Two wives talk about the grief of ending a marriage
I joined the SSML list some 4-5 years ago I guess, after Tony, my husband of 20 years, told me he'd secretly been having sexual relations with men for many years. I'd long known about the same-sex attraction, but didn't then realize the implications it had for him. He'd come from a strictly religious home where such things were unthinkable, and originally he'd felt (and so had I) that it could never be acted on. As his distance from his family and religious background increased, his fears around his sexuality diminished, and it became inevitable that he started acting it out.
We struggled ever since to come up with a new way of looking at things that could honor his sexuality and still work for me. We were uncovering all sorts of other things in ourselves and the way we related that were 'stuck'. We were doing our very best, talking it over constantly, trying to keep everything clear and honest, seeing counselors etc. But in the end it was too awful to live with.
I had a second bout of breast cancer at that time, and while I was undergoing treatment Tony was very tied up with a new boyfriend, and it was all too much. We separated in August last year, as soon as my chemotherapy and radiotherapy ended. Tony moved into an apartment and insisted on seeing me only once a week, got very angry and felt hounded if I called more often than that. I felt desperate, unable to cope, terrified of being alone and absolutely shocked at the sudden cutting-off of contact and conversation. I had our 12-year-old daughter Sarah with me and stayed in the family home. She was furious with Tony, would scarcely speak to him for 6 months. She's a sensitive, anxious girl, and felt betrayed and abandoned by him (even though he was most anxious to have her come and stay over - he's always been a loving, involved father).
We kept in contact as best we could, sharing care of our daughter and trying to keep things on reasonable terms. I longed for him to come home, but at the same time realized that as things were shaping up that wasn't even on the horizon. The separation was in effect life-giving to him. It allowed him the space and freedom he needed to start dealing effectively with his own issues, finding out what he wanted in life, exploring life as a gay man - and perhaps above all getting away from a marriage he'd come to see as keeping him 'stuck' and powerless. I found it devastating, but also knew that in many ways separation was beneficial to me too - I needed (but didn't want) to face my own emotional dependence on him, develop my own boundaries and sense of self. We sold the house, intending for both to stay in the city and buy houses near each other to share care of Sarah, our daughter. But at Christmas, staying with my family, a couple hours' flight away, I realized I needed to be back in my home town and with my family and old friends around, that staying in the city I'd always be miserably waiting for Tony and unable to detach myself enough to get on with my own life. So I've done that, and I'm much happier and better supported here. Sarah was appalled at first but has made good friends and settled into school well.
Tony comes down here occasionally, and we talk at length by phone once a week or so. It's not nearly as much as I'd like, but I can see it having some benefits in detaching from each other and forming new lives. We're both still hopeful of building something new, a strong and valuable friendship that isn't threatened by either of us having new partners. I'm still intensely resentful and jealous about the huge role of the boyfriend in his life, the role I longed for and worked for over half my life - but can't do anything about it and definitely have to learn to cooperate with it and lighten up. He of course doesn't care at all if I meet someone, but I feel totally uninterested in the idea for now. He's really sick of talking about it by now, it's all a dead duck to him and he remembers and cares remarkably little about our time together. I think there's still a lot of denial and rewriting history going on there, but whatever. My grief processes, like so many of our respective processes, tend to work in the opposite way. I need to talk and rehash it over and over, and I guess we just have to respect how each other deals with things. I often think if he hadn't been gay there'd still be a lot of issues and imbalances in our relationship to be uncovered at this point, but the difference would be that we'd have dealt with them together and moved on together if it weren't for the sexuality thing. Sad, but there it is.
Looking forward to hearing an update from other old SSML-ers.
Thanks for your story, it really touched me. I hope that you are well. I was married 22 years and discovered my very kind and loving husband was having secret sex with men for four years. We have taken a year apart to sort through things (a luxury since our kids are away at school). We'll not see each other for 6 weeks (by design), but then we always feel pulled back together. (Like a rubber band!) If you feel comfortable sharing, I am curious how your relationship flowed during the 4-5 years before separation.
Did Tony gradually evolve into a gay man who wanted a full gay life? I have spoken to a number of wives in long post-disclosure marriage/relationships. I define 4 years as long term! A significant number have had their husbands' self labeling go from bi-sexual, determined to stay married, to gay wanting a primary relationship with another man over the course of years.
Bottom line, how did it happen in your relationship? If this is too personal, please don't respond. I am harboring a theory that my husband may be clutching at our relationship to help him as he makes that linear progression to living fully as gay. It may be too traumatic for him to face alone. Once he meets someone, that could change. Again, thanks for your courageous story. I, too, have contemplating moving back to my home (Arkansas) to make a real break.
Marilyn writes back to Sharon:
You wrote: “If you feel comfortable sharing, I am curious how your relationship flowed during the 4-5 years before separation. Did Tony gradually evolve into a gay man who wanted a full gay life?”
Tony had told me of his sexual attractions before marriage, but he was very inexperienced with any kind of relationship and neither of us was sure what the implications were. Early in our marriage he admitted to a few lapses, which I believe I handled graciously and with understanding, but then he stopped talking about it, and if asked, just said everything was fine, so I didn't probe. But in fact he was gradually slipping more and more into secret casual relationships. He didn't approve of them himself, and kept telling himself he wouldn't do it any more - I gather it had a numb, addictive quality about it because at that stage he was not ready to deal with his own deceit and denial and feared losing our relationship. Later, when it all came out, there was a certain bravado in the telling of it - "of course you must have realized that since I'm gay I'd certainly have to be with men, surely you didn't expect me to be faithful to you" sort of thing.
