We had a tremendous response in this blog and in social media to Frankly My Dear, I am the Victim of Homophobia Too, Kristin Kalbli ‘s response to Rick Clemons’ article in Huffington Post, Frankly My Dear…Gay Men Marry Straight Women! Here’s Why!”. Comments mostly centered on the phrase “you have no right” when in fact straight spouses are part of the coming out experience for the LGBTQ people who have married us, and we do have a right to have our say.
The responses appear to have been taken to heart by Rick, who presented a special two-part podcast for National Coming Out Day on October 16, featuring straight spouse Emily Reese, author of the blog Same Sides Support.
The podcast goes into detail about Emily’s experience, and her perspective. There is still much work to be done to get the straight spouse point of view even considered by mainstream media and by many LGBTQ activists. In this podcast, Emily goes into detail about what was helpful for her, and what was not helpful. It really does turn Rick’s perspective around.
The Straight Spouse Network is the global source of support for all straight spouses, male and female, married or partnered or divorced. Demand for our free peer to peer support has been increasing steadily through the years. This year it has exploded. As more LGBTQ people become empowered to come out of the closet, more straight spouses are dealing with the aftermath of disclosure or discovery.
Denial of true sexuality happens before and during our marriages. For many of us, the denial continues after our marriages, after our divorces. We stated in an earlier article “…the closeted behavior of denial eviscerates a spouse sexually, spiritually, and emotionally.” Yet this level of personal destruction is seldom recognized by our mainstream media, by therapists, or by our LGBTQ spouses, family, or friends.
Anger, pain, and grief are normal reactions when a heterosexual person finds out that their spouse or sexual partner is not heterosexual. Even if they thought they knew, many find that they did not know what this truly meant for their relationship. In the podcast, Emily speaks of the sense of being shattered in her own identity. It takes time to resolve this and to rebuild ourselves. It takes time to work through the profound anger and grief before this can happen. Many counselors, clergy, and therapists want to treat us as if we are going through any old divorce. This is not applicable to us. We have much more to specifically rebuild and recover.
The consequences for us of expressing the anger, pain, and grief, even when exercising self-control, are often that we are told to suppress our feelings even more. After all, the gay spouse needs to be encouraged to come out, and here you are, all angry and ugly, well, what do you expect of course they will stop being honest. We hear this so often. But what we need is affirmation, listening, and strong support through the ocean of grief, anger, and shock.
For LGBTQ spouses, facing our intense reactions is a consequence of coming out after having married us, even if they are only coming to realize the true nature of their sexuality. Just as honesty in coming out is important, honesty in addressing our anger and grief is important. That doesn’t mean we get to be abusive or hateful, but it does mean that our undesirable emotions are something that we and our spouses will have to live with for some time. It’s important for therapists and counselors to recognize that suppressing this does not mean it will go away.
It is important for us to be heard, seen, and understood. Not shut down and shoved away. Not dismissed for not being perfect, for making others uncomfortable with our reality.
If there were messages that the straight spouse could get out to the LGBTQ community, Emily feels this is the most important. “Just don’t forget that because you have come out, there’s still a bunch of stuff that we are going to need help with getting through,” she says. This not only includes emotions, but practical things such as car repair, lawn care, finances and other day to day things. Even if we have assumed the primary responsibility for those aspects of life, it is different to take them on alone.
This is an important dialogue for anyone who is in the counseling profession to hear. There is absolutely no excuse for any counseling professional to have no idea how to help mixed orientation couples or straight spouses. There are resources available through the Straight Spouse Network, including scholarly research.
It’s also important for straight spouses to hear this dialogue, when you are ready. For many of us speaking this openly is not a safe thing for us to do, either because of continued abuse from our spouse in denial, continued homophobia from society in general, or reverse homophobia – the act of those around us who affirm the gay spouse and believe that the straight spouse’s reaction is one of hate, rather than normal anger, grief, and pain that is not addressed with any healing action or presence.
Whether he meant it or not, the glib manner in which Clemons wrote previously struck a nerve – because we are treated in a dismissive and flippant manner in mainstream culture as well. Straight spouses did talk back to this, in comments on his original article and in dialogue on the response we published. But there are many who cannot talk back, and have reason to be afraid to speak for themselves.
