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What About the Victim of the Victim of Homophobia?

Recent televisions shows are focusing attention on the plight of the spouses of gay men and lesbians. But is it enough to make their lives less traumatic?

It was a typical Monday morning, hustling the kids off to school while Rob and Cate prepared to start a new work week. Only, things hadn’t been “typical” for the couple in quite a while. After months of wondering, Cate asked her husband what was wrong, only to be greeted once again with the standard response of “Nothing.” However, this morning, Rob decided he’s had enough lying, so he quickly changed his answer and told Cate the truth. Rob is gay. What’s more, he had a boyfriend of six months.

Understandably, the remainder of the day was extraordinarily painful for them both. Rob and Cate were more than husband and wife of 20 years; they had been best friends since middle school. Now, all that they had built together was crumbling. Much of their communication over the next 24 hours occurred via text, even when they were in the same room, but Rob knew they had taken the first step to recovery the next morning when Cate threw a pair of dirty socks at him and jokingly said, “We can’t even get divorced like normal people.”

Fortunately for them both, Cate showed remarkable maturity as the couple discussed their future. They came up with a plan to tell the kids and developed a plan for Rob to transition out of the house and into his boyfriend’s house. There would be no more lying, and communication was the cornerstone for dealing with the situation. When Rob had his first overnight visit at his boyfriend’s, Cate was honest, telling him that it was too hard on her, his leaving and then coming back, and it was time for him to go for good.

In the months since, Rob, a personal friend, has had the unenviable task of telling both his children and his parents about his sexual orientation and the end of his marriage to Cate. The encouragement he has gotten from all, including Cate, has been uplifting and reassuring. Messages of love and support followed his announcement to the rest of the world on Facebook. On Father’s Day, Cate even posted on Facebook how lucky her kids were to have to a great dad and a wonderful new step-dad. Now settled into his boyfriend’s home, Rob has had a huge burden lifted and can celebrate who he is for the first time in his life.

Cate, meanwhile, has had a huge burden added to her life. The flood of support that came in for Rob didn’t extend to her. Certainly, she has a great support system, but many who celebrated Rob’s new life didn’t quite know what to say to her. While her parents were told that Cate is getting a divorce, they weren’t told why because the most likely reaction would be to blame Cate. Cate has become “the victim of the victim of homophobia”.

This is what Dr. Amity Buxton calls the spouses of gay men and lesbians who have come out of the closet. She knows first-hand what Cate is going through; she and her husband had been married for 25 years when he came out. In the years since then, which was 1986, she has become one of the world’s leading experts on the subject of straight spouses of gay men and lesbians, recognized in The Journal of Family Therapy as “the leader in the field of research concerning coping mechanisms of and interventions used with heterogeneous couples.” As a result of her experiences of finding few resources or understanding ears, she founded the Straight Spouse Network, an organization devoted to helping the spouses who are often left behind and forgotten. As Rob notes, “(Cate) is the one who should have been supported. I’m the one who had an affair, but because I said, ‘I’m gay’, everyone was saying ‘Oh, you’re so brave.'”

According to Buxton’s extensive research, there are two million women and men (I presume Americans) who are or were married to homosexuals. Three and a half million children have been born into these relationships. To be clear, these couples are not individuals who knowingly married someone gay or lesbian; they are people who married someone they believed to be straight, only to learn otherwise later. The relationships that Buxton studies aren’t solely straight women who have married gay men, but also straight men who have married lesbians. She observes that participation in the dozens of Straight Support Network’s support groups is divided 50/50 men and women.

Fortunately, the premiere of Netflix’s series Grace and Frankie has brought some attention to the issue of the straight spouse left behind. Starring the incredible duo of Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin (nominated this year for a Best Actress Emmy), the show focuses more on the budding relationship between the two nemeses than on the emotional turmoil they undergo after learning their husbands (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) are gay.

Far more controversial, though, is the TLC series My Husband’s Not Gay, a reality show focusing on four couples in Utah. The husbands admit to having same-sex attractions, but insist they are not homosexual. Gay activists have protested the show and petitions were started to keep it from airing, arguing that the show promoted reparative therapy and presented an unrealistic portrayal of closeted gay men dealing with their sexual orientation.

Of those who do find themselves married to a gay man or lesbian, a third break up shortly after the revelation, while another third last about a year before the dissolution of the romantic relationship. Buxton notes that often the couple remains friends for life, as she and husband did and Cate and Rob have done, so the relationship continues, only in a different form. The final third of the couples try to stick it out; half of those marriages end by the third year.

I spoke with Dr. Buxton by phone, and she is a delightful and amusing woman. Despite her pleasant demeanor, however, she’s completely serious about the damaging effects that many spouses experience, “It’s painful. It’s shock… It’s mind-boggling.” Straight spouses can feel a range of emotions from anger to peace of mind. Buxton recalled yelling at the Pope (not that he was actually in her presence to hear it) shortly after her husband came out. The Vatican had just stated that “being gay was OK, just don’t act on it.” Spouses can feel betrayed and angry about the secret-keeping. Still, Dr. Buxton told one interviewer, “it was more of a relief to figure out why things had fallen apart.” The response isn’t any different for men than women. Of her male group members, Amity notes, “They cry. They ask for help. They do everything society says they shouldn’t do when wives come out.”

