New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, Idaho Senator Larry Craig, evangelist Ted Haggard, and countless other famous men have made national news by disclosing their secret homosexuality. Though these disclosures made national news, uncounted thousands of husbands and wives have also come out to their families in the privacy of their own homes.
One common denominator behind the news stories and behind the closed doors is an unsuspecting mate blindsided by the truth. These “straight spouses”--heterosexual people who unknowingly have partners who are gay—number in the millions, world-wide. If you are reading this post, you probably have lived this drama yourself.
What happens to a straight spouse in the aftermath of such a disclosure? Hundreds of anecdotal reports have reiterated a pattern of recovery that may seem quite familiar to both male and female readers of this blog. Their journey proves the resiliency of the human spirit and demonstrates that healing and hope are possible. Individual histories vary, of course, but there are predictable stages that most straight spouses experience. For one just beginning this passage, it is worthwhile to summarize again the steps toward recovery that may be expected.
Shock is the first reaction, if the gay spouse has successfully hidden his true sexual orientation. As hard as it is for outsiders to understand, most straight spouses are genuinely surprised by their mate’s disclosure. After the first jolt of realization, there may be an odd sense of relief. This is the “Ah, then it wasn’t me!” reaction. In a mixed-orientation relationship, the straight partner often feels responsible for the couple’s distance or lack of intimacy, that he or she isn’t attractive enough or sexy enough or smart enough. Just knowing that they have not caused the rift gives brief comfort.
Relief is quickly followed by intense confusion. Everything that seemed clear is suddenly in question. For some, the easiest course is denial, hiding from painful reality. “Maybe there’s some mistake.” “Maybe this is a passing phase.” “Maybe therapy will change her sexual orientation. Denial is a fruitless defense and is doomed to disappointment.
Some straight partners continue to feel responsible for the dilemma and persist in self-blame. “Was this my fault?” or “How could I be so blind and stupid!” This is a misguided response since sexual orientation is inborn and no one “causes” it. Nor can we deny it or change it. Moreover, if the gay spouse has successfully concealed the fundamental truth, sometimes for decades, he or she has become adept at hiding and lying. This is not the mate’s fault!
People who tend to blame themselves for this disrupting revelation also tend to feel deep sympathy for their partner. They see that hiding one’s true sexual identity is exhausting and debilitating, and they feel genuine pity for their spouse.
Regardless of their empathy, knowing the truth generates deep grief. Learning that one’s spouse is not what he seemed topples everything familiar. All we thought we knew is in doubt and the loss is like a death. In fact, a spouse’s coming out destroys the security of the present and casts the future into doubt. Nothing will unfold as planned and expected. Fear and uncertainty eventually ignite anger, directed sometimes at the mate and more often at the whole confusing mess in their relationship.
Behind anger is hurt, and beyond the anger is despair, alternating with deepened rage. This stage is the most dangerous, for these destructive emotions may turn against oneself. If rage and despair are prolonged, they may precipitate complete self-destruction through addictions, violence toward others, or even suicide. Professional help is essential in these cases.
While the discovery of one’s mixed-orientation relationship is inevitably painful, most straight spouses experience a turning point at which they begin to accept their new reality. Seeing clearly and accepting the fact of your loved one’s sexual orientation is crucial. Accepting what cannot be changed allows movement toward a positive resolution. Patience is needed because it always takes time to reach acceptance—months for the lucky few, years for most. Recognition of reality is the first step. Difficult decisions then follow—whether to make accommodations and stay together, or to separate. Either decision requires incredible courage and a re-imagining of the future. Both partners must reconfigure their future, together or apart, hopeful that they can both find comfort and happiness.
For both partners in these relationships, disruption is inevitable and disaster a real possibility. For many, however, the disclosure episode is a gateway to freedom from doubt and deception. This major turning point can be the beginning of something much more satisfying, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to recreate one's identity and future. The most successful people replace resentment with forgiveness, restore trust and hope, and find meaning beyond themselves. They use the lessons learned to move past their hurt.
This pattern was reiterated dozens of times in the interviews I conducted for my books and documentary. It is also an outline of my own recovery after my husband came out. These stages are relatively predictable. The best news is that it is possible to navigate these stages and arrive safely on the other side of this life event--healed and wiser for the experience. Knowing what to expect along the way can be immensely helpful.
When a celebrity comes out of the closet, the news saturates the media. As the headlines fade, the human aftermath is seldom reported and outcomes are a mystery. How did Jim McGreevey and his former wife end their episode after his announcement faded from the news? What about the other formerly closeted celebrities? It’s highly probable that, like the rest of us, their families are slogging through their own version of these same stages of recovery. Best wishes for ultimate happiness for us all!