses, Deborah’s article and the interview are a great resource to share.