The Other Side of the Closet: When Sexual Orientation Ends a Marriage

Authenticity is the ideal state of affairs, but a real disorientation happens when one spouse comes out or is found out. Kimberly Brooks Mazella, LPC, offers her advice for picking up the pieces and moving forward.

When sexual orientation ends a marriage

Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Top reasons that couples cite for their split are infidelity, substance abuse, or too much conflict. But one of the reasons that doesn’t get talked about much is that sometimes one spouse ends up having a different sexual orientation than what they thought or claimed when they entered the relationship.

Several high profile, seemingly heterosexual couples have announced that one partner is not straight. It happened to Josh and Jill Smokler of ScaryMommy.com, Craig and Glennon Doyle of Momastery.com, and José (aka Felipe) and Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love.

Behind Closed Doors

It’s difficult to predict just how common the experience is due to its sensitive and often hidden nature, but Google search terms can give us a hint. According to an analysis by U.S. data scientist Seth Stephens‑Davidowitz, the word “gay” is 10% more likely to complete searches that begin “Is my husband…” than the second-place word, “cheating.”

“When I first started talking about it after it happened to me—and that was 30 years ago—I would tell somebody and they knew at least one other person that it had happened to,” says Kimberly Brooks Mazella, LPC, founder of The Straightforward Project. “It’s more common than people realize.”

Today Mazella is a psychotherapist who specializes in helping couples and families navigate the changes that arise when a spouse comes out or is found out.

“It’s not uncommon for couples to try to make it work, especially if they have children or are older and have been married for many years,” says Mazella, “but it’s a really difficult challenge. Most of them end in divorce.”

In a recent survey of 709 heterosexual people who had discovered that their spouse is lesbian, gay, or bisexual, Mazella found that 81% were either leaving their marriage or had already left. Only 17% of survey respondents were trying to make the marriage work.

The Fall Out

When a mixed orientation marriage ends, it’s pretty common for the spotlight to rest on the spouse who is coming out and the bravery that necessitates. On the flip side of the closet, though, the heterosexual spouse is left to clean up their own pieces from a shake-up that goes beyond a run-of-the-mill divorce.

“We’re so full of our own emotions of betrayal, grief, and even rage that it’s very difficult to be a container for our partner’s pain and what they’ve been through,” says Mazella. “Oftentimes, the coming-out spouse doesn’t want to hurt us, but there’s no way around it. And frankly, there are many coming-out spouses who don’t realize—or care—about the damage inflicted.”

While there’s no questioning the inevitable struggle for the coming-out spouse, Mazella’s survey reveals the often less acknowledged emotional damage of the experience for the surprised spouse. She says that 80% of her survey respondents sought mental health treatment because of sustained adverse symptoms that lasted more than six months after discovery.

Many people also have a real crisis of faith in the aftermath of the experience. In Mazella’s survey, some people reported that they went from being devout in their religion to being agnostic or atheist. Forty-four percent of respondents described themselves as moderately or extremely devout at the time of marriage; that number dropped to 32% post-discovery.

“For some of us, one day you’re married, and the next day you’re finding penis pictures on your husband’s computer,” says Mazella. “It’s like you walked into a brick wall.”

Mazella is grateful that her own experience didn’t end in that fashion. In her work with clients, she sees some found-out spouses who show no remorse, which is extra painful. But many spouses who come out are genuinely remorseful. A common scenario is that the coming-out spouse went into the marriage knowing that they were attracted to a different sex or gender than their partner, but believed if they just loved this person enough and created a family, they could make it work.

And of course, they can’t.

“My husband said that his attraction to men was as fundamental as hunger,” says Mazella. “When he told me that, I got it.”

A Crisis of Reality

Beyond a crisis of religion, many people experience a crisis of faith in reality in the aftermath of discovery.

Mazella explains. In a divorce that happens due to some of the top-cited reasons, the couple married, and the marriage broke down over time for whatever reason. While all divorces are stressful life events, in a “regular” divorce most people had genuine love, devotion, and commitment in the beginning of the relationship. When a marriage ends because one spouse is not what they said they were, people don’t always know for sure if that was the case.

“I think in our situations, we don’t have that to fall back on,” says Mazella. “We don’t necessarily know if we were ever truly loved.”

Some of Mazella’s clients will say that they’ve learned later that the whole marriage was a fraud. Even when that’s not the case, when a person finds out they are married to a person who has a different sexual orientation than they claimed, there’s a fundamental disorientation that takes place.

“You don’t trust your judgment,” says Mazella. “And you don’t trust anybody else’s word.”

Many people also experience disenfranchised grief, which is grief that a person doesn’t feel entitled to have. As they struggle to understand whether or not the relationship they built their life on ever truly existed, they have trouble naming and feeling their grief that very much does exist.

“Friends and family might say that yours wasn’t a marriage, or at least he didn’t leave you for another woman,” says Mazella. “It minimizes and marginalizes our grief.”

Answering the Why

While nobody can control or take responsibility for another person’s sexual orientation, Mazella says she does see common threads in her clients from seemingly heterosexual marriages who find out their spouse is not straight.

