How Can I Help My Wife Deal with My Coming Out?
A middle-aged man who has just come out to his wife wrote that she is very angry and depressed, and he asked how he can help his wife get through this. He wrote that he still loves his wife and is concerned for her. He asked not to be further identified.
Contrary to the picture that is often painted of us, many of us who have come out continue to love our wives and are concerned about them. We feel a sense of shame and guilt about having caused our families such pain, and many of us have avoided dealing with our sexual attractions for years because we wanted to protect the family from that pain. What we’ve caused our families to experience through no fault of theirs may feel more like a time of sadness and loss than a sense of freedom. The feeling of freedom about finally living an authentic life is compromised by the pain that we have caused to others we love.
The sad truth is that although you may feel a great deal of love, compassion, and empathy for your wife, you cannot be the one to help her through this. If you have decided to leave the marriage, you cannot send a message to her that says, “I’ll always be here to help you get through this.” But our shame and our guilt, and, quite frankly, love for our spouse will often drive us to want to protect her from the pain. But being the “betrayer” and the “rescuer” are not compatible.
Your spouse will have a mixture of feelings: betrayal, rage, anger, hurt, righteous indignation, vengeful wishes, and perhaps even some compassion for what you’ve been through. She may hate you one moment and want to stay married to you in the next. Just because you have come out doesn’t mean you must stop loving your wife; she is still that person you fell in love with, although she may have some difficulty for a while trusting that you ever really did love her.
She will undoubtedly feel that she was used to cover your same-sex attraction. That’s common. And the sad fact is that some men have known they are gay before marrying their wives; some used their wives as a cover, and some used them unsuccessfully to try to “cure” the problem.
Extramarital sex isn’t the biggest problem; the lies used to cover the offense are far more damaging. Lying erodes the trust that must form the basis of a successful relationship. Healing requires the reestablishment of trust. Without forgiveness, the betrayal will undermine meaningful relationships. If the couple chooses to remain together, it can take years to restore trust. If the husband continues to have secret relationships with men, when the spouse discovers the subsequent betrayal, it sends her a message that the offender neither regretted the offense nor seriously intended to change. At that point, trust may be beyond repair.
What your spouse needs to hear from you is a sincere apology for the pain that you have put her through. What she does not need to hear is an explanation for how you have suffered with this decision before coming out. Too much explanation or justification seems like you’re trying to only say, “But it really wasn’t my fault because . . .” Such explanations often are viewed as an excuse, a failure to accept responsibility.
Her forgiveness of you for having destroyed her dream is something over which you have no control; this decision is completely within her power. Forgiveness isn’t easy; it is a gift that the betrayed person gives to someone who doesn’t really deserve it. It doesn’t mean that the betrayed person accepts the behavior. It doesn’t mean that they want to continue a relationship. It simply means that they want to be freed of the pain so they can move on with their lives.
As I outlined in a previous essay, you should consider several crucial issues in working through the crisis:
- The degree to which the offender is sincerely apologizing
- The degree of commitment to the relationship
- The severity of the offenses
- The conciliatory behavior
- The capacity for forgiveness
- The personalities of everyone
After you come out to your wife, you can assume that many of your friends will know; she will need to turn to someone, and that person will also want to share the story with others. One of the things your wife may experience is a feeling that your friends are more supportive of you than her. For example, they often respond, “It’s so wonderful that he has finally become honest with himself,” while at the same time the betrayed spouse is thinking, “Yeah, but what about me? My life has just turned to shit!” Her friends and family may not give her the support she needs.
Your wife will be on a roller coaster for a while. She may still love you and want to be supportive but at the same time be mad as hell at you for turning her life upside down. You may have some of the most intimate conversations with each other you’ve ever had because you’re allowing yourself to be more open and vulnerable with each other than you have been. You may also feel that you’ve never really known each other.
At this time, I think she knows all she needs to know about your hidden life. I would encourage you not to discuss more details. She knows enough and her questions will either lead to your lying to her, or your answers will only provoke more questioning. I would suggest saying, “I’m so, so sorry I’ve hurt you, but I think answering that question isn’t going to help either of us.”
Assuming you stay together, at least for a while, your wife will remain suspicious. Trust is only reestablished through behavior, not words. Her confusion about what was real and what was not real in your relationship is a common theme in straight spouses. But the difficulty for you is that although you may love her and want to be her support, that support can be very confusing to her; it sends a mixed message to her: “I’m here for you, but I want out.” Some resources are available to her: the Straight Spouse Network, the Straight Spouse Network podcasts, and the Straightforward Project.
It may be tough for you, but she must find her own way in working through this disruption in her life.