Grieving and Recovery

One thing that often troubles a person who has or had a relationship with an LGBT person is the pressure from family and friends to ‘get over it’. They are undoubtedly well-meaning because they want you to move on to a happier state of mind but they can lack insight into just how difficult that can be and the many hurdles that you face in this unique situation. They may feel that straight relationships end every day and people seem to start over again, in time, and find new partners.

However, a mixed-orientation relationship can wreak terrible damage to the straight partner’s self-esteem, which is one reason why the recovery process can take much longer. Another reason is the lack of support services for straight partners in the UK and the ensuing sense of isolation. The end of any relationship is like the death of a loved one in many ways and each partner has to move through a grieving process before they can come to the point of acceptance. In a mixed-orientation relationship, the LGBT partner usually has had time to accept and come to terms with their sexual orientation, this is time which the straight partner simply has not had.

In the 1970s, Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote about the five stages of grieving through which terminally ill patients and their families progress. Her model is also used to describe the stages of mourning when a loved one dies. The end of a relationship is akin to a death; a loss of plans and dreams, a loss of companionship, a loss of security, a loss of everything upon which you had built your world. Bonnie Kaye has taken the Kubler Ross model and applied it to mixed orientation relationships; the following extract is based, with permission, on a passage from Bonnie’s book Gay Husbands/Straight Wives:

A Mutation of Life. Before continuing, please note that you won’t necessarily move from one stage to the next in a logical, ‘from point A to point B’ way. Your progress may be more like a spiral, where you move back and forth between stages. On dark days you’ll doubt that you’re making any progress at all, but rest assured that you are!

Stage 1: Denial and Shock

Every person goes through denial and shock when they learn that their partner is LGBT. You can’t believe it is happening or if you stumble upon information or evidence, you’re sure it’s not true. You refuse to believe the evidence even when it stares you in the face. Your partner may deny your suspicions and produce a ‘logical ‘ explanation, no matter how far-fetched, and initially, you feel a perverse sense of relief because it’s much easier to believe them.

You are in denial and your mind is simply unable to absorb the enormity of what’s happening. During this stage denial is a natural psychological defence. Once your mind accepts the truth, you enter a phase where you function physically and fulfil your day-to-day tasks, but your mind is in shock. It is an existence of sorts, but you are unable to deal with the maelstrom of your emotions, so you distance yourself from them.

Some partners don’t admit to being LGBT – a situation which compounds the straight partner’s denial and shock. Those people whose partners admit they’re LGBT will still go through this stage. We tell ourselves that they’ll get over it, it’s just a stage they’re going through, they are under a lot of pressure at work. Even if they leave you, you still hope that they’ll soon realise that they were mistaken. If your partner is honest, you may progress through this stage relatively quickly because at least you know what you are dealing with. The truth hurts, of course, but at least it’s the truth.

However, if your partner doesn’t admit the truth, you may linger in this stage for much longer; you bounce back and forth between denial and shock because you desperately want to believe that the problem will go away so that your life can return to normality. Your partner, perhaps feeling guilty and frightened, may demonstrate renewed love and attention, so it becomes easy to lull yourself and deny that which you know is true. Even so, your suspicions never quite go away, no matter how deeply you bury them in your subconscious.

Some people are so frightened of asking their partner for the truth that they keep on gathering evidence and waiting for the right time to confront him/her. This is OK, so long as you’re gathering evidence as confirmation for yourself, and not as a delaying tactic. Don’t let your detective work become an end in itself. LGBT people can only ever admit the truth to others if they’ve admitted it to themselves first. And some will never reach that point. However, there comes a time when you have to confront your partner with the facts that you’ve uncovered, and by this time you should be somewhat better mentally prepared to deal with the situation.

