Stories of discovering an infidelity with a same-sex partner vary, but tend to be similar in nature - a husband comes home early from work to find his wife in bed with another woman - followed by a divorce. In many cases the straight spouse feels alone and confused with the revelation that their spouse is gay, lesbian or bisexual. This situation is more common than previously thought.
How the straight spouse reacts depends on his or her previous awareness or knowledge of the partner's tendencies toward a different sexuality. Some are totally shocked, surprised and caught completely off guard by the news. Well-meaning friends and family may add insult to injury by asking the painful question "how could you be unaware of this?" It smacks of a lack of intimacy and poor communication in the relationship.
Many spouses struggling with another sexual orientation may have been experts at hiding it from their partners. Additionally, the couple may have, up until now, enjoyed a very close, committed, loving and sexually fulfilling relationship. It is no wonder that in these cases, the straight spouse is shocked. Other couples have a different experience where the straight partner has had his or her suspicions, but didn't look into it further. In these cases, once the declaration of sexual orientation is made, the straight spouse is not so surprised and may handle the news better, but it can still be a life changing, relationship changing event.
Research shows that approximately two million LBGT people in the U.S. have married someone of the opposite sex. Once a spouse comes "out of the closet" to the other, the probability of staying married long term is very low. One third of these marriages immediately end in divorce, another third separate after only one year, and the last third manage to keep it together for the first three years. Of the last group, half will break up by the end of the third year.
Amity Pierce Buxton Ph.D., the founder of Straight Spouse Network(SSN), whose husband declared he was gay after over 20 years of marriage, says "a spouse's coming out within a marriage is not an individual event. It impacts everyone in the family circle. The straight husband or wife and their children go through their own struggle to understand and accept the revealed information from their perspective. They, too, are affected by the social stigmatization and heterosexist expectations that helped influence their partners to marry."
For the past 24 years Buxton has been studying how a spouse's "coming out" impacts the family. She found that "disclosure and its aftermath within a family occurs in waves, starting with the act of "coming out" (or being discovered) after an internal struggle to acknowledge his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. Once an individual is "out", the second wave begins, as the straight wife or husband deals with what it means. As the two spouses deal with the revelation, each from a different viewpoint, a third wave of "coming out" begins when they tell their children or they find out."
Each 'wave' produces varied responses, depending on whether the revelation is a total shock or a confirmation of previous suspicions. Some spouses feel totally betrayed, confused and question the authenticity of the entire relationship. Others may breathe a sigh of relief, finally understanding the source of problems in the relationship.
When a spouse "comes out" there are three main issues which must be dealt with immediately, according to Buxton; sexuality, the marriage and the children. The straight spouse will experience crisis with their identity within the relationship, as it destroys their sense of who they are. Also the integrity of the relationship, as they now realize and have to deal with the fact that their partner kept their orientation a secret. Finally, the straight spouse's belief system is challenged, as assumptions about gender identity, sexual relationships, marriage and sexuality are shattered and must be redefined.
The children in the family will also go through the "coming out" process along with their parents. Children will require satisfactory explanations and will be forced to re-think their ideas of sexual identity and gender development, especially if they have already formed them, as in the case of middle school aged children. This may result in strong judgmental reactions. Usually, very young children can make the adjustment without too much turmoil or conflict, as they are still in the process of developing their value systems. Older children will most likely manage to deal with and accept the new information without damage to their sexual identity concerns, but this does not mean that they won't express anger, hostility and resentment toward the newly "out" parent.
There are six stages of coping, according to Buxton, that spouses must go through in order to regain their sense of identity, self esteem, faith, forgiveness, acceptance and move on with their lives.
1. Denial, disbelief, disorientation. Denial prevents the straight partner from dealing with the reality of the situation. Once through the initial shock, you may experience relief, finding answers to why the relationship with your spouse didn't seem "quite right."
2. Facing, acknowledging and accepting reality. It is a slow process, but you will make the adjustment to acknowledging the permanence of your spouse's "coming out." The acknowledgement gives birth to accepting the reality as the new "normal".
3. Letting go of the past. The history of your marriage is viewed in a different light now. You may experience grief over the "death" of your old version of the marriage. Once you accept the new reality, you will be free to let go of what you thought the marriage was, and look toward the future.
4. Healing. Once you make that transition and can let go, you will begin to heal. Start with taking care of yourself. Focus your attention on your own wants, needs and values. Anticipate a new perspective or a breakthrough in your thinking.
5. Redefining your integrity, belief system and identity. After going through the first four stages, you are now ready to redefine yourself, recover your self worth, learn to trust again, and gain new perspective and purpose in your life.
6. Transforming your life. Once your identity, belief system and integrity have been redefined, you can move on to attain balance in your emotional, mental and spiritual life. Your can experience and live a new life. You have evolved and expanded your world.
Working through these step will take time. Fear, pain, grief, anger, feelings of abandonment and betrayal may slow down your recovery. If not managed carefully, these emotions can lead to feeling victimized, succumbing to depression and possible thoughts of suicide. It may be wise to see a therapist or counselor to work through these emotions, if you feel you are not making progress.
It can take up to six years to work through these issues, cope effectively and properly heal. The rule of thumb is to allow one year of healing for every five years of marriage. Once you have coped, have gained perspective and can look back at the relationship, you may discover that your spouse had every intention of making your marriage work in the beginning, did not marry you to "hide in the closet" and truly did love you. Perhaps you will become friends and continue to care for each other, even if you do not remain married.