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Digging Deeper With Straight Spouses

Pain is an inevitable consequence of loving someone.

Since my essay, “My Husband Is Having an Affair...With a Man,” was published, I have received many, many comments. Although some of the comments were supportive, many of them were challenging, such as this one:

Sadly, most married, closeted gay men are manipulative, narcissistic con artists who only think about themselves with only occasional feelings of guilt and remorse. Their decision to leave or stay in their marriages is never out of consideration for the wife. [The comments—mostly from women—have been edited slightly]. Her comment made me angry and defensive.

I really am sorry for your pain. I realize that anything more I say risks suggesting that you’re not entitled to your pain. That is not my intent.

My father died in a farm accident when I was 3 years old, creating a cloud that cast a dark shadow over me for most of my early life. Three themes dominated my thoughts: 1. Being a man was dangerous. 2. If I survived, I would be the best father any kid ever had. 3. My father’s death fractured my sense of manliness. These things nourished my denial of my same-sex attractions.

By “denial,” I do not mean lying; lying is a conscious choice. Denial is one of the psychological defenses that changes unacceptable impulses into acceptable thoughts, blocking those impulses and reducing anxiety. In my case, denial operated unconsciously. The lies came later.

Dr. Brené Brown suggests that when we reach an apparent impasse in discussions such as these, we must move in closer and dig deeper rather than walk away. My initial reaction to the following comment was even angrier: You and the other false, lying narcissists who defend the use of women as objects in your lives have no inkling of the damage you have caused to women and to the children who were conceived from your hideous lies. (I am not that guy! I had to remind myself, “Don’t stomp off pissed. Dig deeper.”)

I wondered, “What am I missing?”—my own experience was so different—so I made contact with the Straight Spouse Network (SSN), an organization whose mission is to offer support to women and men who discover that their spouse is attracted to others of his/her same sex. I learned a lot.

From the SSN, I learned of situations totally different from my own and those I found in my research with men who come out later in life. Hearing how many of these women had experienced vicious, personal attacks by their spouses shocked me. Many women (and men) in this situation feel that not only is their sexuality under attack but also their very person-hood. When repeated often enough, the charge “You drove me to this” is sometimes accepted as true by both partners. Often it is accompanied by doubt and self-blame, for example, "If I'd been enough of a woman (or man), he (or she) would not be gay.”

Since all men and women have been raised in similar cultures, they have incorporated these “ideals” of masculinity whether they are gay, straight, bisexual, or other. Women assimilate this same stereotype, and both men and women pay a penalty for straying from the roles prescribed for them. But toxic masculinity is not a uniquely heterosexual problem, and some straight women are or were married to very toxic gay men.

The comments from these straight spouses suggested that their spouses were demonstrating primarily two psychological defense mechanisms: projection and denial. Projection is blaming another for your own failings or finding your negative qualities in somebody else while denying them in yourself. This woman’s comment suggests her husband was projecting:

My closeted gay husband looks at me with resentment and disdain, and he abuses me physically, emotionally, and verbally. He engages in systematically breaking me down as a woman and a human being. Why? Because I am not a man and can never fulfill him as a man does.

Projection is fundamental to toxic masculinity, and one of the characteristics is a disdain for homosexuality which generates shame, self-hatred, and even gay bashing. One protection against that shame is to blame someone else rather than accept responsibility. I previously wrote about a man who blamed his same-sex attraction on his wife’s alcoholism. He was essentially saying, “I hate what I’m doing, but it’s all your fault,” playing into the woman’s doubts about herself. Projection would appear to be the explanation for some if not most of what these men are exhibiting.

Projection is an unhealthy defense, a way of demanding that the other make changes rather than focusing on changes that the accuser needs to make. It is my belief—although I have no research data to support my hypothesis—that those who cling most closely to the prescribed definitions of masculinity and femininity are more likely to use the defense of projection, i.e. “It’s your fault that I am the way that I am.” They refuse to see a therapist, believing “Why would I see a therapist to fix your problem?”

Denial is also commonly used. Denial can be either conscious or unconscious. Conscious denial is knowingly lying to deceive someone. Unconscious denial occurs when an event, thought or feeling is so abhorrent that the mind will not accept it as a reality. Denial is commonly used to prevent one from seeing the consequences of their behavior. In every case where denial is used, it is a way to avoid painful feelings in areas of our lives we don’t wish to admit, but it may operate completely out of the awareness of the denier. Unconscious denial was my go-to defense.

