As the hype around the TLC show My Husband's Not Gay begins to wane, I find it a shame that there has been little attention paid to the perspectives of straight women who have experienced being in a mixed-orientation marriage, where one spouse is gay and the other is straight. Most of the opinion pieces written about the show are by lesbian and gay individuals, religious writers and people trolling the Internet. Straight spouses who find themselves in mixed-orientation marriages generally do not end up on a reality show standing by their lesbian or gay partners. The reality is too complex, hurtful and shrouded in embarrassment.
This embarrassment is also felt by the lesbian or gay spouse and is not to be diminished. The straight spouse, however, experiences these things from a different angle, and it is important to not overshadow his or her journey.
There are two things that are frustrating regarding mixed-orientation marriages. The biggest issue is how religious and archaic thinking exacerbates the problem of lesbian and gay people entering into "traditional" marriages. Secondly, straight women and men who have been blindsided by a spouse coming out experience shame and embarrassment, so much so that they often do not receive the help and support that they need from others, who remain unaware of how common this crisis is and how hurtful it can be. Straight spouses are often considered naïve, victims or even stupid. So it is not surprising that people who need support and empathy are too afraid to reach out during one of the most difficult times in their lives.
TLC used to be known as The Learning Channel. If they truly wanted to live up to their legacy, here are the things that they would help viewers learn about mixed-orientation marriages.
1. Finding out your spouse is lesbian or gay is one of the most painful experiences any straight spouse can go through. Many people who have experienced a spouse coming out of the closet hear the following from well-meaning comrades: "Well, at least you aren't being cheated on with another woman. I mean, who can compete with that?" This is not accurate. When a man comes out to a straight wife who never saw it coming, she often cannot grasp the possibility that her husband might be truly gay. "Doesn't that make him bisexual?" is one of the many questions that might enter her mind. Think about it: Anyone whose spouse has been lying to them doubts their own sexiness and lovability and wonders what they could have done differently, but when a spouse comes out as gay, the entire marriage is called into question. There is an intense need to try to understand everything that the couple has ever been through, to figure out if it was even real or not. An affair with someone of the same sex is better? It isn't quite that simple.
2. A straight spouse can try to stay married with the knowledge that their spouse is lesbian or gay, but they will always live with an enormous amount of distrust and suspicion. Many couples do try to stay together. While it is difficult to understand, some of the reasons include the number of years they have been married, a desire to stick it out for their children, a desire to work through it with the possibility of having an open marriage, or pressure from perceived religious or societal beliefs. Ultimately, true intimacy is what a marriage needs to survive and thrive. But how can there ever be true intimacy if one spouse is attracted to people of the same sex and the other has to try to figure out how to deal with that? How can they trust that their partner won't seek intimacy outside the marriage? For example, on the show on TLC, everything seems great for one of the couples until the husband, who is "same-sex-attracted," announces that he is going on a camping trip. His wife's face betrays her suspicions, and she has to talk herself into trusting him, even though he has cheated on her before in their own home. She wants to keep her heterosexual marriage and family together so badly that she is willing to justify and overlook egregious things. Many straight spouses who have experienced mixed-orientation marriages have done so as well. People in mixed-orientation marriages can and do stay together, but suspicion and hurt are always lurking around the corner. This is not trust. This is not intimacy.
3. Conservative religious views, including archaic ideas coming from society, keep many gay men and women from living honest, fulfilling lives. Instead, they pull other people into their world because they want to change, desperately. They get married. They have kids. They take positions of leadership in their churches and in civil society through politics. They wax eloquent about how fulfilling their lives are -- when all the while they are hiding, lying to themselves and others. Eventually, under extreme pressure, they often explode and ruin everything around them. Worse yet, there is shame and embarrassment, which can cause couples to not be transparent enough to receive the very help they need. Religion and archaic societal ideas are the very things that exacerbate an already difficult situation.
Legislating what marriage means in our secular world, keeping lesbian and gay people from having the same rights as everyone else, and preaching that being gay is a choice and a sin encourages people to be dishonest. It manipulates people into hiding this part of themselves by getting married to straight people, having children with them, and living a charade that will blow up in their faces -- and in the faces of those they don't want to hurt.
4. Until conservative religious people face the truth about what their beliefs do to people who are lesbian or gay and married to a straight spouse, there will be very little change in religious communities. The expression "Love the sinner but hate the sin" is not in the Bible. It is a philosophy that was devised by St. Augustine and has been taken out of context for entirely too long. St. Augustine was referring to his own sin, but today people use it to refer to the "sins" of others. Gandhi had this to say about the idea: "'Hate the sin and not the sinner' is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world." As any critical thinker can see, this expression is not only unbiblical; it actually makes Gandhi a soothsayer. When we look at the "sins" of others and try to dictate what people can think and whom they can love, hatred abounds. It ultimately contributes to people entering into mixed-orientation marriages without the straight spouse knowing it.
Until a religious conservative experiences a child or a spouse coming out of the closet, the degree to which this belief hurts people -- and even contributes to suicide -- cannot be fully understood. People who claim to know how to "fix" something that isn't broken, and haven't walked in those shoes, have no business trying to lecture, counsel or legislate on these issues, unless they truly try to understand the situation. It's impossible to "pray away the gay." By definition, unconditional love does not place burdens on people, though that is exactly what happens when a conservative religious person deems an individual a "sinner" who needs to change.
5. A relationship can go one of two ways after a spouse comes out as lesbian or gay: It can remain tenuous and bitter, or it can be beautiful. With a lot of time, work and compromise, a couple (especially one with children) can have a blended family without being married. Amicable divorce is possible. While it takes two people for it work, change is attainable and can turn tragedy into something wonderfully unique. Some people cannot move forward, especially if one of the spouses is unable to do what it takes because of selfishness or bitterness. This kind of thing is very sad, because it could have been avoided completely if our society and our religious leanings weren't so guilt- and pressure-oriented regarding lesbian and gay people. If lesbian and gay people are able to live openly and honestly, a lot of heartache can be avoided. Mixed-orientation marriages can be a thing of the past if views on lesbian and gay people would evolve even more.
For people who are in this situation with kids, it can be a blessing. That may seem strange to hear, but ultimately, if it weren't for the marriage, the gift of being a parent would not have been experienced. This can be the silver lining that actually helps people choose the beautiful path of amicable divorce and living as a blended family.
Unfortunately, there is no how-to book for mixed-orientation marriages. One of the toughest things about experiencing this path is that every situation and relationship is unique. No one has cornered the market on how to survive a mixed-orientation marriage, so the best way to make it through something like this is to rely on the wisdom of others who have gone through it. If people are to receive the support they need, dialogue is important, and knowledge of the experience is necessary, even for those who have never been touched by it. Being aware of all sides of the mixed-orientation marriage -- from the gay spouse to the straight spouse to their families -- is the best way to have empathy for others. If unconditional love is the goal, starting with understanding is a great place to begin.
Find Emily's blog, SameSides: Your Spouse Is Gay. What Now?, to receive encouragement and find resources available to you, the straight spouse in a mixed-orientation marriage. Also visit the Straight Spouse Network, another excellent resource.