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When a Spouse Comes Out of the Closet

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GAY SPOUSE

After teaching one of The Smart Divorce Workshops two years ago, a participant confided that she left her marriage because her husband declared he was gay. Since that time I have heard from a number of my divorce consulting clients about the same reason contributing to their divorce. And, I have had several colleagues share variations of the same story--a husband coming home mid-day from work, only to find his wife in bed with another woman--and then, their subsequent divorce. While in all the cases the straight spouse felt alone and confused upon learning this revelation that their spouse was gay or lesbian, this situation is not as uncommon as you might think.

When discussing these circumstances with my clients, their stories were not dissimilar. In some instances they were blindsided by the revelations, and astounded by the question friends would ask "How could you not know?" because there weren't always obvious signs that their partner is struggling with his or her sexual orientation. They experienced loving, sexually fulfilling relationships.. Then there were others who had some inkling, but never really confronted it until finally a declaration of sexual orientation was admitted.

Conservative estimates indicate that roughly two million lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals in the United States have married someone of the opposite sex. When these partners come out of the closet, one-third of these relationships break up right away, a third stay together for a year and then separate, and another third commit to making it work--although three years later, only half of this last group of relationships are still intact.

In an effort to better understand what my clients were experiencing, I spoke with Amity Pierce Buxton Ph.D., the founder of Straight Spouse Network(SSN), whose husband declared he was gay after over 20 years of marriage. Buxton says that "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."

Buxton has researched the impact of a spouse coming out on the family; her research is extensive and spans 24 years. 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."

Responses to each stage varies. Some straight spouses feel that this is a nightmare. They become very confused, and can come to question the reality of the entire relationship. Some experience a sense of relief, if they had wondered what was wrong with the relationship.

Buxton suggests that there are three issues that arise that need to be dealt with right away when a spouse discloses his or her sexual orientation: sexuality, the marriage, and the children. Alongside these immediate concerns, three deep crises emerge in:

• Identity: the coming-out destroys their sense of who they are

• Integrity: Their partner kept their orientation or gender identity secret

• Belief system: the disclosure shatters spouses' assumptions about gender, sexual relationships, marriage and their future

The whole family also has to go through a process of coming out: Sensitivity is a must when coming out to children, especially at different stages in their life. Middle-school-aged children may have the hardest time dealing with the revelation because they are developing their own sexual identity. And young adults sometimes become judgmental as their value systems have most likely been formed.

In order to get through this and move on to regain your sense of identity, self esteem, faith, and lose the anger, Buxton says that spouses go through six stages of coping.

Stage One: Disorientation, disbelief, denial and relief. A straight partner's denial that their partner is not straight prevents them from dealing with reality. Once you are able to come to terms with this, you may be relieved to find an answer as to why things did not feel right and can accept why something was missing.

Stage Two: Facing, acknowledging, and accepting the reality. Slowly, the reality seeps into consciousness. Eventually you must acknowledge these realities as true and irreversible. Once acknowledged, you are ready to finally accept the present reality as the new "given".

Stage Three: Letting go of the past. Once there is acceptance of the new reality, you let go of what you thought the marriage was, and start to grieve the dreams you've harboured.

Stage Four: Healing. Only when you let go of what was can you begin to heal. Healing begins when you start taking care of your own health and well being. It's time to focus inward, clarifying wants, needs and values. Expect a breakthrough in terms of thinking and/or perspective.

Stage Five: Reconfiguring identity, integrity and belief system. Once a realistic picture of yourself is created, you are able to reconfigure who you are and regain your sense of self-worth. Resetting your moral compass based on your truth and reality, you learn to trust yourself and others. Lastly, accommodating the new information into your world view will give you meaning and purpose to your life.

Stage Six: Transforming your life. With your identity, integrity and belief system reconfigured, you achieve balance emotionally, psychologically, and sometimes spiritually. You can live your life as a new person in a new way.

The coping, pain, anger, fear, and grief color, and often slow the process. Anger occurs throughout the issues. Pain and fear are felt mostly in the beginning. Grief arises as you let go of each part of what you thought you had. If spouses can't manage the feelings in a productive way, the hurt and pain creates a "victim" mentality; anger turns to vindictiveness, fear becomes paralysis, and the grief intensifies to depression or suicidal thoughts and action.

Getting through these issues and feelings, and effectively coping can take anywhere from 3 - 6 years to properly heal. Statistics indicate that it takes one year of healing for every five years of marriage. And, once this process takes place, for many, there is a realization that their partner really did marry them out of love, and not to hide in a closet -- they fully intended to make it work. So, while these couples could not be lovers and stay married, perhaps they can still be good friends.

This story first appeared on more.ca

Hear Amity Buxton interviewed on The Smart Divorce on Divorce Source Radio http://www.divorcesourceradio.com/out-of-the-closet-support-for-the-straight-spouse-2/

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