Stage 2: Anger and Resentment

After passing through denial and shock, you then move to stage 2, which is anger and resentment. Your mind becomes a battleground of constant questions and accusations:

  • How could my partner have done this to me?
  • Why didn’t he/she tell me this before we got together?
  • He/she really didn’t love me at all
  • He/she used me and our children as smokescreens
  • He/she is a coward and a fraud
  • He/she is completely unworthy of my love and the love of our children
  • I don’t deserve this when I’ve tried hard to make him/her happy
  • Doesn’t he/she care about our children and how this will affect their lives
  • He/she obviously doesn’t respect me because he/she has cheated and lied
  • How could he/she expose me to health risks?

And that’s just a small sample!

Feeling angry is natural because you feel profoundly betrayed. You think that even if the lie wasn’t intentional, and even if your partner hadn’t come to terms with their sexual orientation before you got together, they must have known they had gay or lesbian feelings long before they came out. You believe that if your partner truly loved you then he/she wouldn’t have married you in the first place, or that he/she would have been honest much sooner.

You want to blame somebody and vacillate about where to place the blame. You blame your partner for consciously and deliberately betraying you, you blame yourself for not being intelligent enough to see the truth, you blame others who confess afterwards that they had suspicions but were afraid to speak up. You blame his/her parents for ‘making’ their son or daughter this way. If he/she has a lover, you blame them for ‘turning’ your partner. You blame yourself because you believe that LGBT people don’t fall in love with straight people and they certainly can’t make love with them.

Therefore, you must have done something (or not done something) to make him/her gay or lesbian. You blame God, the LGBT community and anybody or anything else available. During this stage it’s important to express your anger and find support. If you suppress it, you might not be able to move ahead. Feeling irrational anger and placing the blame everywhere is OK in the short term but it’s important to deal with it and channel it appropriately. If not, you may become bitter. Anger is often perceived as a very negative emotion but in ‘doomed grooms’ (by Bonnie Kaye) Dina Hamer puts avery positive spin on it. She says that anger signals that you’re standing up and fighting for yourself:

‘Initial anger is a mandatory step toward recovery as it liberates one from the earlier stages of shock, denial, internalisation, and self-blame. By admitting anger, one engages in reality-testing and shifts the blame from oneself to the real cause and beyond. It implies a regaining of control as opposed to acceptance and inactivity. That said, anger will trigger awareness which ultimately will be the tool for self-actualisation trigger awareness which ultimately will be the tool for self-actualisation and re-building; however remaining in the anger stage indefinitely can ultimately prove to be equally self-destructive. As with any emotional stage of grief, it should be transitory and viewed as a catalyst towards the next step in growth: regaining oneself.’

Stage 3: Bargaining

Don’t be surprised if you try to strike a bargain with yourself and/or your partner –  if only I could be a better partner, he/she wouldn’t feel the need for a man or a woman. If only I could loose weight/stop smoking/look younger/be more attractive/earn more money then he/she will be attracted to me again. If only I was more intelligent, he/she would find my company more interesting.

You’re so afraid of losing what you had (or thought you had) that you’re willing to use every ‘if only’ in the book as a bargaining chip. You think that if you can change yourself in some way, you will change your partner’s sexual orientation. No amount of effort from you will change it because being LGBT isn’t a lifestyle choice, but that doesn’t stop you from trying especially if you had what you thought was a happy relationship.

Some people bargain by coming up with ‘I can live with that’ plans for their LGBT partner:

  • If you satisfy your urges by looking at gay or lesbian pictures, films, or websites, I can live with that.
  • If you slip out occasionally to satisfy your urges and I never know, I can live with that.
  • If you promise to always have safe sex, I can live with that.
  • If you promise never to lie or cheat on me, I can live with that.

Your partner may agree to anything, particularly if they feel guilty and fearful. He/she may give you their personal assurance that they’ll never stray and you’ll be eager to accept this, but remember this: by making a bargain you’ll sentence yourself to life under a cloak of perpetual suspicion. Perhaps they will eventually act on their urges, perhaps they won’t. Are you prepared to live with that uncertainty?

