I just found out I’ve been living a lie for decades. How can I and my family move on?
Dear Captain Awkward,
My husband of 30 years was, until recently, my first and only sexual partner. I didn’t know much about sex before we got married, and for a long time I thought that our sex life was normal for middle-aged folks: once every few years, lights off, me always facing away from him. The other parts of our marriage were excellent. We are the best of friends, we share intellectual interests, and he is a wonderful parent to our daughter. While I worried that he’d lost interest in me, especially as I age, I tried my best to enjoy the good parts of our life and not think about sex too much.
Then I met a younger man and, on impulse, slept with him a few times. I’m not proud of cheating on my husband, but I can’t be sad that I did it. This young man opened up a whole world for me, sexually. I learned what it was to be desired and to be seen as desirable. Around the same time I discovered that my husband, too, had been seeking sex outside of our marriage. Only, he’s been paying for sex with men.
On the one hand, this explains so much. It’s freeing in a way to know that the problem isn’t me. I can stop blaming myself. On the other hand, I feel shattered, and I blame him for that. He lied to me for our entire marriage. I can’t stop thinking of all I have missed out on, of all the love and sex I could have had if I’d met someone else when I was in my prime.
I’m terrified for him, both for what will happen to his career in our insular, conservative community if anyone finds out about this, and because he has started to investigate questionable and dangerous methods of "curing" his homosexuality so that he can hold onto our marriage. I’m terrified of our adult daughter finding out, or of tearing her life apart with a divorce. I’m even more terrified that he will harm himself.
I don’t want to lose the person I love the most in the world to my own anger or to horrifying "therapy" methods. I’m also scared at the financial and social devastation a divorce would cause both of us, not to mention the prospect of starting over. Is it really possible for me to find new love at my age? But I know that I can’t stay married to him any longer, not like this. How can I take care of myself and my family in light of this terrible secret? My friends are all tied up with my husband’s work, so I can’t confide in them unless I want the whole community to know. Thank you for any insight you can offer.
Heartbroken Faculty Wife
Dear Faculty Wife,
Not that it’s any comfort, but you are not alone in what you are going through. In a society with such a long history of hatred and fear toward homosexuality and gay people, there are many, many people who hide who they are from those closest to them and from themselves. I grew up surrounded by people who don’t really know or can’t articulate that they are gay, because the church or the community they are in doesn’t have a place for homosexuality, bisexuality, or anything outside of heterosexuality. If you combine that with traditional, conservative ideas about sex (all sexual exploration must take place within marriage, women aren’t supposed to be sexually adventurous, women’s sexual pleasure is unimportant, the idea that people are supposed to pair off very young), well, you get a lot of people in unhappy marriages.
People in these marriages don’t know why they are unhappy, since they are doing everything they’ve been told to do, and on the surface it all seems to be working out so well! After all, don’t they look great together in the prom pictures? Aren’t they the best of friends? Because there is no outlet to talk honestly about what might be going on, everything gets sublimated into confusion, self-hatred and infidelity. While you get angry at your husband, make sure you budget some anger for the culture that set you both up to fail. You were both robbed of the joyful, honest love lives you should have had.
Since you are contemplating divorce, I suggest that you meet with a lawyer as soon as possible. The lawyer will keep things confidential, and a meeting alone does not constitute a decision or mean that you have to go through with a divorce. But I think you need someone on your team who can walk you through the practical and financial side of that process. There’s divorce, but there is also legal separation, and you and your husband might be able to negotiate something tailored just for you, where your financial and property and medical affairs remain can intertwined if you want them to be, but you dissolve the romantic/sexual part of the marriage. Whatever decision you make, it needs to be an informed one, and there is strength in that knowledge.
I also suggest you seek out some therapy for yourself, and I suggest that you go outside your self-described conservative community to seek it.You need a safe place to discuss everything where your husband won’t be outed before he is ready. You need a safe place where you can unload all the anger you are feeling and process those feelings.
Third, while I suspect that there are many, many straight-seeming couples and "confirmed bachelors" and "spinsters who share a house" hiding in plain sight around you, it might be time to visit or move to a less conservative place. When you live in a town where it still feels like the 1950s, it’s hard to visualize or imagine this, but there are thriving pockets and smaller communities of acceptance.Your husband’s life has been a lonely affair, and I can only imagine how isolating it is for you both right now. Finding others who know what you are going through can be transformative. The cultural dial hasn’t moved enough yet, but it is moving, and finding community with others is a large step to make the world more welcoming for him and for the young men and women who are on the verge of stepping into your shoes.
Your daughter may not understand, and she may be angry or have a hard time getting used to the idea that her dad is not who she thought he was. Our culture is so homophobic, and she was likely raised in the same conservative way that you were, so it’s very likely she’s internalized a lot of unfortunate ideas. You can’t control how she will feel, but you also can’t protect her from the truth at the cost of your own life, of your own happiness. Resolve your marriage, and let your daughter’s reaction be her own. She is an adult, capable of making her own decisions, and it’s very likely that she will come around with time. I have to believe that love will win the day in the end.
There are divorced people who have very loving, functional friendships with their ex-spouses. It’s not a common story, but it is one story, and it can be your story. Ending the romantic part of a relationship doesn’t have to mean that you and your husband lose the good parts about your love for each other forever. If you truly love each other, and I think you do, you won’t stop being family or feeling like family just because the sleeping arrangements have changed or because a piece of paper says so. Give yourself some time to grieve and feel angry and work through the logistics, but while you do that, I will imagine happy endings. If I could write the next chapter of your lives, you will find a way to live and love honestly but remain the best of friends.
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo lived in a duplex connected by a bridge, maybe that’s your answer: Sunday dinners on the good china after Saturday nights earning your status as the talk of the town by dancing up and down the streets with your young, gorgeous lovers. Imagine yourself meeting a handsome widower or divorced man who lives to sex you rotten and bask in your beauty and strength. Imagine your husband meeting the same, someone who was in his same shoes, someone who is now free to live and love as he pleases. Now imagine your epic bridge games as you all grow old in your duplex and take care of each other.
I hope you can dissuade your husband from going to "conversion therapy," especially anything that involves tormenting or hurting himself. You may not be ready to do this yet, but I think your best chance to convince him lies with you telling him that there is nothing he can do to stop a divorce or a separation, but reassuring him that you love him for himself and that he won’t lose you from his life. "Darling, I am shaken by this, and I am very angry at you for lying, and I need some time to regroup and take care of myself. But at the end of the day, you are who you are, and I don’t want you to change that for me." Tell him, if you can, about the duplex, and the bridge games. Tell him about the well-dressed gentleman with strong hands and great eyebrows who is waiting for him out there.
I know that it’s not fair, when you have been shaken so hard, that you should also have to manage his emotions and his life.If you need to flee far away from this betrayal and rebuild your life alone, I would understand. But the love and compassion that you have for yourself and for your husband shines through your letter, and I believe that your future can be rich and enormous. I’m so deeply sorry that no one built the world where a happy adult life as a gay man is imaginable and possible. You both deserved that world. I’m sorry that it falls to you, who have been hurt so much, to have to imagine that world for the person who lied to you and hurt you. But if you can do that work, if you can tell him that story, if you can make your love into a bridge, then maybe your daughter’s children will come of age in a world where they have many grandpas and they love them all the same.
Love and courage to you both,
Jennifer Peepas is a Chicago-based filmmaker and film teacher. She answers questions from non-fictional characters at her blog, CaptainAwkward.com.