Part of what spouses must deal with is misunderstanding. There may be those who question “how could you not know?” or “how did he/she have sex with you if he/she is gay?” Often, friends or family may already have suspicions, but say nothing. Rob recalls telling his niece he was gay, only for her to give a “no kidding, known for years” type of response. A host of research on couples’ communication states that often others can see what those in a relationship cannot, particularly deception, simply because we want to give the benefit of the doubt to our loved ones. As for sex, Dr. Buxton observes that sex is “love-based”, making it possible to be romantic with a person one has feelings for, even if the sexual attraction is not as strong it might be with another. Plus, sexual drive is important; as her husband told Buxton, “I get turned on by looking at a picket fence.”

Another specialist in the field, Dr. Joe Kort writing in Psychology Today, says there are three things that the straight spouse must keep in mind. First, the gay spouse who says he/she wasn’t aware of his or her sexual orientation at the time of marriage is most likely telling the truth. Repression and denial are not uncommon, and some gay men and women may feel that a straight relationship will “cure” them of the same-sex attractions they may feel. Rob notes that he’s the type of person who finds both men and women attractive, so noticing how hot a man was didn’t strike him as odd. He suppressed his true self due to his brothers and their anti-gay stances. He informed me that there was a difference between knowing he was gay, which he realized during the marriage, and accepting it, which didn’t happen until he came out to his wife.

Kort observes that declarations of love are usually sincere. Love is not gender-based, whereas sexual attraction is, so a person can love someone deeply without have any sexual attraction to that person’s gender as a whole. This allows the marriage of mixed-orientation couples to last as long as they may. Logically, like (most) of their straight counterparts, gay men and lesbians marry for love, and that is still true even if the future spouse is straight.

Finally, communication is key, Kort says, regardless of the direction the relationship may travel: “The ideal here is for the two partners to learn to talk honestly with each other about their sexual needs, and other needs, and what to do about them… Maintaining a mixed-orientation marriage requires enduring the stress of keeping the secrets that one of them is gay and being discreet how they live their lives.” While Kort seems more intent on helping couples keep their relationships together, Buxton focuses on what happens when that attempt is unsuccessful.

A spouse just learning the truth will typically experience seven stages, assuming they have a support network and allow themselves to process what is happening. Those stages include disorientation/disbelief, facing and acknowledging reality, accepting, letting go, healing, reconfiguring and refocusing, and transforming. Not all individuals make it through all seven stages, but those who do are most likely to go forward successfully with a new life.

However, as Buxton explains, those who do not “feel entitled to their feelings” may have trouble moving on. As Cate observed on her Facebook page, “When my emotional needs are unmet or ignored, I learn that I am unimportant.” While Rob and Cate initially sought out couple’s counseling to help them through their transition, they have now gone to individual therapy sessions, allowing each to say things that they might feel inhibited saying in front of the other. While Cate deals with feeling isolated and overlooked, Rob has his own pain: “What I carry with me now is overwhelming guilt. I struggle with what have I done to her, what have I done to the kids.”

Rob recognizes the position that Cate is in, and he says that they communicate better now than ever. Before, all of his energy went in to keeping his secret, causing him to shut down and close himself off from others, especially his wife. He is thankful that his family has been a rock for his wife, commenting that she talks to his parents more often than he does, though they have supported his journey as well. Still, “If more people don’t come forward for the spouse who’s left behind, it becomes internalized.” In addition to therapy, Cate has joined a divorce support group; after hearing the stories of some of the other members of the group, she told Rob, “We’re not as fucked up as we think we are.”

Interestingly, the day that I spoke with Amity was the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court passed Marriage Equality, which had her elated. Legalized gay marriage and the increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians have made it easier for gay men and lesbians to break heteronormative expectations of them and marry the person they truly love instead of the person society says they should marry. If this happens, “maybe straight spouses will become endangered persons,” Dr. Buxton states.

About the same time as the Supreme Court’s decision, the world met Caitlyn Jenner for the first time, and the outpouring of support was heart-warming. Ex-wife Kris’ reaction, however, was gossip rag fodder, with stories about her lack of understanding and her anger, all typical reactions that Buxton predicted. What was missing from the media coverage was the flood of support that Kris should have received. The numerous celebrities who tweeted their congratulations for Caitlyn didn’t tweet similar messages of love for Kris. (And one can imagine the range of emotions Kris felt was quite complicated, given the nature of Bruce’s revelation to her.)

Millions of men and women know what Kris is going through, having sat on the sidelines while the former spouse starts a new life as a gay man or lesbian (or trans person) among cheers and bravos. If these straight spouses are indeed victims, they are not just victims of the spouse who left; they are victims of a society that has forgotten them and their pain. Amity emerged stronger from her ordeal, and Cate will get there as well. Not all straight spouses are so lucky.