Coming out as a gay man - when you're already married to a woman - would be an emotional minefield. Photo: Viki Lascaris
Coming out – it’s an emotional minefield. Accepted by some, rejected by others, confused about who to trust and where to turn.
How much harder if you were a gay man who had to ‘'come out'’ to your wife and children?
It is estimated roughly two million lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the United States have married someone of the opposite sex.
One-third of these couples break up immediately after disclosure, one third stay together for a year and then separate and another third attempt to make it work (although three years later, only half of this group were still together).
Psychologist Paul Martin from Brisbane's Centre for Human Potential has spent 25 years working with men and women of mixed-orientation marriages.
Mr Martin said the impact of suppressing or denying homosexuality was wide-reaching, resulting in both physical and mental health issues.
“This story needs to be told. It’s something that’s happening underneath our noses all the time, more than anyone would imagine,” he said.
As the acceptance of homosexuality increases, it is expected the number of married men coming out will continue to rise.
“These men have a heightened level of internalised homophobia and are responding to a discomfort with who they are. They develop many defences,” Mr Martin said.
“They will quite often repress and separate out their same-sex attraction. This is a very emotionally stressful situation. It places a huge pressure on their psyche.
“Everything they say and do and every person they interact with is an act of deception because they have a conflict between the real self and the projected self.
“They become masters of deception. They can quite often be loveable and popular, but the problem for that person is that people are interacting with an ‘avatar’ and not the ‘real’ person. It is the loneliest place in the world.”
Mr Martin said the leading motivation for a man to deny his homosexuality was the fear of rejection.
“Rejection sensitivity is common. From early childhood we all have a fear of parental rejection. In this situation it extends to peers, work colleagues, friends and family.”
David*, a 70-year-old Brisbane man, has been married for 41 years and has two children. He is the full-time carer for his wife who suffers from multiple sclerosis. David is also homosexual.
David was a Baptist minister when he came out and believed his sexual desires were a sin. He agreed to undergo electroshock treatment, or aversion therapy, in a bid to cure his homosexual urges.
“I had electrodes attached to my penis and was shown images of naked men and images of naked women. Every time my body temperature rose, which of course was when I saw the pictures of men, I was given an electric shock.
“It was the most painful experience. I asked the doctor if anyone had been cured using aversion therapy. He said ‘not one person’.
“I adopted the view of the church as my view of myself. The self-loathing and self-hatred caused great stress on my physical health. Internalising it has had a huge impact on my life.”
David said he remains steadfastly committed to the vows he took when he married his wife. He said he has not been unfaithful despite his revelation and has remained celibate.
“Marriage is not just about sex. I am not a practicing homosexual, although I would give anything to be deeply in love with a man. I have lived a lie for 41 years. It is not easy. It has been an enormous effort trying to keep my two worlds apart.”
Michelle* was married for 15 years and had no idea her husband had spent many of those years having sex with men - effectively leading a double life.
She shared her story in the hope it might resonate with other couples trapped in a mixed-orientation marriage, or dealing with the aftermath following disclosure.
She felt societal homophobia coupled with her (now ex-) husband’s internalised homophobia was a major contributing factor in his inability to be true to himself and to his wife and family.
“When my husband told me he had been having anonymous sex with men he’d met online and hiding it for years, there were no words, just disbelief. He did not fit the stereotype of a gay man. We had children. He was loud and aggressive.
“I was confused. Was he bisexual? I asked him if he was gay. He said yes and that he was extremely relieved he could finally be open about his sexuality. A lot of things started to make sense.
“His violent mood swings stemmed from his confused sexuality. He felt trapped and scared keeping such a huge secret. He had been fighting suicidal thoughts. He was taking anti-depressants. I felt more sorry for him than I did for myself.
“To this day he is still in denial. Years later he still fears what his friends and family will think. Being married was the perfect disguise. His mood swings continue. Homophobia is deeply entrenched.”
In her book Husbands Who Love Men, Arleen Alwood says some married men who have sex with other men are surprised to discover they are homosexual.
“In one study, 12 of the 60 married bisexual men interviewed were past 40 when they had their first homosexual relationship. These men reported that the first experience came entirely unexpectedly.
“Those wives who do finally discover that their husbands are gay rarely, if ever, understand why they prefer other men,” according to Alwood.
As this anonymous blogger put it: “When another woman manages to steal your husband, at least you believe you can compete. When your husband wants another man, it denies your entire being.”
Mr Martin said disclosure for the wives often meant any insecurities they had about themselves were heightened.
“Wives go through a grieving process, a shock process. Their insecurities of ‘Am I too fat, too young, too old’ are activated. It also generates a self-doubt in the wife.
“The first step in this process is for the man to take responsibility for his behaviours. There will be no empathy unless he can acknowledge what he’s done.
“There will always be pain and hurt and shock but there is a way to best manage that. It can never be done in a way that is good, but with sensitivity, integrity and love it mitigates against huge amounts of pain.”
For support visit Straight Spouse Network.
For further information on mixed-orientation marriages visit Ambassadors and Bridge Builders International.
The Gay Christian Network offers support for gay Christian couples and their families.
You can follow Paul Martin on Twitter @PaulmartinPsych
*Not their real names.