Bargaining may give you hope, but the real problem is prolonged bargaining, which will further erode your fragile sense of self-worth. Fundamentally you’re blaming yourself that your relationship has failed and that you have the power to fix it yourself. You’re hoping that if you can change yourself enough then your partner will change his/her sexual orientation and not have gay or lesbian urges anymore. Or you’re hoping that if you strike the right bargain, your relationship will be saved. His/her sexual orientation will never change, anymore than yours would. Being LGBT isn’t a lifestyle choice, any more than being straight is a lifestyle choice.

Stage 4: Withdrawal and Depression

When you realise that nothing will change your partner’s sexual orientation, you may go through a stage of withdrawal and depression where you isolate yourself from family and friends, to one degree or another. During this stage you’re considering how your future will change drastically and how your shared dreams have been destroyed. You’re able to face reality and think about the obstacles that confront you. For some people that means becoming a single parent and/or financial instability, whilst others will have lost confidence to trust their own judgement and fear that they’re unable to survive alone. It’s rarely true that you would be unable to survive alone – all of us were single at one time before we settled down. Our circumstances may change but you can still create a positive and fulfilling life for yourself, even though it may be financially difficult.

Those people whose partners have no intention of leaving the relationship feel trapped; others are so mentally downtrodden that they endure the relationship as a kind of life sentence. This only causes deep depression and utter hopelessness. There is always a way out, even if it can’t be achieved in the short term.

You may remember that this model looks at the grieving process when mourning the death of a loved one, and so far the model applies to both situations. However, this stage represents something different for straight partners because closure may take a very long time to achieve. When mourning a death, you can remember and reflect on happy times you shared. With an LGBT partner you’re forced to deal with an extra set of issues that you never anticipated:

  • You have to sift through your feelings of betrayal and rage
  • You have to deal with feeling completely rejected as a woman or a man, to the core of your being
  • You have to unravel your feelings of self-blame and inadequacy
  • You may have to work through the issue of raising your children knowing that your partner’s new lifestyle is one to which you may not want the children to be exposed
  • You may have to confront your own latent homophobia
  • You have to work on a range of personal issues that went haywire during your relationship such as self-esteem, sexual esteem, and trust in your own judgement
  • If you’re a single parent, you must learn how to juggle your time and finances

During this stage, you may be resentful because you perceive your partner has adjusted to his/her changed circumstances and is apparently enjoying their new life with gusto. You perceive that your happy and secure world has crashed down while their life is moving ahead at your expense. The realisation that they may be experiencing a bumpy transition to living as a LGBT person doesn’t really help, because it is not just about your partner anymore.

Stage 5: Acceptance

When you understand that your partner’s sexual orientation and the failure of your relationship isn’t your fault, you’re able to move on emotionally. If the relationship was abusive (and many homosexual/straight relationships are on many levels, whilst others apparently are not) the change is for the best; for others who could never understand why there was something missing in their relationship, the change is also positive.

However, some people perceive that the relationship was wonderful and can’t understand what changed. Acceptance sometimes takes longer because they keep questioning why a relationship that had seemed satisfying to both of them was an illusion. These people must grapple with the knowledge that they didn’t know their partners as nearly well as they thought.

Stage 6: Outreach

Bonnie Kaye has added an extra stage to the Kubler Ross model. Reaching out to others who are in a similar position in order to offer support can help to form good friendships and a spirit of camaraderie. Helping others will help to reassure yourself that you’re healing and re-building your life. After all, no one can understand the emotional turmoil better than someone who has lived through it. People who once felt isolated and alone, as if they were the only person in the world suffering this problem, now see that they’re not an oddity but part of a very large group that cuts across age, creed, social class, and nationality.

  • References
  • 1. Elizabeth Kubler Ross (1973) On Death and Dying, Routledge
  • 2. Bonnie Kaye (2003) Gay Husbands/Straight Wives: A Mutation of Life, 1st Books.
  • Selected content created by J Strand