The "pornography" of marriage and the other side of the closet
There is a lot of noise around the issue of gay marriages and when I read a number of prominent comments by religious leaders I felt that their description and understanding of gay relationships do not deserve comments such as: “gay relationships are wrong because are not creative” or gay relationships are just “profound friendships.”
When I reflect on such statements, and associate my observations and actual experiences in my clinical practise, such definitions really fail to capture the true essence of human nature.
Research indicates that more than two million homosexual or bisexual people are or have been married to heterosexual partners. However approximately 85% of these couples end in divorce, while the remaining 15 % continue their marriage but most often with some other agreed “arrangement”. While some spouses are left by their partners after they come out it is usually straight wives, not straight husbands, who end their marriage. Many gay or bisexual husbands don’t want to leave because they still ‘love’ their wives, fear rejection from their children (if any) or wants the marriage to ‘cover’ them from the communities moral judgement. Rarely does a gay husband choose not to act out his gay interests on defence to his wife’s needs. An exceptional book by Schaar Gochros called ‘When Husbands Come Out of the Closet’, provides ways for couples to understand and support each other.
A factual understanding of sexual orientation is an important task in therapy for restoring facts from myths and help spouses to let go of their loneliness and secret relieve anxiety and accumulate a perspective of their own sexuality. As straight spouses try to sort out angry, hurt and anxious feelings, it becomes also imperative to understand the meaning of bisexuality and homosexuality on a practical level. Many wonder if their partner’s sexuality is permanently lost and mourn about a loss of a ‘faulty’ damaged sexuality, others they blame their lack of judgement and their bad choice. Preoccupied with their own anxiety, confusion and pain many partners are not able to understand the other side of the closet, which, is subsequently the same pain their partners had experienced in their marriage.
Working out a viable alternative to the conventional marriage is a painful process. Rewriting marital rules entails solitude and freezing up emotion, a process for getting in touch with buried feelings and gain the perspective needed to move forward. The partner’s sexuality in the totality of its physical, emotional and spiritual aspects is no longer exclusive to the marriage. Gradually many wives feel jealousy or resentful towards this double life while others are ‘stuck’ because of their fear of the unknown or guilt of failing. Before stress becomes self-destructive, it is important for the spouse to seek a therapist’s help. Once the secrecy issues are resolved the therapist role is to help the spouses rebuild their moral codes on integrity and help them to regain the moral strength to be true to themselves. Reconstructing a moral value is a challenging engagement with a person’s deeply rooted values but also some spouses fear that shaping a new moral code will endanger their friends support. Spouses need to have the necessary openness and courage to explore the idea that homosexuality is a natural sexual variation, a position that contradicts Judeo-Christian and other religious convictions. A knowledgeable therapist can guide the spouse in resolving conflicting feelings and arranging priorities and responsibilities. The acceptance of negative feelings is part of a healthy process and appropriate reaction to the situation and joint counselling can help to clarify issues and create awareness of relationship responsibilities. Many spouses may be overwhelmed with anger and hurt at the destruction of their monogamous relationships. At the same time, unravelling the differences between the partner’s sexual orientation and the spouse’s heterosexuality becomes painfully clear. The threat of HIV also poses more anxiety and anger. If the spouses have children then another complicated challenge is emerging on how to handle their children so that gay-related stress becomes grist for growth rather than trauma. Depending on the communities attitudes the children will experience analogous discomfort and anxiety. Children are also affected by how their parents, siblings and family members or close friends handle their parent’s coming out- all within the context of attitudes of neighbourhood, school and community. Children’s reactions to their parents’ disclosure are often noted as a constant flux, shifting from shock, anger and distrust to relief and empathy. In more tolerable societies, as reported by documentaries such as “Not All Parents Are Straight”, children of gay and lesbians parents do not perceive it as a negative factor in their lives. However that depends on a number of variables. More importantly is how the parent’s coming out conflict is resolved without the straight parent engaging their own children against the gay parent. The straight parent’s perception towards the gay parent is pivotal in the way children can come to terms with their parents’ sexuality and separation. It is also documented a prevailing strong attitude by straight spouses on excluding their homosexual partner’s from their children’s lives on the grounds of immoral behaviour.
Helping children cope with homophobia is another complicated issue especially when their classmates teasing becomes bullying, thus, adding to the children’s emotional turmoil. When contemplating ‘going public’ parents need to consider the level of intolerance on the community and more importantly the level of risk that their children could be placed e.g., taunted from their school peers. The social stigma attached to homosexuality is now attached to the child as well as to their parent. The risk of the children to withdraw from others can impact their developmental relationships and intimacy with others. Isolation cuts teenagers off from peer support just at the time when friends are so important for identity and independence.
The meaning of family to any child is of paramount importance. Parents are the single most powerful, nonbiological influence on their children’s lives. For children who become pawns in their parents’ divorce raises their fears of abandonment, insecurity, distrust and conflicting loyalties. The outcome of a relationship constructed on moral judgement and the ‘hope that no one will find out’ can inflict so much pain to self and significant others. Divorce removes the stable home which is the cornerstone of a child’s safety net and the embryonic stage for self-esteem and independence. As a result and as reported in Adult Children of Divorce Speak out, a child’s self concept, trust, confidence and ability to relate to others is traumatized. The parent’s gayness often becomes the scapegoat for the chaos resulting in divorce. Stereotypical thinking on the part of therapists can result against the parents and children’s well being. It is also documented that in most cases gay fathers struggle to keep contact with their children because of negative attitudes toward their orientation. As the pathways of life changes for both parents the new partners of either parent add another threat to the child-parent relationship.
The therapists when encountering the ‘pornography of marriage’ have to work on spouses issues such as, letting go of the past, learning to forgive, coming to terms with loss, reformulating a new meaning in life, changing a belief system, creating hope and optimism and taking steps to connect with the true self.
To formulate public policy we need to understand society’s needs for stability and well being by allowing and accepting alternative marriage and family arrangements. The diversity of sexual orientation is part of the Darwinian natural order and the need for leaders and legislators to understand the full range of the aforementioned issues can end ignorance, prejudice and family suffering. Authenticity, honesty and responsibility can become the cornerstones of social relations and can help communities to transform and move beyond a closet mentality into an inclusive society.
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