When Your Partner Comes Out

Learning that your partner is gay can understandably turn your world upside down

Posted Feb 09, 2019

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Jake didn’t see this coming. His wife, Ellen, of 20 years announced to him on Saturday night that she was gay and couldn’t continue living with him. No, she wasn’t involved with someone else, but she was interested in pursuing such relationships. He asked if she was willing to go to counseling to see if they could work this out. She said no.

I’ve seen many individuals and couples over the years that have had to navigate such difficult transitions. Sometimes the person coming out is in a relationship with someone else. Sometimes the person announces that he or she is bisexual and wants to have a more open relationship to explore this side of his or her personality. And in the recent years, with our society becoming more open and accepting, these situations are becoming more common.

While as with affairs, there is the shattering of an image of both the relationship and of the other, these situations take reactions and emotions to another level. Here are some the common reactions you are likely to experience:

Shock or no shock

Jake would say that he had no idea Ellen would have ever declared this. He’s struggling and will be struggling for many weeks to wrap his around this news. But for others there is no shock but more confirmation. Those close friendships that made them a bit uncomfortable at times are now seen through a different lens. Suddenly the seeming lack of sex or the consistent “okay” sex over the years has an explanation. 

Anger

Anger at the partner for destroying the relationship, for not disclosing this years ago instead of now, for not caring enough about the kids to work it out and stay together in some way, for having an affair, for not talking about it as it was unfolding rather than dropping the bombshell. 

But there also may be anger at yourself for not saying something about the lack of sex or questioning those uncomfortable friendship, for not seeing the clues and signs that you think you should have been able to see.

Blow to your self-esteem

Sure, you rationally know it’s not true, but some part of you says that if you were only more of a man or woman, this wouldn’t have happened. Your rational brain knows that this is bs but it may enter your thoughts.

Shame / embarrassment

Because you think other people think that maybe you weren’t enough of a man or woman, or because you think they think that you were too stupid to not notice something over the years, or too weak to speak up sooner. Even though it’s not your fault, even though you realize that many others will feel sorry for you or see you as the victim in all this, you still can feel that you had a part, that you did something wrong, didn’t do something right.

Look back at your entire life through this new lens

Because this can be so rattling, it easily causes you to not just find yourself retelling the story of the relationship in a new way, but the retelling the story of your life — how there have always been unexpected bombshells, that you never listened to your gut or were assertive enough across the board, that life is unfair and screws you over, that you’re a loser.

Worry about children

What to say, how will they react, will they blame themselves, how will they adjust to this new lifestyle, the loss, might they become gay?

What to do

Consider couple counseling

It’s not surprising that Ellen doesn’t want to do couple therapy. She probably sees it as a drastic attempt by Jake to talk her out of this, turn her around, help her realize this is only some faze that she is going through. She doesn’t think any of this. For her, getting to this point in her life has likely been a long and difficult process, either because she knew who she was and was closeted, or she only slowly was able to connect the pieces of her own inner puzzle.

That said, what counseling can be helpful with is providing a safe place for those deeper conversations so that Jake can hopefully understand what the unraveling process was like for Ellen. He can hear how it wasn’t his fault, or what was his fault; they can talk about how to talk to the children and families. They can come up with a plan for caring for the children and next steps.

Consider individual counseling

Ellen may seek individual therapy to help her hold steady as she moves through this transition in her life. Jake can use therapy to help him process what has happened and what will happen so that he doesn’t walk out of this with a skewed view of himself, relationships, the world. So, he can get the support he needs to deal with the loss and move forward at the same time.

See this as growth, not failure

Ellen may understandably have a sense of relief and also strong determination now that she has taken this step. She may feel shaky and uncertain at times but also empowered.

For Jake the challenge is to see this like most relationship endings as not failure but growth. The feelings of failure are easy to find — the mistakes, the lack of courage, the not trying harder, the ignoring the elephants in the room. 

The growth is more difficult to see but, in some ways, more real: That Ellen, and even Jake, reached this point only because they helped each other to grow. At a base level, breakups are about individuation — the desire to become more the person you need to be — and the struggle is whether this can occur for both partners and whether they can stay together in the process. For Jake and Ellen, no, but it is important that Jake try out this view rather than seeing only failure.

This is difficult transition on many levels for many reasons. It’s a grief process with all that comes with that — the shock and denial, the anger, the bargaining, the depression

And hopefully, at some point not too far down the line, acceptance.

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