At this very moment, a gay spouse is coming out. At this very moment a husband or wife is suddenly a “straight spouse.” In this moment someone is feeling the shock of discovery or raging over deception. Someone is grieving the loss of the tomorrows they had planned. Another is afraid, looking into an uncertain future. These are the realities of those who unknowingly entered a mixed-orientation intimate relationship.
At this moment another straight spouse is waking up to a new day, feeling optimistic, confident and comfortable, surprised by renewed hope. Though it takes time to realize this positive outcome, recovery is a realistic goal.
A phone call yesterday reminded me that the straight spouse journey is an ongoing process. We don’t just “get over it” all at once. The middle-aged caller had separated from her husband, but their ties were still strong with daily contact and joint parenting. Not ready to make a complete break, she worried about her recurring grief and fear of the future. We talked about the necessity to take one step at a time, realizing that there is no single solution and no quick fix. Though she is in limbo today, inevitably there will be a turning point when a new path will be clear for her. In the meantime, she is working through the recognizable straight spouse stages of coping that millions of others have experienced. (See “Stages of Recovery” on this blog.) It’s encouraging to know that others have felt the same agony and have come through it whole.
Clearly, patterns of pain do recur. Discovering that our assumptions about reality were wrong is shocking and agonizing. It is a life-changing event. How we face and cope with that new information is the key factor in eventual recovery. Here are some suggestions.
Feel your feelings. Expect waves of deep emotions to come and go. Hurt, anger, disappointment, resentment, fear panic, even hatred. Betrayal engenders these human responses. Recognize that they are normal reactions, feel them fully as they come, then let them go. Dwelling on the negative will prolong your pain.
Know that feelings are transient. In My Stroke of Insight, brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor maintains that the physiological mechanism behind an emotion like anger is an automatic response that lasts just 90 seconds from the moment it is triggered until it runs its course. The fire lasts just a minute and a half—unless it is fueled further with one’s thoughts. If we feed an emotional fire with a negative storyline, it burns much, much longer, sometimes for years!
Be your own observer; notice nuances. As deep feelings threaten to overwhelm, engage your internal observer and take a mental step back to examine what is happening in your mind. Sharpen your awareness of your own process. Notice how the strong emotions peak, then dissipate. Practice staying with the force of the emotion, feel its power, experience it directly, then let it dissolve naturally. Emotional pain is conceptual. It comes not from the sensation itself, but from how we view it. It is our interpretation of it that can inflict ongoing injury.
Key: Drop the storyline. Resist the frequent temptation to feed emotional fire with the fuel of your old responses—blame, resentment, hatred, disappointment, hurt. Stay present with the recurring bare emotion without the usual reactivity and see how much faster your discomfort goes away. Replace the old resentful stories with a new mantra of your own device to undergird your effort. My own encouraging mantra is “I have everything I need to live the life I choose.” Repeating such a courageous phrase is very useful to train the mind to respond to threats with nonaggression. It just takes practice.
“Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” This familiar Buddhist adage asserts that suffering is minimized by recognition and acceptance of what we cannot change. From the foundation of clearly seeing and accepting reality as it is, forgiveness is eventually possible and personal healing can occur. Being a straight spouse is not a lifetime sentence of unhappiness. Take charge of your own future and make it a good one. You have the power to do it!