Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

When Gay Men (Mis)Marry Straight Women: Bonnie Kaye's Story

When a straight woman marries a gay man, what does she experience?

I recently spoke with Bonnie Kaye, author of Straight Wives, Shattered Lives: Stories of Women with Gay Husbands , among other books, and host of Bonnie Kaye’s Straight Wives Talk Show on BlogTalkRadio. Bonnie has spent much of her adult life first living with and attempting to love a gay husband and then helping other women in the same mis-marriage situation. (“Mis-marriage” is Bonnie’s term for “mistake in marriage.” Other people sometimes refer to these relationships using the term “mixed marriage.”)

Source: Shutterstock

Because I know countless gay men who were once married to straight women, with varying degrees of short and longer-term happiness and misery, I wanted to discuss this topic, and I wanted to do so from the straight wives’ perspective. Who better to speak with about this than Bonnie Kaye? Our discussion was wide-ranging, beginning with her own marriage to a gay man and progressing to how she was able to move on post-marriage, eventually becoming a rock for other women in similar situations.

In this post, I have presented part one of this discussion, the story of Bonnie’s marriage and breakup. I will post part two, the aftermath, in a few weeks.

Bonnie, could you tell me a little about your story? What are the details of your own marriage and how did you cope?

I grew up in the '60s in California, in Santa Monica. I was on the beach a lot in those years, meeting a lot of different people. There was a lot of sexual promiscuity. People were trying all kinds of things. Orgies were going on. It was a big thing of the day. I was not one of the people to experiment with that, but it was nothing that was unheard of. And it was all pretty acceptable out in California. So if somebody told me they’d tried something but they didn’t like it, there would be no reason for me to think that the person was gay. Because of that, I really didn’t judge anyone’s past behaviors, I just thought that’s how life was. But I certainly didn’t want to marry a gay man. That’s not what I wanted.

When I met my ex-husband, Robert, I was living in New York. I was mesmerized by him because he was very charming and strong and everything that I was looking for at the time. He was a karate teacher, martial arts, a strong guy, looked like Sylvester Stallone, and gay was not one of the issues I thought about with him. We had sex early in the relationship, and we fell in love. We got married in 1978. There were issues with him from the start, but nothing to make me think that he might be gay.

Then somebody who was part of my social network informed me, a couple of weeks before we were supposed to get married, that he had suspicions that Robert was gay. I didn’t believe it. I thought, “How could he be gay? He’s been sexual with me.” We just didn’t understand back then. We didn’t know the things we know now. There was no information out there. There was no Internet.

But I still went to Robert to talk to him about it because we were two weeks away from getting married. And he got so angry when I brought it up. We were in a restaurant and he nearly threw the table over, saying, “How dare somebody accuse me of that?” I felt so good that he reacted that way because that told me he wasn’t even looking in that direction. I did ask, however, because I wanted to be open-minded, “Has anything happened in your past? I understand people try things.” And he said, “Nothing happened in my past.” So I just let it go and we got married. But from then on, I noticed things were a little bit off.

So despite the denials, your gut was telling you something wasn’t right?

There were guys showing up at the door, and Robert would make comments about how guys found him attractive. There was one guy that was at his office where he worked, the mail guy, who Robert said was all over him and crazy about him. When he told me about that, I said, “Why would a guy be so interested in you? Tell him you’re married.” He said, “Well, I don’t want to hurt his feelings.” I know in retrospect, of course, that somebody who was straight wouldn’t say that.

Gay men have gaydar. We see who responds and who doesn’t.

The bottom line is, he was actively gay. But he wanted to have what everybody else had. Being gay back then was really hard. It was really hard for men, made harder by the AIDS epidemic. When I was growing up in California it wasn’t that bad. I had a lot of gay friends in California. But in most places in the world, it was really difficult. On the east coast where we were, being gay was still really hidden. There were a lot of obstacles to being gay.

Then, with the AIDS epidemic, a lot of men who were gay felt as if they could be straight, it was a good time to be straight. So they pursued women and got married. And I understand why these men, if they thought they could be straight, tried that route. So even though Robert lied to me about being gay, I did understand why he did it. And at the end of the day, it wasn’t the fact that he was gay that was so devastating to me, it was the way that he treated me. Because what happens is that these men become frustrated in their straight marriages because they’re not meant to be in these marriages. They’re trying to be somebody they’re not, and that’s miserable, so they act out.

So even though Robert was lying to you and cheating on you, you had some compassion for him?

Yes. To be honest, I can’t picture myself in that same situation. If society turned the tables and being straight was seen as bad or negative, and I had to go through life pretending that I was in love with a woman, I don’t know how I would do it. I’m sure I would get angry and frustrated about it, and I would lash out at whomever I was living with.

That’s how it is for gay men in straight marriages. They feel trapped. But it’s not that they start out like that. I really do believe these guys love their wives when they get married. I really do believe my husband loved me. He married me, and he wasn’t doing it to trick me. He was doing it to trick himself. He was trying to fool Mother Nature by being somebody he couldn’t really be.

Were there other clues?

Sure. Lots of little clues, little hints along the way, little behaviors that I noticed that were not the norm for straight men. The way he spoke about guys. He was also very homophobic, making fun of effeminate men. Over the years, I’ve found that a lot of gay men do that. They make fun of men who are effeminate because they fear they’ll be judged in the same way. It’s an internalized homophobia that I see a lot, even among gay men who are out and open.

He would make fun of a guy, telling me, “They call him this, they call him that.” And I thought, “Well, how do you even know that? And if you’re not gay, why do you care about it?” I understand now that he was living a double life, having to watch every move he made, and he was overcompensating as a way of not being discovered. But it’s really hard to be something that you’re not, and in time it falls apart.