One woman wrote, Don't tell me they don't know they're gay by the time they're in their teens. For some of us who tried to protect ourselves from the painful and unacceptable truth, this simply isn’t true.

Denial is considered a rather primitive, last-ditch defense mechanism and not a particularly healthy way of dealing with psychological pain. Early theories about the development of homosexuality reinforced this idea that to be “a well-developed homosexual,” starting in adolescence, one begins to pass through stages of homosexual development in a linear fashion. My own experience of awakening to my same-sex attraction (and the experiences of many of the men in my research) did not progress linearly and definitely did not follow the timeline associated with this early academic theory. It simply reinforced my denial.

Many LGBTQ people do not fully understand and accept their sexual orientation until well into their mid- or late-life. However, some LGBTQ did know of their same-sex orientation prior to marriage—even as early as childhood—and in some cases, the person questioning their sexual orientation confessed their confusion to their future spouse. Whether or not it was denial or simply naiveté—however silly that may seem now—many of those couples believed that being in a heterosexual marriage would fix the problem, and our culture supported that. “You’ll be okay once you find the right woman/man.”

If the exposed spouse has not come out, the betrayed spouse may be asked not to share his or her secret, such as in this comment:

Many straight wives are unable to share their stories without being lambasted as being homophobic. We can’t share our stories when our gay exes are still firmly in their closet. I am in many ways still trapped like him in his denial.

This leaves the straight spouse feeling isolated and alone, with no one she (or he) feels it is safe to speak to about it. She was not rejecting homosexuality but the requirement of silence.

Psychological denial often leads to one of the other major issues for straight spouses: the repeated lies about same-sex behavior. When promises to give up the offending behavior—however sincere they were made—are broken repeatedly, it not only negates any apology but completely undermines the trust that is the basis of all good relationships. In other words, lying even in an attempt to protect the spouse may result in greater damage through a lack of trust in all relationships.

I will not defend anyone who abuses or objectifies another, but I make no apology for defending the many men I know whose investment in their roles as fathers equals that of straight spouses. Here is a typical comment from one of these gay fathers:

It feels wrong to simply follow my wants as if I have no concern for anyone else. I am hesitant to move out because it feels like another act of disrespect, and she will only agree for me to leave when she reaches a point of absolute loathing. I feel incredible guilt for hiding these things from my wife for so long, even when I believed it was in her best interest. My wife will never forgive me.

I hear these comments frequently from men who feel they are facing two alternatives, both unacceptable: leaving or trying to change something that they know they cannot change.

In our culture, we have only one word for "love" without qualifying it with some descriptive word. We love our wives and husbands, our children, our dogs, ice cream, and popcorn at the movies. Most of the time we think of love only as the over-the-moon, "perfect," romantic love that inevitably happens early in a relationship but then evolves in all relationships. The love I had for my wife was more than platonic—sex was good—but it wasn’t the mind-blowing kind of sex that we both discovered later with other partners. I do still love my wife but I also know that through no fault of hers, sex lacked something neither of us could define. Straight spouses often hear, “I’m sure he loved you. Why are you complaining?” And it makes them angry. They feel cheated out of the over-the-moon sexual experience they were expecting. “If that love wasn’t real, was any of our relationship real?” I felt cheated, too, because that’s what I was expecting, and I just didn’t understand until later why I didn’t have it. There is no word for loving another that falls short of the moon.

When people commit to a relationship they want to be over the moon, at least for a while. It is a valid expectation. They didn’t sign up for a live-in BFF. At least some of the time, the person with same-sex attraction may be as surprised and disappointed as the straight spouse to find that it just isn’t there.

When I, after 18 years of marriage and made peace with my same-sex attractions, my wife and I both knew that I loved her, just not enough and in the right ways. For most of those years, we thought it was as good as it gets as she told me when I interviewed her for my book, Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight. My experiences cannot be used to generalize about all gay men in mixed-orientation marriages, and I would not encourage anyone to seek rapprochement with an abusive man, but gay men are as different from each other as are heterosexual men.

Love and risk are inseparable, and pain is an inevitable consequence of loving someone. Healing from a failed relationship takes time, sometimes a very long time. Pain happens in all relationships, but all of our life experiences contribute to how resilient we are in dealing with that pain. Suffering is what we do to ourselves through how we choose to respond to those painful experiences.

I am truly sorry for your pain.

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