When my husband told me that he had "homosexual tendencies" and later filled in details of two decades of clandestine gay activities, I was awash in conflicting emotions. Over many months, we worked to stay married and then to divorce with grace, and I was unknowingly following a predictable pattern of reactions as a straight spouse.
When a married gay or lesbian comes out, certain stages of recovery may be expected. These stages come and go and are often repeated. Self-reports of more than 2,000 straight and gay spouses summarized the pattern in the publication Opening the Straight Spouse's Closet (PFLAG, 1994). I personally experienced them all.
Typically, there's shock to learn that one's intimate partner has a different sexual orientation from your own. Relief follows, as many unexplained details of the relationship become clear. It is the "Ah, then it isn't me!" reaction. Confusion is common, followed by denial of the reality of the situation. Most people experience some self-blame: "What could I have done to prevent this? Is it my fault that he's gay?" In some cases, there is heart-felt sympathy for the anguish of the gay partner. All these early reactions occur repeatedly, not necessarily in order--all with incredible intensity.
When it's clear there is no turning back, straight spouses face their new reality. Stark awareness ushers in anger, grief, and despair. This dangerous but necessary phase takes months or years to resolve. Grief comes from the betrayal of trust, the loss of love, and the obliteration of future plans. When straight spouses fully understand the health risks they've faced and the the depth of their loss, their anger can deepen into rage and despair. If they remain in this stage, their chances for full recovery are slim.
Fortunately, most spouses reach a turning point, finding inner strength to begin healing. This usually happens when they accept what they cannot change and move toward resolution. When anger is replaced by forgiveness, trust and hope can be restored. People who heal most successfully usually reinforce their own inner resources with some belief or meaning beyond themselves. When they regard the whole experience as a teacher, not a disaster, they are able to move into the next phase of their lives, reconfiguring a happier future.
These stages of coping were reiterated dozens of times in the interviews I did for my books and documentary. They are relatively predictable. The best news is that we can navigate these stages and arrive safely on the other side of this life event--whole and wiser for the experience.