Do you find that a lot of gay men in straight marriages engage in blaming and gaslighting as part of the act?

Absolutely. Many times these guys, instead of just being honest, will make their wife feel confused about the situation and make her think that she’s the problem in the marriage. That’s certainly what my ex-husband did.

I saw in one of your blog posts you use the term “gaylighting” to describe this form of gaslighting.

Well, that’s how I look at it. These men make their wives think that they’re imagining things, that they’re seeing things that aren’t there. That’s what they do to preserve the daily lie. That’s why I say that living authentically is the most important thing in life and relationships. You know, for the mental health of any person. I don’t know how people can live a lie for years on end. I really don’t.

So what was the final straw in your marriage?

Well, one day, about two years into the marriage, he was really upset and pacing all over, and I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “I can’t talk about it. I can’t say anything. It’s too terrible.” I said, “Just tell me. I can take anything. Tell me what’s so bad.” So he finally came through and said he had a moment of weakness when he was with a guy that he was spending a lot of time with. It was devastating for me because it was the first time he had admitted to any kind of interaction with someone. And even though he said it didn’t mean anything to him, it meant something to me. I was just devastated. I had a baby at the time. Plus, I was already beaten down after two years in that marriage because he was very abusive. Emotionally, never physically.

But I didn’t have a lot of strength at that point, and I didn’t want to break up the family, so I wrote it off as what he said it was: just one moment of weakness. I stayed with the marriage. Then I got pregnant again and had another baby. So life got more complicated. I got more sucked into it. But there were other signs, other guys. I started recognizing what was happening. I think that once he saw I was willing to stay, he started pushing the boundaries, doing more of what he wanted to do. He would dress up to go out, put on cologne, which were things he didn’t do for me. And there were guys hanging around all the time. It was really not a good situation.

I find it interesting that a lot of men in this situation rationalize their behavior, saying it’s not cheating and it doesn’t mean they’re gay.

Exactly. And I bought into that in the beginning because I didn’t know what I was up against. I really didn’t understand it back then. I really thought that people can choose to be straight or gay. Well, not all people. I did, even then, think that many gay people are who they are and that’s all there is to it. But others, like the man I was married to, he knew how to have sex with me, so I thought he had a choice. And I thought that if I would just try harder with him, then he would focus more on me and he would get those other thoughts out of his head.

So you were starting to take on blame for his behavior.

Yes. And he would tell me it was my fault to reinforce that. He would blame me, so it was easy to take on the blame. He told me I’d gained weight and I wasn’t attractive and I was too busy. I wasn’t clean enough, as far as the house. One day he even said, “Well, if I do have those thoughts, who would blame me?” It was a lot of stuff like that. Little things that he told me to make me feel worse about myself. He would say, “Why do you always want sex? You must be a nymphomaniac.” He kept insisting to me that because he was this great looking guy who always had lots of women chasing after him that if there was a problem with our sex life it had to be me. Eventually, he just beat me into vulnerability. He was very good at pushing buttons to make me feel inadequate.

I know now that a lot of women experience this “shout her down to shut her up” strategy. A woman gets this because her husband is living with her but doesn’t really want to be with her, so he makes it her fault.

Honestly, I wasn’t even living back then, I was just existing day-to-day. There were times when I felt suicidal, but I had children by then. Other times I felt homicidal. I just didn’t know how to get out of it. I wasn’t strong enough. I was very fortunate that he left.

He’s the one who ended things?

He left because I went through his wallet. I had become very much of a detective.

So you did what betrayed wives almost always do.

Yes, I did. Of course, it’s easier today to be a detective because there’s a lot of places to look, like cell phones, computers, and social media. I didn’t have any of that back then, so I had to go through his wallet and his pockets, looking for receipts and other evidence. What I found was really hurtful. He had promised me he wouldn’t see the guy he’d had his moment of weakness with, but then I found a love letter from that guy saying he understood Robert had to be with me because I was the mother of his children, but that he was always going to love him, and blah, blah, blah. Robert was carrying that in his wallet. When I found it and read it, I got very angry.

Then, in typical fashion, Robert blamed me. He said, “How dare you go through my personal business? How dare you go through my wallet?” I said, “You’re seeing somebody and you’re asking me, ‘How dare I find out?’” You know, I just didn’t get it.

He had also been telling me things like, “If you ever tell anybody these silly stories about me being gay, then that’s it, we’re done.” And then he would threaten to take the children, telling me I would never see them again. He had me in very bad shape with that one. That was always the threat he made. “I’ll take the children and you’ll never see them again.”

Finally, he walked out. He dropped $50 on the table and took the car. And he left me with the two kids. I had a three-month-old and a two-year-old. And the baby was very sick. He was born with a rare disease, so I was running back and forth to hospitals doing a million things for him. Even worse, I didn’t have an education. I had a high school equivalency diploma and that’s it. So it wasn’t like I had a lot of skills to go out and get a decent job. I just looked out the window and said, “How am I ever going to survive?”

And how did you survive?

Amazingly, within a week my strength came back. I’d been a very strong person before I met Robert. He came back a week later and I had no idea he was coming because I’d never even called to talk with him. He had his suitcase in his hand and I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m coming back home.” Thankfully, I was strong enough to say, “No, you’re not. You left. That’s it. You’re not coming back.” He said, “Do you mean to tell me you’re willing to break up a family?” I said, “No. You’re the one who broke it up. You walked away from us. I didn’t walk away from you.” And life went on.

In next week’s post, I will present the second half of my discussion with Bonnie Kaye, where she talks about moving forward with two small children, becoming a therapist, and working to help other women in similar situations.