The hit Netflix original series, “Grace and Frankie” tells the story of two decades-married women who find out their spouses are gay, with a healthy dose of Hollywood humor. But in real life, for an older couple, a spouse coming out can cause heartbreak that’s no laughing matter, for everyone involved.
“We’re all victims, both the gay spouse and straight spouse are victims,” Amity Pierce Buxton told The Huffington Post in an interview. Pierce Buxton founded the Straight Spouse Network in 1986, after her own husband of 25 years came out, to help other couples going through the same issues.
When the people involved are middle-aged or even older, the situation brings about its own unique challenges.
“When you’re older, there’s less time to rebuild a new life,” she says. In her experience, a third of couples split immediately and angrily, a third try to divorce amicably and another third try to make it work.
The revelation can be particularly difficult for older women who imagined a peaceful retirement, spending their golden years alongside their partner, enjoying visits from grandchildren. Along with questions of self-worth, many older women who may have put their careers on hold to raise children also could have financial concerns, Kimberly Brooks Mazella, a Virginia-based psychotherapist, told The Huffington Post.
That said, most of the anger that arises in these situations isn’t directed at the gay spouses’ sexuality.
“Many, including myself, are LGBT allies and strong supporters of gay rights,” Brooks Mazella said. “The anger that straight spouses feel is at having been used and deceived, especially when it goes on for years. I suspect the angriest ones fall in those [situations when] spouses did not come clean on their own.”
Indeed, in research she’s conducted on her own, she believes that two-thirds of gay spouses don’t come out on their own. Many are confronted by the straight spouse on a basis of infidelity or the discovery of other clues, like private communications or pornography.
Often times, experts say, the gay spouse doesn’t come out to their straight spouse because of an external factor like religious beliefs, societal restraints or even because of a true love and strong friendship with their other half.
“Living a closeted life is understandable. However, once you marry, then you’re bringing an unsuspecting woman into the closet with you,” Brooks Mazella said.
Some even believe that being in a heterosexual relationship will restrain their homosexual impulses. When that theory doesn’t work, they’re unable to live fulfilling, authentic lives and can be as devastated as their straight spouses.
“We’ve got to find ways to educate people that just being LGBTQ is not immoral or sick and that therefore there will be no more mixed orientation marriage ... so that this doesn’t happen,” Pierce Buxton said. “No more closeted marriages.”
To understand more about what occurs in these situations, three women shared their own personal experiences with The Huffington Post. Here are their stories*.
“We had two children. It was just a wonderful marriage, but toward the end he got distant. He’d taken early retirement and was traveling and doing things alone. I didn’t think much of it.
He had left and then he took me out for lunch the following year and he made some accusation that I was frigid and I got livid. Later, he was in the hospital for some minor surgery and I went to visit him while he was under influence of anesthesia. He said, ‘I have something to tell you. I’m gay.’ I burst out laughing and said, ‘Are we ever in a soap opera?’
He had a lover who he had jilted to marry me, because he was a Catholic. But he was totally faithful to me during our marriage.
There’s a shock then a disbelief. Then it takes a little time to face the reality. You ask yourself, What does this mean? Wasn’t I sexy enough? Didn’t I know the right lovemaking technique? You just wonder, ‘If my life has been involved in someone else’s lie, then who am I? My whole belief system went askew.
It was rather obvious, it was like a prison for him. He couldn’t be who he was. One day he told me, “I don’t think I can go on anymore.’ I said, ‘Of course you can!’ The next day he took his own life. Life was too much for him. He was a great person and I absolutely sobbed. I think he was depressed because [for] his whole life he wasn’t able to be himself. Gay men go through the same issues, with their sexuality and identity. The kids do too. All the people involved go through the same issues.”
“About 10 years into our marriage, I thought he was having an affair with a woman. I'd heard him talking on the phone to someone about dancing at a bar, and then somehow I figured out he was speaking to a man. One night on vacation we were drinking probably a little too much and I asked him about it, his response to me was ‘I’ve always found men attractive.’
I questioned him again over the next few years and he would just get angry, so I stopped, but it was always in the back of my head. It was at that point that I started watching him, and putting the clues together, but it was close to 10 more years before I had the courage to end my marriage.
By 2015, things got pretty ugly. He was coming to terms with his sexuality and I was at the end of the puzzle. I got the courage to ask the question, ‘Did you know before you married me that you were gay?’ and he answered yes. So at that moment and for a long while after that I had very mixed emotions about this truth. There was a huge part of me that was angry and hated him, but at the same time there was just as huge a part of me that felt sad for him. I remember telling him had he just been honest with me we could have been the best of friends. I told him I wanted out.
The revelation of his sexuality has certainly had an impact on my self esteem. If I could live with someone for 20 years and not really know them then what is wrong with me? It has me fearful of meeting someone or being intimate with someone. But on the flip side, am I such an accepting person? Do I have no bias or prejudice? Those, to me, are positive traits, so this journey has made me look at myself from that perspective.
I tell my children, in a perfect world, we could all spend holidays together, I’m just not 100 percent there yet.
I’m not really sure what the experience has been like for him. In my opinion he only has one foot out of the closet. He doesn’t say he is gay, he tells people that he is interested in men. It’s as if he is afraid to say the word, so my guess is that it’s been difficult for him.”
”Mine was a very different kind of experience from many people’s. I knew before I married him, but I was so drawn to him, my soulmate. One day before we married, Dick said, ‘I have something to tell you. If it weren’t for you I’d be homosexual.’ It was 1966. Gay didn’t exist. In my world, I didn’t know anyone who was gay. My feeling was, this is like a neuroses. He said yes, in part. He’d been in therapy and I asked him if he couldn’t just get more therapy.
He asked me to marry him and we got married. I didn’t know that he was suffering. I didn’t know that he was thinking about men or fantasizing. We just didn’t speak about it. Things were rocky.
When he told me, on the one hand, I was flattened. I felt this terrible sense of loss. On the other hand, I was a feminist and I really supported gay liberation, which was just beginning. I did say to him, ‘I admire your courage.’
If he had slept with a woman, I would have been devastated. That would have dislodged me from my place with him. I was still the only woman in his life. That was also comforting. It was like any breakup with someone you deeply love, it was never going to be the same.
He was the most important person in my life, and remained so, until I had my daughter. It was never a problem with my husband until Dick died in 1986 from AIDS. My husband was surprised by my grief. I’ve never bonded with anyone that way. My whole youth and my young enthusiasm were bound with him. You can’t get that back. ―
(You can read Judith’s full story here.)
*Some responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
If you are seeking support in a mixed orientation marriage, you can reach out to the Straight Spouse Network here for guidance and more resources.