Holidays are wonderful times for families to get together and renew relationships, celebrate traditions, and share the latest news. For straight spouses undergoing the stresses of divorce, or the recent discovery that a spouse is gay, those same holidays can be awkward and painful. It can hurt to see traditions discarded, or to be excluded from family gatherings, or be told that the spouse has to be excluded or included.
Some new dilemmas for straight spouses include basic things, like “whose house are we going to for dinner and who will be there” to “telling the kids mom is gay” before or after the holiday, to a lack of money to keep up all the traditions. They can be as complicated as “will Daddy bring the boyfriend to Grandma’s this year” or taking the kids shopping to buy a present for Mom’s girlfriend. A straight spouse might feel a rush of anger at seeing an expensive present that was lavished on a boyfriend or girlfriend, that was never considered for them, or seeing the gay couple take the trip of a lifetime that the spouse had thought would be a special second honeymoon.
Then there are always the friends and relatives who have their own opinions about things – and express them loudly. That could mean saying negative things about the gay spouse in front of the children, or a tentative hint around the kitchen table that “you can still be married, just live together like brother and sister”. It can be the brother in law who keeps asking “ya want me to ‘fix’ his car?” or the cousin who just CANNOT believe that this is true, and YOU must be mistaken. Add to this family stew a gay spouse who is worried that nothing will be the same “because I’m gay and nobody accepts that”, and your happy holidays turn into an occasion of dread.
How about those friends who are determined to be fair and friendly and invite you both to a party? You venture out, and find your spouse there with a date – and the group of friends is affirming “coming out” but ignoring how devastating this is to you. Isn’t it funny how the rules for divorcing heterosexual couples don’t apply to us?
The best advice we have for the holidays is to view them as an opportunity for new traditions affirming you and your values. Accept that things will be different. The first year it is a discovery process, finding what works and what doesn’t. After that, it does get easier.
Don’t be afraid to set boundaries with friends and relatives, and establish what is appropriate and what is not. Tell the brother in law to fix YOUR car since you need help. Tell the cousin that believe it or not, it’s true and you’re not discussing it right now. Tell the person who wants you to stay married that you can’t. It really is not possible to ignore a gay spouse’s sexual activity, no matter how discreet. It is different. And if you are staying together, you are making your own rules. Just don’t totally alienate people who truly love you. Remember, they are struggling to understand what has happened, and want to know how to help you.
Holidays can be a bridge that we cross from an old life to a new one. Sometimes it is a painful bridge, but we do get there! The important thing is to keep going.
Our family and friends know something is up. They know something is not right. They may know already that we are separating, or getting a divorce. Or they know that something has changed in our marital relationships. They want to help. Often they want to help both husband and wife, or they want to make the pain of divorce easier on our children.
When we tell them the reason, that our spouse is LGBT, we have a variety of reactions from them. Some are outright hostile, and most really want to help. But they don’t know what to say. They don’t know how to help.
If you are that friend or family member who wants to help– we love you. Here is how you can help us, the straight spouse in a dissolving mixed orientation marriage, and uphold us and our children and possibly our gay spouses as well.
We need you to listen. Just listen. It’s ok if you don’t know what to say. We need you to listen. That can be difficult, especially if we are grieving, depressed, or profoundly angry.
We need your Affirmation, Empathy, and Respect. We need you to listen. And what can you say?
Say things like “How can I help?” “What do you need?” “What can I do?” Be the friend who listens, the friend who is there. It’s important that you are not the friend in the middle, who bears messages from one side to another, or attempts to bridge conflict. It’s important you don’t tell us how we ought to feel, or what you would do in our position. Just listen and offer support.
Advice can come later. In the beginning, we literally don’t know who our friends are, as our world is not what we thought it was. Some of us have trouble trusting, believing our own perceptions of people. So the best thing for a friend or loving family member to do in the beginning is to powerfully, lovingly, and attentively listen and be supportive.
It can be tricky when families and in law relationships are involved. For the straight spouse, there are dilemmas about who to tell and who not to tell about the ex spouse’s homosexuality. It’s helpful for you to support whatever their decision is about whom they tell, and be honest about what that means if you are part of the family. For some straight spouses, keeping the secret means that others will blame them for the end of the marriage. It’s extremely painful to be blamed for “giving up” by others who don’t know the full story.
In any divorce, family members fear the loss of the family connection. There are changes in how we live our lives, celebrate holidays, and in our vacations and visits. Sometimes the straight spouse is shut out from the gay spouse’s family, for fear they will spill the secret, or because it has to be SOMEONE’S fault. Sometimes the gay spouse is shut out just for being gay, or for fear about the effect of the new “lifestyle choice”.
People take sides in any divorce, or they struggle to remain neutral. For many straight spouses, a statement of neutrality by friends or family members may be heard as a diminishing of their grief and experience, or of them personally. It’s helpful to us if you are remaining friendly with our LGBT spouses to respect our boundaries and need to safely distance ourselves from what is going on in their lives – and to encourage us in a loving way to maintain healthy boundaries.
Most of all, it’s important to remember that we are grieving and angry, and there is no timetable for recovery from an experience which leaves many of us emotionally, financially, spiritually, and sexually eviscerated. For us, healing and moving forward takes time – probably more time for many than most family and friends might expect. And sometimes when we are in that much pain, we can be ugly. Love us anyway. Loving us really has the power to help us heal.
When the straight spouse shares their story with family and friends, one common reaction is to pressure them to stay and work on the marriage. Conservative religious friends may try to help by warning that divorce is a sin, harms the children, and will ultimately lead to misery. A sentiment many have expressed to me is that having a gay spouse is no different from any other kind of cross that married people have to bear. This is an open letter explaining my choice to divorce.
