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Joanne Fleisher Headshot

Married To a Man and In Love With a Woman

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In my experience, New Year's resolutions are rarely life-changing. On the other hand, the despair of my most difficult life crisis -- the decision to leave my husband of 12 years for another woman -- changed my life forever, and I couldn't have done it without some very powerful and sustaining resolutions. It was 1979, the year that Donna Summer topped the charts with "Hot Stuff," and I had fallen in love with a close female friend, had an extramarital affair, lied about it and broken my marriage vows.

I felt like a stranger to myself. I discovered that I was capable of behaviors that were "not me." For the 12 years of my marriage, I had feared that there was something broken in me, that I was unable to fall in love, and now that was suddenly open to question. I was no longer the "me" I thought I knew. After all, I couldn't be a lesbian -- I was married to a man.

I was overwhelmed with guilt about deceiving and hurting the man I had grown up with since I was 13 years old, had married, and with whom I had raised our two daughters. While we had the usual relationship problems of any marriage, he was loving (in his own way), a good provider and a kind, loyal husband. We had the perfect marriage -- except that we had neither emotional intimacy nor good sex. Life felt bland, and I was restless and lonely in my marriage.

Then I met Karen -- an awesome lesbian, who was smart, funny, a powerhouse of will and personality, and cute! She occupied my daydreams far more than I chose to admit. I found myself awestruck by the red-gold of the leaves of the elm tree in Karen's yard that October, as we fed our curiosity about each other's lives, and sex became a natural outgrowth of our new romance. Although I didn't understand this kind of love, it was impossible not to act on it. It was 1979, and I'm not even sure I knew that a "straight" woman could fall in love with another woman. I thought I was the only married woman facing this kind of awakening. I was falling in love with a woman, but I didn't feel like a lesbian. (Does anyone know what a lesbian feels like?)

I began to lie about where I was going when Karen and I got together. My infidelity felt wrong, but my heart and my body were way ahead of my mind. When I revealed the truth to my husband, we decided to try couples therapy. I felt a strange sense of relief. The question about what to do with the rest of our lives hinged on my decision about whether to explore this awakened love for women. I was terrified that if I decided to leave my marriage it would destroy my kids, who were just seven and nine years old. This was 1979. How could they survive a divorce along with the stigma of having a lesbian mother?

I vacillated constantly, deciding at one moment to stay and the next to leave. I was wracked with remorse and guilt. Finally, I just followed my gut. I may not have known how to identify my sexual orientation, but a powerful new experience of love was beckoning me to find out more.

My relationship with Karen eventually ended, but after separating from my husband, I met Judy, with whom I shared 31 wonderful years until her death in 2011. My daughter, Lisa, read aloud the following passage at her memorial:

My mom has loved an amazing woman, and she loved her back. We grew up surrounded by a love based on a profound appreciation of the other person exactly as they are. And Beth and I soaked up this lesson about how love can be. And isn't this what a parent does? Without you even realizing it, they influence you -- influence the choices you make. Without thinking about it, I have said, 'I want to be loved like that. I want to create a home like that'

During the course of my transition, I made myself promises that I am still keeping after all these years -- promises that have helped me face life's upheavals with resiliency and resolve. Each new year I am reminded of these resolutions:

  • I choose to pay attention to all of my senses, to prevent a life of numbness. It's hard to recognize when my feelings are dulled, but I know the signs -- when I feel bored, restless or just generally dissatisfied. I was born with a whole range of emotions and sensations, and I am determined to feel them and use them all for guidance.
  • I will face my guilt and use it as motivation to improve myself. At the time, it did not seem possible to forgive myself for my affair, the deceit, or the unraveling of my loved ones' lives. Finding compassion for other people was always easier. Yet I now know that when I am consumed by guilt, my authentic needs and desires are lost. So in order to love myself going forward, I must learn with compassion what was behind my behavior in order to accept it.
  • Before making decisions, I will face my fears. I learned that fear has a tricky way of clouding the truth and creating deceptive behaviors. During those early days, I avoided confrontation and change by lying to my husband and to myself. But by now I've figured out that avoidance usually creates more problems than the ones I've imagined.
  • I will honor the importance of my own happiness. Sacrificing my happiness is not the answer to making my loved ones happier. Finding my path to a joyful and peaceful life will reverberate in and enhance the lives of others.

Visit Joanne's website, LavenderVisions

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