“I have met a straight spouse 'survivor', and over time I found I really admired her and like her very much, but I am finding that dating her has its hidden challenges. She was very honest and up front, and is 3 years post finding out. She has dealt with the aftermath with dignity and courage. But I sure would like to be aware of the pitfall issues, especially where it triggers feelings. I can deal with the emotions; just don't want to cause her hurt. Would you consider a do’s and don’ts column for those of us that appear after?”
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This sincere call for help noted that such an article would be a “tall order,” but it spotlights another aspect of the straight spouse journey—finding happiness with a new partner. What should a new suitor know about the distinct needs of a recovering straight spouse? What particular sensitivities remain that could sabotage a subsequent romantic relationship?
Let’s open the next chapter. What does a person dating a straight spouse need to know to create a wholesome and positive bond? My book, When Your Spouse Comes Out: A Straight Mate’s Recovery Manual (The Haworth Press, 2008) has whole chapters on related topics, but for this article I posed the question to three straight spouses who have previously contributed comments to this blog. I also asked my most obvious source, my own husband, who stumbled on a few pitfalls himself in our early days together. All of us have walked this path and all contributed to the advice summarized here.
Common Challenges; Sage Advice
Fear and loss of trust. Break-ups after a mate comes out are fraught with feelings of betrayal. Trust has been destroyed because what appeared to be true was not. The fear that such deception could happen again creates a long-lasting wound that takes years to heal. Vague suspicion surrounds each potential suitor, who must prove his sincerity. As one survivor noted, I think it’s a good idea for anyone who gets into a relationship with a straight spouse to expect occasional insecurity, even some suspicion that you might be hiding something.
Kathe was specific about her requirements: The big three I looked for in a new relationship were truth, faithfulness, and commitment. I decided that I wouldn’t compromise any of them. Ask for and give complete honesty. Talk through the source of fears and offer repeated reassurance that this is a new start. That was then, this is now. As Louella put it, I can go on trusting until I discover a reason for distrust.
Lingering anger. Every divorced straight spouse carries hidden triggers or hooks for blocked anger. It simmers under the surface and flares unexpectedly. Some hold it longer and more deeply than others. Triggers are individual and unpredictable, rooted in past experiences that no one else can fully comprehend. This pitfall requires patience, understanding, and often forgiveness. A good practice is to try to stand in the straight spouse’s place, exchange yourself for her and see each incident from her perspective. This develops empathy for her wound. Recognize and try to avoid the hook that precipitated a particular outburst.
Shame, self-doubt. Straight spouses are repeatedly asked, “Didn’t you know?” The implied “How could you not know?” is one source of the deep-seated shame that many feel. Feeling stupid is the common result, often leading to long-term self-doubt. Obviously the gay partner was adept at deception. The kindest approach for a healing straight spouse is frequent, mutual reminders that the one who was misled is neither stupid nor blind—just deceived.
Nervousness about intimacy. Volatility in a new relationship may be rooted in sexual insecurity. As Jackie put it, When you’ve been sexually rejected, or you’ve been blamed for the sex in your mixed-orientation marriage not being good, or you’ve otherwise had emotionally fraught experiences with sex, approaching sex again tends to be scary because in the past, it’s been traumatic. I think it’s a good idea for anyone who gets into a relationship with a straight spouse to occasionally expect some sexual insecurity. Once again, patience, empathy, and understanding are needed.
Unexpected, recurring grief. Changing family and social ties and the disintegration of one’s expected future invite bouts of recurring sadness for straight spouses. They endure many losses that have to be grieved, sooner or later: Divorce, loss of identity, shaken friendships, family alienation, feelings of worthlessness.
Deep wounds require long healing. Louella Komuves wrote a book to help herself heal (Silent Sagas: Unsung Sorrows, iUniverse, 2006). After eleven years happily remarried, Louella recalls an example of repeated grief. The date of her anniversary with her first [gay] husband was approaching. Next year, that anniversary will be 50 years ago that we married. When I realized that, suddenly I needed to be "sad" because that time would not be celebrated in the very special ways that both my parents and in-laws enjoyed. . . . However, knowing that my second husband is a great listener, I had no trouble sharing with him my sadness. Once I said aloud what I was feeling, it was like getting the thought "out of my body" and gave me the renewed freedom to be content in my current status. It is natural to grieve personal losses, like missing a benchmark anniversary, but episodes like this pass even more quickly with an understanding listener.
Shared values. For many straight spouses, compatible spiritual paths are a vital component of complete recovery. Shared spirituality as a core value grounds relationships. At the very least, tolerance for differences in belief systems is essential for lasting connection. As Louella observes, it was not important that the man belong to my religion (mainline Protestant denomination), but I needed him to know how important my personal involvement in church activities is to me. Though her husband feels welcome to participate, he doesn’t feel obligated to join Louella’s church. Instead, each encourages the other to practice their individual spiritual journeys—in a loving, open, supportive atmosphere.
Wisdom from experience. My husband, Dale, who has lived through Kevin’s dilemma, offers his advice on loving and understanding a recovering straight spouse.
- Examine yourself. This new relationship is more complex than most. What is your goal for the best possible outcome?
- Keep talking! When you hit a pitfall, ask exactly what happened and how it felt. Ask her to help you understand her needs. Your own sensitivity is a good foundation for this developing relationship.
- Explore your own feelings and attitudes toward homosexuality and inform yourself about related issues. Learn the facts.
- Be aware and accepting of her lifelong relationships formed prior to your life together. Her family ties, her history with a gay husband, her children, friends from her previous life—these will not go away and may become more complicated. You’ll have to put the pieces of this puzzle together in a new design that works for you both.
- You can’t hate. Accept your new reality and try to drop negativity. Also understand that her recovery will be complete when she can truly forgive.
- Realize that long-term healing will be required. It takes several years.
- Finally, when you hook an emotional response, talk it out immediately and remember that the trigger episode from the past “doesn’t belong to you.”
Shared responsibility. A survivor’s new mate should give frequent reassurance to support renewed self-confidence, but both people carry responsibility for the ultimate success of their developing partnership. Jackie articulated the point very well:
I still have a responsibility to be in good working order. It’s one thing to ask a partner to tag a base every now and then—“no, I’m not hiding anything” or “yes, I think you’re sexy”—but it’s not okay for me to be a constant ball of insecurity. I have a responsibility to know my triggers and not bite my partner’s head off if he accidentally sets one off. And if there are desires or habits that aren’t a good match, it may mean that we’re not sexually compatible--not because there’s something that needs to change about him. So, kudos on the sensitivity, but you never have to sign up for bad treatment or become a different person sexually just because a straight spouse has gone through a trauma.
Find professional help. Addressing recurring issues requires unique solutions for each couple. There are no neat formulas to follow. For that reason, it is important, perhaps imperative, to engage in joint and individual counseling with informed professionals. Use these resources to work out your best possible future. Drawing from her own experience, Jackie’s reminder applies: You never have to sign up for bad treatment or become a different person just because a straight spouse has gone through a trauma. Hopefully, her great qualities outweigh these inconveniences, and the satisfying parts of the relationship are worth the price of admission.