First, I want to thank you. I know you are encouraging me to remain married because you care. You want the best for me and especially for my children. I appreciate that deeply.
Thank you for your kindness and your frankness and especially your offers to help babysit!
I don’t need to explain or defend my choices to you, but I do want you to understand them. I hope you can accept that I am doing what I sincerely believe is best for my children, first and foremost. If we did not have kids, my husband and I would still probably be living in the closet, as brother and sister, and you would have no idea that we aren’t naturally that grouchy.
The fact of the matter is that living in a mixed orientation marriage, in the closet, is a recipe for depression. He was considering suicide at one point. I was depressed and in survival mode. Our children were not better off that way. They had a mom who cried a lot in secret, who was becoming an empty shell from the loneliness. You can’t have anything more than very superficial friendships when you are hiding a big secret like that. I had less and less energy for being a mother, and I was gradually beginning to resent everyone and everything in the world for being so hard. This was NOT in my children’s best interest. But how would you know it was like that, though? I had not told you. It is not something I often talk about with anyone.
Their dad was even worse than me. He was so depressed that he hardly got out of bed except when he had to for work. I covered for him as much as I could. He was constantly getting sick; the stress had shattered his health. We could not go on like that. We were both raised to sacrifice ourselves for others, though, and we probably would have kept right on going if it weren’t for our children. For their sake we needed to live more honestly.
If you want to suggest that therapy or psychiatry or sincere heartfelt prayer could fix the problem, believe me, we exhausted every possibility before giving up on the marriage. I prayed so hard over it all– we both did– and it made me question everything I believed when I didn’t get an answer. But I believe what we are doing now is God’s actual answer. God will not make my husband straight, or fix a marriage between me and a gay man. It just doesn’t work like that. But He can bless us to move forward as best we can. And He can heal our hearts for all the pain we have been through.
My children need parents who can model healthy relationships, unconditional love, and honesty, who can care for them and have energy to love and serve others too. I can’t model how to have a healthy first marriage, but I can model how to move forward with faith and love and forgiveness when life falls apart, as it does for most people at some point or another. I can do all this now, but it was not possible when we felt obliged to stay married. Not possible at all. Please trust me that things are better for my family this way, or at least please agree to disagree with me.
Thank you again for sharing your perspective. I value our friendship and hope we can continue to share about things. I am so grateful to know such a vibrant, kind-hearted person with so many common interests!
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 holidays are upon us. What was once a joyful time for families is now a whole new experience in light of the discovery or disclosure that a spouse is LGBT.
Some of us are newly divorced, others are in the process. Still others are remaining in the marriage for now. No matter the state of the marriage or divorce, holidays bring up a lot of questions for families like ours.
Who’s out? Who is not? Who do we tell? Who do we not tell?
Sometimes when we agree for very good reasons to not divulge to other family members that our spouse is LGBT, we find that we are left without support. We are blamed for ending the marriage. We are blamed for not trying hard enough.
Or we are suddenly not welcome. Out of the family, who embraces the new lover or same sex spouse, in a coming out party. Or abandoned for telling the truth and refusing to take the blame for ending the marriage.
As with any family undergoing separation and divorce, there’s the question of all those traditions. We can’t do it the way we’ve always done it before.
So how do we survive?
First, the hard part. Take care of yourself. That means food, sleep, health, and establishing safe and sane boundaries.
Instead of struggling to meet the impossible expectations of the past, strive for new traditions. Maybe Thanksgiving meal with the kids won’t happen the way it always did on Thursday. But it can happen for you any time that weekend, or maybe the day before. It’s the same with Hannukkah and Christmas celebrations. You may not have the magic Christmas morning but you may be able to establish Christmas eve traditions instead. And Hannukkah lasts for 8 nights.
Or maybe you will do something you never did before. You’ll go to the football game instead of watching it on TV. Maybe you will go on a real Christmas vacation. Or you might visit others who are helpful and supportive of you.
Dont try to meet the expectations of others at this point. Meet your expectations.
Holidays are a time when amidst the celebration we can be painfully reminded of our losses. This is true whether it is the loss of a marriage, a relationship, or a death in the family. But they are also a time for finding our new connections, renewing old ties, and taking time for ourselves.
It’s important in a divorce to have clear expectations of what the holiday schedule will be, either according to the terms of a court order, or developed in advance with your ex. If communication is not possible, or not responded to until the last minute, make the best plans you possibly can for your family celebration and know that they may be interrupted or changed. If it is possible to accommodate a last minute request and its in a good interest for your children, by all means be flexible. All too often, our exes make their own plans for the kids and don’t bother to tell us – and then we are seen as the spoilsports of the fun time. If that happens, communicate in writing that you had gone ahead and made plans instead of waiting until the last minute. Be sure you have communicated those plans with your ex. Texts and Emails are great records for these conversations. Above all honor what is truly in the best interest of your children, no matter how the in laws, family friends, or neighbors view you.
Gift giving is sometimes an area where divorcing families conflict. When a child is given a gift that was previously disallowed (for example a particular video game) it can be a way of discrediting the other parent. Or, sometimes children are given expensive gifts, but with conditions. For example the iPad which can be used for homework is never to go to the other parents house – so the child only gets to use it for SOME of the homework.
Holidays can be full of these games. It’s important to reinforce for your children that you love them and be honest and open about how they will use the gifts. And of course communicate with your ex on an ongoing basis about the reality of what their generosity has meant.
Above all, give gifts to yourself – gifts of special new celebrations with family, gifts of down time, gifts of independence, and gifts of celebration. YOU are worth celebrating!