We appreciate the opportunity he has given to Emily to discuss her journey openly and share the difficult message of the process of healing. There is just not enough support for straight spouses and for people in mixed orientation marriages in the general media, and this podcast is a healthy start.
For almost 30 years, no one seemed to know the Straight Spouse Network existed. Now, thanks to the miracle of social media, we are known as an organization. We also are aware of what others say about us, from reports by straight spouses and from what we see in the media. So here’s a sampling of some of the misconceptions – and our responses.
1. “My wife/husband was perfectly accepting of me before joining THAT GROUP. THEY convinced him/her to divorce me. I blame THEM for our divorce”. Marriage is a process. At sometime in the process of a mixed orientation marriage, one or both partners may decide it isn’t working and they need to move on. “Accepting” doesn’t mean doing everything one person’s way, or substituting one lie for another. That holds for both partners.
When straight spouses meet and share their ideas, questions, and deep hurt, they often find that someone else in the group is giving voice to a feeling or idea that they had not previously dared to express. We encourage everyone to live in truth. That doesn’t mean shouting and outing, but it does mean honestly acknowledging our feelings and our desires for the future.
2. “SSN says there’s no such thing as bi”. False. Patently false. We have NEVER taken this position. If one of our leaders or contacts is saying this, please contact us, and we will be happy to set them “straight”.
It is entirely possible that within a group meeting or discussion you will find people who are of the opinion that bisexuality does not exist – because for so many of us, “bi now gay later” is a frequent experience. Many of our spouses do not come completely out of the closet to us, and instead tell us another lie – that they are bi when in fact they are gay, and in deep denial.
3. The forum on the SSN website is not moderated and full of people who don’t know what they are talking about. False. The forum on the SSN website IS moderated and full of people openly discussing various aspects of mixed orientation marriages. It is also a public forum; some LGBT people participate. All participants are expected to talk about their lives and perspectives, without defaming others. The forum is moderatedfor safety and standards of a civil online community.
We don’t tell people who express their ideas there what to think. The ideas expressed on the forum represent the beliefs of the participants, not our organization. There are also several private or secret Facebook groups or email lists where straight spouses find support. Some of these are affiliated with us, others are not, but often have members who have benefited from contact with SSN. Most of those are moderated in much the same way as the forum, with the exception that members have to be approved before joining and having access to what others share.
4. From time to time people mistakenly think well known author and counselor Bonnie Kaye represents our organization. While many women who contact us have found her to be helpful and recommend her to others, Bonnie is not affiliated with the Straight Spouse Network, and her views are her own. We offer support to both straight husbands as well as straight wives, while the bulk of Bonnie Kaye’s writings are targeted to straight wives only.
5. The Straight Spouse Network doesn’t support staying in a mixed orientation marriage. False. We support straight spouses no matter where they are on their journey. The decision to stay in a mixed orientation marriage (MOM) can be made for many reasons. It does happen and we support those who choose this path. Some mixed orientation marriages may break up down the road, as one or both partners desires something different, but some do last. A breakup is not inevitable, and it doesn’t mean that someone has failed – it is part of the ongoing process of the relationship. We refer many people who come to us wishing to remain in their marriage to specific online groups listed on our website or to individual contacts who have decided to stay married.
6. The Straight Spouse Network doesn’t allow gay people to participate, and is therefore exclusive and discriminatory. Yes and No – ONLY straight spouses can participate in many of our face to face groups and in some online groups, as they need a safe and confidential environment to be free to tell their full story and receive support. However, we do encourage public participation by everyone, including LGBT people, in our public forum, and we do refer couples to online or face to face groups where they may both participate. 30 years ago we started as a task force of PFLAG in California after a group of gay fathers asked Amity Buxton to help them understand their wives’ perspectives. Our purpose is to provide support for the straight spouse.
So, when a community center says we cannot use their facilities for meetings of straight spouses seeking safe, confidential support because we don’t allow gay people to participate in that particular meeting, that says to us that they really do not understand or want to understand our purpose.
We are a support group for current or former heterosexual spouses or partners of LGBT people. That means we support men and women. That means we support married or divorced or separated. That means we support people who are angry. That means we support people who are at peace and have forgiven their spouse. That means we have speakers available to address any group that wants to know more about the straight spouse experience. That means we reach out, and promote healing and building bridges. To know who we are and what we do, visit our website.
Contact us. Ask questions. Comment. Share. We look forward to all inquiries
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!