Scary Mommy founder, Jill Smokler, recently announced she is getting divorced from her husband of 17 years because he is gay. Smokler said her husband told her his secret two years into their marriage. She never considered walking away from him at the time because she believed he was her soul mate. However, that piece of Jeff, her husband, became bigger and more consuming. The couple decided it was time to call it quits.
The Smokler’s story is a common one, particularly when there is a religious influence. Gay men believe their only option is to marry someone of the opposite sex. Some men believe marriage will cure them of their same sex attractions. Others hide behind a wife and kids while engaging in encounters behind their families’ backs. Religious belief may also preclude the couple from feeling like divorce is an option. So they stay.
There are times, as hard as it may be to believe, that men don’t actually realize they are gay for several years. One man I interviewed, Brent, grew up in West Virginia’s coalmine country in the 1970s. He said even though he was attracted to other boys in school, homosexuality wasn’t a word he knew. He conformed to social norms and married a woman. His marriage, however, fell apart shortly after his first, and only child was born. She discovered his secret and didn’t want anything to do with him, or his “problem.”
According to Carol Grever, author of My Husband is Gay: A Woman’s Guide to Surviving the Crisis, more than two million people have married gay or bisexual partners. “Approximately 85 percent of these mixed-orientation couples eventually do separate, while the remaining 15 percent continue their marriage, usually with some mutually devised alternative contract,” Grever says. Grever was married to her husband for over 30 years when she discovered his secret.
By the time married men decide they need to come out, they are wracked with guilt. Some have cheated on their wives, while others have struggled silently. Their minds race with fear at the prospect of losing their families, churches, support groups and friends. They are often depressed and terrified of rejection. Many feel they alone are responsible for making their wives miserable and they are all too ready to give their wives anything and everything she asks for as a sacrifice of contrition for the pain they have caused.
Of the many stories I’ve heard over the years, there is another element to the issues inside mixed-orientation marriages. Wives who are fully aware of their husband’s sexual orientation, like Smokler, are willing to stay married and deal with it. Years later, when the marriage inevitably falls apart, some of these same women are quick to call foul and take the martyr’s role.
Aside from religious obligation, many women stay in their marriages for the same reasons their husbands do. They are afraid of how people will perceive them. They are afraid of losing friendships. They are afraid of being alone, or afraid they will never find someone to love them. They choose the safety of familiarity over the risk of the unknown.
These marriages usually reach their end when the husband can no longer deal with the psychological pressure of lying about who he is, to himself and others. When he stops playing the game, he becomes the easy target. His unwillingness to keep up the charade exposes the shoddy façade hiding the marriage. And his wife is angry.
The decision to divorce is nearly always a painful one. We believe, when we marry, that our commitment is for a lifetime. We believe we will beat the odds. We seldom envision a future with an ex-spouse and certainly can’t imagine becoming a part-time parent to the children we bore.
The death of a marriage is painful and we often look for ways to save it. When one spouse is gay, however, there is no going back. No amount of counseling will fix it. No amount of negotiating or compromise will change it. Women are left with two options: divorce, or a non-traditional arrangement, which too often becomes the shame she diligently works to hide from friends and family.
Women are not to blame for cheating spouses. While he cannot choose his sexual orientation, deception is a decision for which he alone must take responsibility.
Infidelity aside, however, both spouses face similar fears. Both spouses often feel the emotional barrier that keeps them from truly experiencing the intimacy they seek. Both spouses desire more than a deep friendship, though mixed orientation marriages frequently become sexless, and the bonds platonic.
Living with a gay husband is usually unchartered territory for the wife. She is confused, unsure of where to find resources, and often feels disconnected from family and friends for fear of exposing her husband’s secret. Her sense of loyalty often works against her own need for support. Unless she’s angry, going public usually isn’t an option.
Are women to blame for staying married to a gay husband? An honest look at the relationship would find it mutually beneficial in one way or another. It was, or at least became, a marriage of convenience. Cloaked in religious ideologies, mixed marriages can become the flagship of obedience to God, relieving both spouses of the responsibilities to face their own realities.
A woman who chooses to stay married to a gay man must ask herself what she is getting out of the deal. Even if he is her best friend, is that all she wants from marriage? Does she believe she can’t do any better? Or is she simply content to wait until he decides to go?
What is certain is that most mixed-orientation marriages are unstable at best. Statistically, at some point, one spouse will want to end the marriage and move on. Sooner or later, the wife will be forced to face her own reality, and must be ready to answer the question, why did I stay for so long?