Several years ago, a client began her appointment with, “I just found out my husband cheated on me. All the worse because it was with a man, so I’ve been struggling all day about how to come in here to talk to my gay therapist about it.”
We can get easily confused by the labels we place on things. The brain, by its very nature craves to label and codify experiences and perspectives and put them into nice neat little boxes of understanding. Not everything can be put into a neat, easy-to-understand compartment, especially when contemplating why people do the things they do in relationships. Relationships are complex. Confounding the issue is often we, our partner, or both, don’t completely know ourselves well enough to communicate who we are and what we need to someone else on an intimate level. What results is we behave in ways sometimes not even we ourselves understand.
Whether the affair is same-sex or not is less important than other elements that surround the problem.
Here are six things to consider when faced with a spouse who has had a same-sex affair:
- Look at the problem, rather than the symptom
It’s easy and tempting to focus on the sex. Even in relationships where infidelity does not exist, the amount of sex a couple has can still be problematic for one, or both, and it draws focus and attention. Sex both inside and outside the relationship is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. Sexual health or sexual problems can be a barometer for what is happening outside the bedroom. In the case of a spouse having a same-sex affair, the problem is not the sex. The sex occurred because something was not being addressed elsewhere. If a man is heterosexually-married and realizes he is gay, he tends to act on the sexual urges prior to getting up the courage to make any coming out admissions. I would never endorse those behaviors with a client. You have an obligation to your spouse to speak your truth, no matter how hard it is to do. Believe me, maintaining a life of secrets and lies only makes things worse. It may seem the easier way to go, but it seldom is.
- Look beyond gender
A spouse may more readily expect to move beyond an affair if it involved a heterosexual partner, as compared to a same-sex affair. As a gay psychotherapist, I find this very odd and figure it must be the result of cultural conditioning. Somehow, a same-sex affair seems a greater betrayal, perhaps suggesting the entire marriage was a sham. In 15 years of clinical work and meeting dozens of adult married men who come out of the closet, almost to every man in my memory I can say those guys loved the women they married, cherish the children they bore together, and did what they felt was their very best to create a loving family environment. Probably more so than their heterosexual counterparts who have cheated with other women. I think it is because they wanted so desperately, whether they consciously knew it or not, for it to be real and sustaining for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, sometimes the draw of nature is too difficult to deny.
Alternately, not all men who have same-sex affairs are gay. From both the heterosexual and homosexual camps there is an intense denial bisexuality exists. In research of human behavior and experience, research shows people tend to group around the average with extremes being on each end of the continuum. For example, in scores of intelligence, most parents think their child is gifted, but in actuality, only 2% of children are gifted. Most, about 64% actually, are of average intelligence. Albert Kinsey, a sex researcher in the 1940’s proved human sexuality falls on the same continuum, and in actuality, most of us have some degree of bisexuality, rather than being strictly gay or straight. Again, I think our sexual behavior is more culturally determined rather than biologically, meaning if we were completely free to be ourselves without shame or fear of reprisal from our environment, the vast majority of us would be bisexual.
- Communicate more, not less
Communication is an interesting thing. When issues arise and the energy between people becomes tense people communicate less and less effectively, than when things are going well. It is no different than not going to the doctor when sick, ignoring work as it piles up, or not changing our eating habits when we’ve gained weight. We do all of those things too, of course. We are great at ignoring the problem and actually believing it will go away, or work itself out without any intervention from us. We have to take charge of our problems by dealing with them, not ignoring them. In today’s society, most of our problems are created and solved through communication. Once an affair happens, there are a lot of messy uncomfortable feelings on both sides that need to be acknowledged and worked through. That happens through communicating about it. It is important to talk about what happened, how it feels to be in the current situation, and what you want for your future either together or apart. Both spouses have to have the opportunity to speak about these things without fear of punishment or being shamed.
- Self-examination first, incrimination second
As it is easy and tempting to focus on sex, it is equally easy to focus on the feeling of betrayal. I don’t know of any psychological treatment where punishing someone for what they did to you is hailed as an effective intervention. We are hurting, yes. It makes sense to want the person who hurt us to hurt like we do, then, right? Wrong. Actually, what we really want is for the person who hurt us to understand how the behavior makes us feel. We want him/her to know actions have consequences and right now those consequences are destroying us inside. It is better to tap into and examine what fears, shame, and resentments we are experiencing and learn how to effectively communicate those to our partner. Fears can include:
“I worry you will leave me”.
“I worry I’m not enough for you.”
“I worry I won’t find someone else”.
Shame can include:
“I should have known better (seen this coming)”
“I don’t want to be this person with these problems”
“Did I push you away?”
“How will I explain this to my family, our children, etc?”
Resentments can include and feeling of betrayal, anger, and outrage at the behavior itself and can also include:
“You’ve screwed up our lives”
“How could you be so thoughtless/insensitive/selfish?”
It is nearly impossible in tense situations to encourage someone to hear us when we are parental, judgmental, accusatory, or outraged. People shut down against that communication. It is better to examine exactly what we are feeling and look for ways to communicate so we can be heard. That is what creates true understanding.
- Know stereotypes may be based on fact, but each circumstance is individual
Given our society’s views on bisexuality, there follows the presumption a same-sex affair indicates a realization one is gay and is “making the switch”. Even though it be true in a lot of instances, it is important to remember every situation between couples is individual. As I’ve said before, I’ve met many men, who wanted nothing more than to be happy in the marriage they were in and wanted it to continue, but found they just couldn’t. In other instances the person may simply be bisexual and the gender of the other person is not as important as the affair itself, which indicates there is a problem in the relationship that needed to be addressed and still needs to be addressed if the relationship has any chance at survival.
- Don’t think you have to have all the answers
Relationships are complex on even their best days. My husband and I have been together for over 18 years and I truly believe the reason why our relationship still works so well is we make a point to stay interested in each other. We stay courteous and respectful to each other, and articulate our feelings and opinions in ways the other can hear. It doesn’t come easily. We have to work at. I think he was always better at it than I, but luckily I coach relationships for a living, so I was able to get better and better through the years. My grandmother used to say, “Advice is cheap.” Anyone can tell you what you should or should not do when you are hurting, confused, and feeling angry. Education about how to negotiate through complex problems is a teachable skill. You can learn those skills. You don’t have to have all the answers, you only have to know where to look.