Next season, one of our episodes will be on the challenges that arise when a spouse in a heterosexual marriage comes out of the closet. The following is an overview of that topic.
When a married individual thought to be heterosexual comes out of the closet, it can have a significant impact on their spouse and family. It is likely to be a time of heightened, intense emotions for the newly out gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or queer-identified individual. These emotions can collide with the feelings of the spouse facing the news, who is often experiencing shock, disbelief and confusion.
What might these emotions look like? The newly-out LGBTQ spouse can be terrified about being accepted, worried about the ramifications for their family life and the impacts on their social circle, employment, and religious community. Their spouse might be dealing with shattered perceptions of the marriage and relationship, a sense of lost identity, and the additional pain, anger, and fear that come with any marital breakdown. A host of other issues may arise for both spouses and each instance presents its unique problems to resolve. It is common however that the intensity and complexity of the emotions at hand can make this an extremely difficult time for both spouses.
Conservative estimates place the number of gay and lesbian individuals in heterosexual marriages at approximately 2 million in the US. As the numbers suggest, there are many reasons why lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or queer-identified individuals may enter into an ostensibly heterosexual marriage. Homophobia and societal norms valuing heterosexuality can exert enormous pressure on LGBTQ individuals to remain in the closet. LGBTQ individuals may marry into heterosexual marriages to satisfy certain religious or cultural beliefs or expectations. They may also be bisexual or simply not discover their sexuality until later in life. They might have carried genuine affection and love for their spouse, enjoyed their companionship and truly desired to make it work.
Regardless of the reasons why an LGBTQ individual might enter into a heterosexual marriage, it is important to refrain from victimizing them and punishing them for coming out. Amity Pierce Buxton, the founder of the Straight Spouse Network and a long-time researcher on the topic, suggests six stages of coping for a spouse whose partner who has come out of the closet. These stages move from disorientation and disbelief to facing the reality of their partner’s sexuality, letting go of the past, healing, reconfiguring self-identity, and finally personal transformation.
Although this process is often difficult and painful, many people are able to emerge successfully with a full sense of self and positive outlook for their futures. For those in North America seeking support for this issue, some support groups have arisen specifically to assist individuals coping with a spouse coming out of the closet.