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.
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!
Robert De Niro’s documentary “Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro Sr” is currently airing on HBO, after much publicity. The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Festival in January. A notable aspect of this highly personal retrospective is that De Niro shared that his father was gay, and separated from his mother when he was very young.
The deeply personal nature of this revelation, and the appearances that the actor made publicizing the film in which he discusses his relationship with his dad in all candor, resonate with today’s children of mixed orientation marriages. We cannot say this enough – our families matter. Our relationships past and present with our gay spouses and ex spouses matter, as long as there is a family connection. And when a mixed orientation marriage produces children, there remains a family connection. It is not often perfect. But it is there, and it matters.
We live in a society that often views our relationships with gay family members as a judgment on who we are. “My son is inspired to know someone as famous and manly as Robert De Niro also has a gay dad” says Hannah Geraghty, a leader for Straight Spouse Network Australia. “He is trying to feel ‘normal’ and like having a gay dad doesn’t define him as weird or strange.” She continued to say that her son writes stories about adults who have gay parents, and admires De Niro for telling his own story.
De Niro’s story of his relationship with his father is personal. He grew up in New York City’s Little Italy, living with his mother. His father was within walking distance. In those days, homosexuality in a family was not spoken of. He had a loving relationship with his father, but describes that they sometimes were not close. He told OUT Magazine when asked about his father’s homosexuality “Yeah, he probably was [conflicted about being gay], being from that generation, especially from a small town upstate… I wish we had spoken about it much more. My mother didn’t want to talk about things in general, and you’re not interested when you’re a certain age.”
De Niro also mentioned to NBC’s Matt Lauer that he did not discuss his dad’s sexual orientation with him, as it was not something that directly affected him as his son. Instead, he focused on the love they had for each other, and the respect he had for his dad, the artist.
In our current era, when gay rights and acceptance of homosexuals have become political statements, it is refreshing that one of the most well respected actors of his generation tells this personal story – and tells it as a personal, human, family story.
Gay people have families. Often they have families with heterosexual people, straight spouses like us. And the family continues. Sometimes it’s loving, sometimes it’s not.
Our children have their own stories. We are deeply appreciative that Robert De Niro has shared his.
What used to be a time of celebrating family and friends with time honored tradition is now a physical and emotional obstacle course. Whose house? Who will be there? What about the children, especially when the court says one thing and the family says another?
Maybe you plan on spending holiday time with your gay ex, but the rest of the family doesn’t approve now that they know the secret. Maybe you wanted to accept your former in laws invitation but then you find out they invited the new boyfriend you haven’t met yet – and you better make nice for the sake of the children. Besides, grandma will be so disappointed if you dont come. Maybe your lesbian ex has planned the perfect holiday trip with your children, without even consulting you, effectively cancelling the simple but important celebrations you planned to share with your children. And you realize – your role is no longer that of a family member but of a spoiler. The truth of your life is an unwelcome part of the script, so it becomes necessary to rewrite the family story, casting you as the one who ruins all the fun.
In the middle of all the drama, you are angry at missing out on all the celebration and festivity going on around you. So many of us feel as if we have been cast aside, thrown away, discarded – and the holidays remind us of this because we no longer fit the celebrations or expectations of our families and friends. Or you might be included but the expectations are clear – don’t make anyone else uncomfortable.
The best thing you can do for yourself and your loved ones in a holiday season that follows disclosure, discovery, or divorce is to go forward. Recognize that this is a transition. Spend the time with people who support you. And you’ll find that being open to new traditions is a great pathway to healing for yourself and your family.
Don’t be afraid to be clear about what you need and want. And don’t be shy about setting boundaries concerning topics or behavior that are insensitive to you.
If you are separated or divorced and the holiday coincides with your time with the children, don’t be afraid to set limits about joining traditional gatherings that now make you uncomfortable. Make your own plans as benefits you and your children. All the wonderful presents from the in laws who now despise you and show it will still be there, or they can be presented in advance or later. Its still special to the kids. And if you don’t have the kids this holiday and find yourself alone – again make new traditions. Find new people. Do something for you that you have always wanted to do. And be sure to set aside a time to have a special celebration with your children before or after they are to be with the other parent.
It’s still a holiday, it’s still special, and it can still be wonderful. Set realistic expectations, acknowledge how you feel, and plan some enjoyment and down time for yourself. YOU are worth celebrating!