I think he knew all along he was gay. There's never been any suggestion he was bisexual and he's never been or wanted to be with another woman. But when before marriage we found that in our particular case sex worked pretty well, it seemed to change things and create a special situation where we could have a real marriage. With hindsight he says that was just a dream, he never really intended to be monogamous with me because it would deny the truth of who he was. But I still believe he intended to be faithful to me, even knowing he was gay, at the start - because he didn't welcome or approve his own sexuality at the start, only inwardly and very reluctantly acknowledged its existence. It's difficult to get at what he thought then or thinks now. His telling of it is pretty puzzling at times. There's a lot of projection and re-writing history going on, it seems. The way he's told it in recent months, he always consciously wanted a full gay life and it's mostly my fault that he's been deprived of it for so long, it was inevitable that he'd have to leave but I was keeping him tied to me against his will. Not at all what he said so earnestly at the time, but I know these things are difficult to be clear about.
As to self-labeling, he's never adopted any label but gay. Even when about 99% of his actual sexual experience was with me, it didn't in his mind make him straight any more than living in a garage makes you a car. That at least has been very clear and consistent. He's happily said lately that he must be about close to 100% gay, to which I've noted that if so it never would have been remotely possible for us to connect sexually, and in fact I suppose that I'm still the person with whom he'd had by far the most sex, but that doesn't dent his enthusiastic acceptance of that 100% gay self-label. Whatever. That's never been much of an issue for me, really. At present he's pretty intent on affirming that definition and living it out publicly, but it's always been his basic idea of himself even when it had very guilty and negative connotations for him.
You wrote: “I am harboring a theory that my husband may be clutching at our relationship to help him as he makes that linear progression to living fully as gay. It may be too traumatic for him to face alone. Once he meets someone, that could change.”
Could be. I thought it wouldn't happen to us, but it did. It's one of those things that's actually way beyond anyone's control or influence other than the person himself, and likely enough even he doesn't have a clue how it will turn out. Maybe factors involved other than his current self-definition, though - lots of people on this list consider themselves largely or entirely gay, but their relationships with the spouses work really well and are deeply valued, so some mutually acceptable arrangement is found about how to handle the gay aspect. "Fully gay and fully married" is certainly a possible self-label, though unusual...
Thanks so much for your reply. Hearing the life experiences of others is always helpful to me. I hope you are well and happy. I am just coming up on my anniversary of disclosure and feel that some positive things are happening. While my bi-gay h and I live apart, we are still in contact and have stayed positive. We have just finished our property settlement/separation agreement, but are planning a vacation together for 2 weeks in September. So, it's sort of a push-pull thing with us. More autonomy, but some togetherness. I know that when either of us meet someone "special" things will dramatically change. I keep a bit of a wall around my heart to prepare for this. I miss the old closeness I used to feel for him, but this is as good as it gets for me right now.
You said “I hope you are well and happy.”
No, I’m not really. I'm still very tied up with (and tired of) my grief processes about this. In the end all my hopes that we could have something like the marriages that work well on this list have proved to be a cruel delusion. And the process of trying to work it out has with hindsight been no more than the 'denial and bargaining' part of grieving. I believe he never did want to work it out really, whatever he said, and has ended up blaming me for trying. Or at least growing very impatient with my continual analyzing and discussing about it, because he's long since given up on the whole thing. Whatever grief he may have had about the end of the relationship has either not been addressed at all or is in the form of numbness and denial ("I don't subjectively feel anything, therefore there's nothing to be sad about and she's making a big fuss about nothing")
You wrote: “I am just coming up on my anniversary of disclosure and feel that some positive things are happening. While my bi-gay husband and I live apart, we are still in contact and have stayed positive.”
Good for you. You must both be very wise and secure people. For us, this stuff brought up a whole load of unprocessed issues from much earlier in life, and it ended up not being about the gay thing really - well, the gay thing was a very important factor, but not the root cause of all the extreme pain and difficulty between us. We both thought we were wiser and more self-aware than we turned out to be when the trouble really took hold. Then we behaved like a pair of 2-year-olds, intensely stressed and miserable, and the fallout of that is still with us. Necessary work for each of us, I guess, but hideously painful and destructive to the relationship.
You wrote: “I know that when either of us meet someone "special" things will dramatically change. I keep a bit of a wall around my heart to prepare for this.”
Yes, it's a sword hanging over the head and you don't know how you'll feel. I suspect it's easier if the straight spouse meets somebody first, but perhaps less likely to happen - the gay one is presumably already halfway into that scenario, while the straight one has a lot of incredulity and grief to sort out before it could even start to look like a good idea except as a rebound thing.
You wrote: “I miss the old closeness I used to feel for him, but this is as good as it gets for me right now.”
That's a great attitude. I so miss the years of affection, trust and closeness, and still so much feel the frustration and betrayal of discovering it was one-sided, that what's reasonably good about my present life doesn't thrill me as yet. But it will in time I guess. I have to take the steps and seek the help to move this on a bit. I'm so tired of being in so much pain with so little to show for it.
Sharon concludes the exchange:
This is terrible for you. Your efforts to work it out have left you drained. I think you should be proud that you made every effort to hold your family together. Now, you can move on knowing you gave it your best. My friend's husband is a sexual addict (hetero) and she has 2 small kids. She stayed in the marriage 7 years trying to get him through treatment and hold it all together.
When it was over, she was traumatized, but felt she could always say she had tried her best. She has since moved forward and has let go. Now, she feels so glad to out of the stress of it all. I know you will reach that better place. Sharon please go out and do something that makes you smile. (for me a cosmopolitan with my girlfriends!)