Interestingly, lack of sexual experience doesn’t appear to be a common trait in this population. It turns out that the majority of Mazella’s survey respondents—almost 29%—had six or more sexual partners prior to marriage. The rest was fairly evenly divided between zero partners, one or two partners, and three to five partners.

There does, however, seem to be a higher history of sexual abuse among survey respondents. Twenty-six percent of the women reported that they had experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18. The U.S. national average for women is 11%. Among male respondents, 13.5% reported sexual abuse before 18. The national average for men is 2%. Mazella hypothesizes that this may inform a survivor’s choice of a mate and what they understand about sex and sexuality.

“You may be attracted to someone who seems safer sexually,” says Mazella.

Even if sexual abuse is not in the equation, Mazella notes that many of her clients have attachment difficulties.

“I see a lot of people with insecure attachments,” she says. “They’re bonding with someone who doesn’t provide secure attachment, but they don’t realize it because it’s familiar.”

Mazella also found that her survey respondents are a highly educated group: 33% have a postgraduate degree, and 70% are college educated or above. While it’s difficult to attach meaning to that finding, Mazella does have some ideas that she sees play out among her clients.

“As a group, we may have more highly developed defense mechanisms, like being able to rationalize or intellectualize,” says Mazella. “We may not pay attention to red flags and our emotional responses to the people that we married.”

Surveying the Damage

Despite their high education level, 56% of women in Mazella’s survey group ended up significantly financially damaged from their divorce.

“That’s a pretty awful consequence,” says Mazella. “You marry for love, and then you divorce and end up in really difficult financial straits.”

But the damage runs much deeper than a person’s bank account.

“In most cases, not all but most, there was outright rejection sexually from either sexual avoidance or their spouse outright letting them know that they were repulsed or turned off,” says Mazella. “Reclaiming your body and reclaiming your sexuality is huge.”

Mazella says it is not unusual for sexual activity to stop completely after the birth of the last child. Some of her clients have not been sexually intimate for decades because they’re still married.

“They don’t know why, but sexual activity just stopped,” says Mazella.

Picking Up the Pieces

Moving forward and healing from the experience is no easy feat. Depending on whether or not their spouse is out, a person may not be able to speak freely and connect with others in similar situations.

“Obviously the ideal situation is everybody’s out and living authentically and openly,” says Mazella. “Having to keep our LGBT spouse’s secret adds another layer of stress to an already challenging situation.”

Finding a therapist who gets it can also be challenging. As someone who has lived through the experience herself, Mazella aims to create a national resource list of therapists who “get it,” which is part of the mission of The Straightforward Project.

So how does a person recover from the experience? Mazella offers this advice:

1. Go to therapy.

One of the things Mazella would like her clients to do more of is not date too quickly and get into therapy instead. Learn your blind spots, know who you are, and know what drives you, she says.

“We all have unconscious drivers of our buses,” says Mazella. “It’s okay. It’s just the human experience. But really take some time to heal and learn about yourself so you feel more confident and self-aware moving forward.”

While nobody outright thinks I was never really attached to my father so let me go pick someone else who will let me down, developing some level of self knowledge and awareness around those blind spots is critical, says Mazella. She advises doing as much self healing around those unconscious drivers as possible.

2. Don’t start dating too soon.

After coming through the experience, a person can be so starved for intimacy that they start dating too soon, says Mazella. Many of her clients find that people are very happy to be sexual with them immediately.

“We’re so hungry and starved that when a person expresses sexual desire, we jump on it,” says Mazella. “We’re flattered, and we go for it. Then we wind up feeling used, or perhaps enter into a relationship with a person who we actually don’t know very well.”

While she rarely sees a client find themselves in another mixed orientation relationship, she sees many people get into relationships that are inappropriate in other ways. It’s an easy thing to do when you’re unaware of your blind spots, she says.

3. Reframe your story.

Mazella says it’s possible to use the experience as fuel for positive growth.

“I always say one of the best things I ever did was marry my ex husband, and the other thing was to divorce him,” she says.

As a result of her experiences, Mazella says she discovered her strength and compassion. She believes it made her a better, more mature person and paved the way for a professional trajectory she wouldn’t have gone on otherwise. Today she is in a unique position to help other people going through situations that are similar to what she experienced.

“Can one make lemonade out of this? Absolutely,” says Mazella. “It’s not easy. It’s an intentional task you have to undertake, but otherwise it’s just damage done and that’s it.”

Kimberly Brooks Mazella, LPCKimberly Brooks Mazella, LPC, is a psychotherapist in private practice in the Washington, DC suburb of McLean, Virginia. Her own marriage ended in 1987 when her husband came out as gay, and since then she has worked to support straight spouses and their families in coming to terms with their new and often challenging reality. Kim works with both individuals and couples who are transitioning through the coming out process, and facilitates therapy groups for straight spouses. Kim founded The Straightforward Project as a vehicle to provide information and educational resources for straight spouses, their family and friends, and interested professionals. Kim served on the Board of Directors of the Straight Spouse Network (SSN) and Metro DC PFLAG. Learn more at www.straightforwardcounseling.com or www.thestraightforwardproject.org.

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