Digging Deeper with Straight Spouses - Part II
Losses Always Seem Larger than Gains
Posted Jul 27, 2018
PART II: Forgiveness as a Possible Outcome
Follow this link to Part I
As I was working on this essay, I got an email from my ex-wife, whom I divorced 32 years ago, asking me to have lunch. “Nothing serious. Just haven’t caught up in a while.” I quickly accepted the invitation. My experience is unimaginable to some straight spouses, and for us, it didn’t come easily or quickly.
I knew when I married her that I wanted be the best dad any kid could have.
Divorcing and coming out were against every value I held dearly. My wife did not want to end the marriage – at least not at first – because she could only feel shame and a sense of failure. We later discovered the gains for both of us exceeded the losses we feared when we ended a marriage that wasn’t working for either of us.
My experience was much like what I heard from this middle-aged, married military man [edited to protect his identity]: I made mistakes that I cannot take back, I am coming to terms with my new identity, none of this is her fault, and I accept my responsibility in causing this pain and disruption. I’ve moved into the transient barracks and on the way I began to feel very angry with her. I was leaving my children and dogs behind, but she continues to ask me to wait a few years, “and then you can be free.” I visited last night, and I had a conversation with my wife that was circular and fruitless.
When I dropped my teenage son off at a friend’s on the way back to the barracks, I gave him a big hug and told him how much I love him. Then I cried all the way back to the barracks. My wife wants us to put aside our wants to concentrate on the kids, but I cannot concentrate on the kids if I am spending all of my time pretending to be a regular, straight dad. One of the things I missed most after leaving the family were these casual, unexpected moments with my teenage daughters while taking them to meet their friends.
For the spouse who comes out, their coming out is often followed by what has been referred to as “the coming out crash,” a celebration of their new authenticity and an attempt to make up for lost time as a gay person. From a distance, the new-found, gay life may appear exciting – and it is about 10% of the time – but what is less visible is the 90% of time when you’re eating Kraft Mac and Cheese alone for the eighteenth time, sleeping on an air mattress, or trying to entertain your kids who feel like guests in an apartment with no furniture and no video games.
The pain for the straight spouse is amplified because she (or he) sees the celebration surrounding their spouse’s new authenticity while the world seems to care less that her (or his) life has just been upended, as suggested in this comment: I come through as one who is not ready to give concession and end the marriage, the cruel and heartless one. I realized that I was not and maybe never had been the object of his affection and that in itself, felt like a lie, whether he understood his attractions or not. Straight spouses feel forgotten. Our pain is real and must be traveled as it is the death of not only the relationship, but of what we thought was real. As this woman considers her future, she may begin to doubt her capacity to make good judgments about the character of anyone.
Some of this disconnect is because the gay spouse often has considered a decision about coming out for some time, while the straight spouse only recently may have discovered confirming evidence of their spouses same-sex attraction. Thus the gay spouse is completing this integration just as the straight spouse must begin the work of coming to terms with it.
Both spouses are subject to what Tversky and Kahneman called “The Prospect Theory,” a theory of decision making where there is risk involved. Decisions are based on judgments, and judgments are assessments based on conditions of uncertainty, where it is difficult to foresee the consequences and outcomes of the decision. These decisions are made more difficult because they involve trade-offs and values. Individuals tend to minimize the risk of potential gains and maximize the risk of potential losses. The spouse considering coming out may avoid a decision because the losses seem greater than any potential gains; the straight spouse who has discovered her spouse’s same-sex attraction may avoid leaving a marriage for precisely the same reasons.
I take exception to the following comment: Sadly, most married closeted men are manipulative narcissists. While this is true for some, it is a very broad generalization, suggesting that what is true about her husband must be true for all gay men. This is the basis of all stereotyping and prejudice. It is just as false as if I were to conclude, “Sadly, most women who marry closeted men seek out a weak partner that they can dominate and control.” True for some, but not all. This comment suggests that all closeted gay men (and women) are somehow more pathological than other men (and women), and I just do not accept the validity of this claim.
