Forgiveness is me giving up my right to hurt you back for hurting me.
Sexual infidelity is often considered the ultimate betrayal. It disrupts on-going, meaningful relationships. When a heterosexual couple experiences infidelity and the offense is committed with someone of the same sex, it turns worlds upside down. All relationships have rules. We expect that our partners will keep our interests in mind even when potential rewards tempt them to break the rules. Infidelity occurs in the context of both heterosexual and same-sex relationships, although expectations may be different. In either case, when expectations are violated, the wrongdoer will have to account for his behavior.
As I wrote in Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, I know something about breaking rules. I was married with two children when I unexpectedly fell in love with a man. Things suddenly shifted inside my head, and I went from thinking I was straight to knowing I am gay. There was no other way to explain what I was feeling. Until shortly before I came out to my wife, she had no idea about my conflicts about sexual orientation.
"Kevin" is a man in his mid-fifties, married, with two children, one of whom is handicapped. His wife suspected Kevin's interest in men, and she began to search for clues of his deception. She found his on-line user name and password for a gay chat room. She then began to send him emails as if she were a man interested in a "hook up." Not knowing the messages were actually from his wife, Kevin arranged to meet "him" for coffee, and Kevin's secret life was exposed.
One gay man confronted his partner, saying "Do you have a boy friend? You're no longer present here with me in this relationship." Spouses often become suspicious of their partner's infidelity because the partners give off rather universal clues:
• Something is disrupting the normal day to day functioning of their relationship.
• The offender may be angry, critical or dissatisfied.
• He may act guilty, anxious or disengaged.
• Attention, including sexual, may decrease, or in fact, increase.
Although young people seem to be coming out at younger and younger ages, for a variety of reasons many men do not see coming out as a possibility. In some societies, coming out is not a possibility. Many men have said to me, "Please, take this torment away from me." One young African said, "I may as well kill myself now, because if anyone finds out about me, I will be killed. One young Chinese student said that as the oldest son, his culture expected him to marry and care for his parents. He felt he could not abandon those obligations. He asked me if he should marry even though he could not function sexually with a woman.
Some men who have sex with men (MSM) think they are too straight to be gay, but others see them as too gay to be straight. Many of them are married. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 7% of men have sex with men, but gay men are estimated at about 4% of the population. These figures suggest that about 3% of MSM do not identify themselves as gay. In one study in New York City, nearly 10% of men who identified as straight had sex exclusively with men, and nearly 10% of married men had experienced sex with another man in the preceding year. Except for occasional exposure of some high profile individual, these men are virtually invisible.
Kevin made the perfect apology to his wife. He expressed his guilt and admitted that what he had done was wrong. He gave no excuse or defense for having wronged her. He told his wife he knew she had every right to feel hurt. Kevin's wife begrudgingly put him "on probation." He assumed a submissive posture in the relationship, leading to a complete reversal in the power dynamics within their relationship. He promised to stop seeing men - but he has not.
What's a wife to do? Many are too ashamed to tell anyone, and if they do, friends will usually tell them, "Get rid of him. Once a cheater, always a cheater," and there is some data to support that. Lisa Diamond has written that the gender of women's sexual desire may be fluid, but researchers generally agree that for men homosexual attractions never reverse. It is estimated that 60% of offenders do so again, but the numbers for MSM may be much higher.
How serious was Kevin's offense? Sex isn't the problem; the lies used to cover the offense are far more damaging. The spouse feels a mixture of feelings: anger, hurt, righteous indignation and a wish for revenge. Lying erodes the trust that must form the basis of a successful relationship. Healing requires the re-establishment of trust. Without forgiveness, the betrayal will undermine meaningful relationships. If the couple chooses to remain together, it can take years to restore trust. When the spouse discovers a subsequent betrayal, it sends her a message that the offender neither regretted the offense nor seriously intended to change.
The crucial issues in working through the crisis are:
• The severity of the offense
• The degree of commitment to the relationship
• The degree to which the offender is sincerely apologizing
• Conciliatory behavior
• The capacity for forgiveness
• The personalities of each individual
Kevin believed his confession had erased his guilt. He argued his intentions were good and that he lied to his spouse to protect her. Some MSM believe their behavior was unintended or due to extenuating circumstances; therefore, it must be excused. Sex isn't rational but it can be rationalizing. Early LGBT literature described coming out as a linear process typically completed by the mid-twenties. For MSM who have led a heterosexual life, coming out is complex. It is like a sailing ship that tacks from port to port in high seas and heavy winds. Some gay activists criticize MSM as not being "actualized."
The "Prospect Theory" described by economists Kahneman and Tversky suggests that in all decision making, "Losses loom larger than gains." In other words, a decision to remain in the closet is impacted more by the fears of loss rather than the prospect of potential gains. MSM may say they are engaged in homosexual behavior but resist assuming a gay identity because they don't identify with the stereotype. They also don't want to sacrifice the privileges attached to being heterosexual. Being gay and doing gay is not the same thing. One Muslim from the Middle East said, "This isn't about being gay; it's only about pleasure."
Justin Spring in Secret Historian wrote, "If one does not want to suppress his nature and yet is afraid of expressing it, what is he to do?" Future efforts to suppress homosexual attraction may cause MSM to experience sadness; depression and thoughts of suicide; drug and alcohol abuse; and other self destructive behaviors. For MSM, the first question they must answer is, "How would you intend to live your life if the homosexual attractions never go away?" The next step is to challenge the expectations of potential losses and gains from coming out. The MSM client should be helped to understand that he could choose to come out in only a very limited way.
For women married to MSM, the questions are at least as difficult as they are for their spouse. Revelation may lead to public disrespect and loss of social status. Such disgrace may provoke feelings of hatred and a wish to hide or escape. With the risk of re-offending so high, the spouse will need to answer, "Are you willing to settle for so little? Are you prepared for the humiliation of public exposure of your spouse's illicit homosexual activity?" In some cases the straight spouse clings to their relationship with a MSM in a very dysfunctional way, a reflection of her own lack of investment in the relationship.
Couples must address the primary issue: Should they remain married given the permanency of his struggle against homosexual attraction? When couples are committed to remaining married, the question becomes, "Are you willing to modify the rules of the relationship in some way to allow for some same sex expression outside the marriage?" Any discussion of changing the rules must include an exploration of safe sex. If they are not open to modifying the rules, the questions become, "Can you truly forgive your spouse? What will be the consequences if it happens again?"
Whether they remain together or separate, if the straight spouse develops a sense of empathy for the MSM's struggle, it can lead toward more positive interpersonal behavior, reduce the wish to retaliate, and increase motivation for reconciliation. For the straight spouse, healing the assault on her self esteem will also mean reassigning causation for the offense; she must stop blaming herself or her spouse. The offender also needs to be able to see himself and the pain caused by his sexual orientation through the eyes of his spouse.
We expect our partner will always take our interests into account but the reality is that rules are sometimes broken. Forgiveness cannot come without empathy. Without forgiveness, a couple may remain bound together through hatred -- even if they separate and divorce.
Louis B. Smedes said, "Forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future."
Diamond, L. M. (2008). Sexual fluidity: understanding women's love and desire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk. Econometrica, 45(2), 263-292.