I was once told during an interview, “Any man who’s had a dick in his mouth is gay.” I resisted this comment with limited success. I prefer to think of closeted men as the Centers for Disease Control does, “Men who have sex with men (MSM)," because this term -- however awkward -- describes an objective and definable behavior rather than a subjective sense of self-identity. I often hear from men who say, after describing their conflict, “What am I?” My response is always the same: Only you can decide that. For some MSM – and there are a lot of them -- announcing they are gay is a bridge too far. When a person says, “I am gay,” it is a slippery slope with no possibility of climbing back to the top. Saying “I take it all back” is not a possibility.
Many older MSM have never known anyone openly gay, and they are still bound by the stereotype of what it means. This seemingly is a small rhetorical issue, and it creates major conflict. For me, the difference comes down to how I label myself, my self-identity, versus how my behavior is labeled by others, a difference of behavior v. identity. When Senator Craig who was caught soliciting sex from a man, stood before a microphone with his wife at his side and said, “I am not gay; I never have been gay,” many in the LGBT community celebrated the exposure of a hypocritical man. I thought, “Wow! That could have been me.” Senator Craig and I both lived grew up in rural America, when psychiatry called homosexuality a "pathological deviancy," and (during the 1950s McCarthy era) the government considered us subversives.
We now live in a time when almost everyone knows someone who is gay, and as one woman commented, Everyone rejoices when someone comes out, but what about the loneliness and pain of a straight spouse left to figure out her own truth now, which often includes redefining the past and questioning every aspect of her sexuality. The man who comes out is a hero. That is well and good, but if he's married, there is another part of the equation. I’m shattered. It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to hear her pain.
Many of us who have betrayed our spouses still love our wives or husbands and have regrets for how we have hurt them and destroyed a life we all dreamed of. It’s in our nature as human beings to seek out others who support our preconceived beliefs.
We all experience what psychologists call “Cognitive (or Confirmation) Bias,” a strong tendency to readily accept evidence that supports beliefs we already have. These established beliefs give us reason to say, as one woman did, You don’t have to agree with me but I don’t have to agree with you. All of our stories are but anecdotes, and although they are often used as evidence for claims that all gay men (or gay women or even straight spouses) are the same, anecdotes have weaknesses that severely limit their value as evidence.
One thing I discovered after reading these comments was that in my wish to be seen as a good father who also is gay, I unwittingly may have sought out more opinions from other good, committed fathers who’ve come out, and I admit my confirmation bias may have predisposed me to listening to them more closely. But these comments following my essay, "My Husband is Having an Affair...With a Man," from straight spouses have opened my eyes to some of the horrible things betrayed spouses have experienced. In the same vein, betrayed, straight spouses may casually examine what I have said and discount it because it contradicts their preconceptions about who and what gay men are, as evidenced by this woman’s comment: I am in contact with many, many women, and all have the same story to tell despite varied backgrounds. Perhaps this woman chose to commiserate only with other women who share her own experiences of betrayal. Perhaps I had done the same.
How spouses respond to this crisis in their lives when one of them chooses to come out varies as much as the individuals involved. It depends upon their personalities, their prior life experiences, the support they receive (or not), the length of time the betrayal has gone on, and the values they hold dearly. It can take a very long time to resolve.
Kahneman described a form of bias that people tend to believe in “the law of small numbers, that is, they tend to generalize from small amounts of data. “If my gay friends are like me, every other gay father must also be like me.” I went to a support group for gay fathers and discovered the great diversity of those men present that evening. The experience shattered my expectations of what it means to be gay, and I accepted that I could be gay in my own way. But I doubt that the husbands of any of the women who’ve made comments on my earlier essay were in that room and I’ve never met those who’ve verbally battered their wives and abandoned their children. I have met them now through the women who’ve commented and I’m grateful for that. But I’m not much interested in knowing them.
Forgiveness is a touchy subject, and not a possibility for everyone. It is not an expression of approval, not an acceptance of what has happened, not a wish to reconcile. It is a gift you give to someone who doesn’t really deserve it, a gift that is designed to set you free. Forgiveness is for you, not the one who has betrayed you.
I am truly sorry for your pain. But let’s take Brené Brown’s advice and move in and dig deeper.
To read Part I, click here.
Listen to my interview with Kristin Kalbli, the host of “Voices,” the Straight Spouse Network podcast.
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