Rob rushed into his first session with me, gym bag on one shoulder, briefcase on the other, 10 minutes late and out of breath. He set his bags down, gently put his Blackberry on the table in front of him, and heaved himself onto the couch. He sighed and began: "Okay, I'm gay, I'm married, I have three kids, and I'm not getting divorced." He'd shared some of this information with me in our phone conversation, but I was still struck by the sense of hopelessness in his tone. As he paused, awaiting my response, quite honestly, I was awaiting my response as well. I knew this was not Rob's first experience in therapy and that a lot was riding on what I was about to say.
Rob had been referred by a former client of mine he'd met in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Just out of alcohol rehabilitation treatment, he'd begun attending AA meetings, where he'd shared parts of his story. He described a long struggle with his sexual orientation, growing up in a devoutly Roman Catholic family, where he learned that his sexual attraction to men was cause for eternal damnation. Perhaps to overcome his shame, he excelled academically, medicated himself with alcohol, and married a Roman Catholic woman his parents considered the perfect mate for him. After college, he became a lawyer, fathered three children (now 13, 15, and 18), and started his own law firm with a colleague. Outwardly, he was the epitome of success, admired and envied by his siblings as the star of the family; inwardly, he experienced himself as fraudulent, hopeless, and trapped. Finally, out of desperation, he told his wife, Mia, about his lifelong sexual attraction to men.
To Rob's surprise, Mia didn't reject him. To the contrary, she thanked him for his honesty and assured him they'd be able to "get through this together"—as long as Rob remained true to his faith and worked on their marriage. Mia consulted their priest, conducted extensive research on the Internet, and identified a reparative therapist to help him "overcome" his homosexual impulses. But after months of reparative therapy, he found himself even more depressed, drinking more heavily, unable to function at work, and still lying to Mia about his sexual attractions. He contacted a therapist in Chicago who identified as gay and, upon hearing Rob's story, took a decidedly different therapeutic tack: in his first session, he advised him to move out and begin the process of divorce. Rob panicked, drank to the point of passing out, and decided to enter alcohol rehab.
Men in circumstances similar to Rob's frequently describe their experiences in therapy as confusing and polarizing; whether they see gay-identified therapists or heterosexual therapists, they face a strong bias toward full disclosure and divorce. Many men have shared with me their panic after initial sessions with well-meaning therapists who supported "authenticity" while not acknowledging the complexity of honoring multiple and complex identities. Like Rob, these men report loving their wives, loving their children, loving God, and being attracted to men—all at the same time. My work with gay and bisexual men over the past 10 years has taught me to see psychotherapy as a place to hold dynamic tensions without easy, premature resolutions. As a therapist, I saw my job in this case as conducting a careful conversation with Rob about how he viewed the incongruity of his identities, and through gentle challenging of his assumptions, helping him discover a way to live with greater clarity, which might conceivably include even greater ambiguity.
So after he'd finished his introduction, I simply said, "You sure have a lot to manage. To me, it seems that our challenge is to help you find a way to honor all these parts of yourself. So what might that mean for you?" Rob's breathing visibly slowed, he put his head back on the cushion of the couch, and exhaled. "I don't feel like I fit anywhere," he continued. "I don't feel straight' enough in the straight world, and I don't feel gay' enough in the gay world. I can't be all of who I am anywhere. I don't know what to do."
Our initial sessions began by simply acknowledging many conflicting desires: to be a good Roman Catholic, to be gay, and to stay married to his wife and live with his children. We focused on the fact that, whatever it meant for him, his sexual orientation might feel like a significant threat to others in his life, especially Mia, who unambiguously envisioned a traditional marriage with him. She, for her part, began seeing a female therapist, who encouraged her to be clear with Rob about her own needs, sadness, and grief—all of which, unsurprisingly, was difficult for him to hear and often left him feeling guiltier and more ashamed.
Whenever possible in cases like this, I try to see the couple together, and Rob's case was no exception. But despite an invitation to couples therapy, Mia refused to join us, fearing that as a gay man, I'd be too aligned with Rob to be able to hear and support her. Several conversations with Mia's individual therapist (who advocated the couples work), along with my own efforts to reach out to Mia, failed to persuade her that couples work would be helpful. Rob responded to this with disappointment and anger, withdrawing further from his wife. At her therapist's suggestion, we explored the possibility that Rob might join his wife with her therapist, but Mia still resisted. She was becoming less willing to think about working with Rob, and was increasingly feeling the pressures from her family and friends to separate from him.
I've found there's a window of opportunity to engage the couple when my initial point of entry is the husband. When I've waited too long—when either or both members of the couple have moved too far away individually, or have separated too much, there's greater reluctance to see couples work as an option. In Rob's case, I feared I'd missed this opportunity.
While Rob and Mia still lived in the same home, they'd moved into separate bedrooms, explaining to their children that Rob's snoring was interfering with Mia's sleep. Not sleeping together enabled them to create some type of boundary while continuing to live together without unrealistic expectations of each other. Meanwhile, I provided Rob with as much information as possible about ways gay married men and their wives have chosen to restructure their contracts with each other. A particularly useful way of doing that, I find, is referring clients to the groups I facilitate for married and formerly married gay and bisexual men who are at various points in their lives and in their relationships with their families.
Some men in the groups have come out only to themselves and the group. Some are out to everyone, including their wives and children, while still cohabitating with their families. Some have chosen to divorce, and are either in the process of divorcing or have been divorced for a while. Those who remain married and still live with their families may have a mixed-orientation marriage (MOM)—a marriage of individuals whose sexual orientations differ.
The group gave Rob a chance to hear from men who'd managed to make such marriages work. Some talked of continuing to be sexual with their wives, but having an open relationship, in which each partner could engage in sexual relationships outside the marriage. Others talked about a variation of an open relationship—in which each partner could be sexual outside the relationship, but with only one other partner, who, ideally, was sexual with only one other partner also—known as a closed-loop relationship (CLR). I myself could have provided Rob with this information in individual or couples therapy, but hearing it from other men who were negotiating some of the same concerns as his allowed him to hear these options as realities, instead of theories. Meanwhile, Mia became involved in a chapter of the Straight Spouses Network, talking with others who were dealing with a gay, lesbian, or bisexual spouse.
Rob and Mia seemed to work out a don't-ask-don't-tell arrangement. For months, they continued to sleep separately, have meals together, engage in social events together, but not discuss whether or to what extent either of them was engaging in relationships outside their marriage. After months of "don't ask, don't tell," Mia confronted Rob with her suspicions about his sexual activities. Having prepared for this in individual therapy, he was straightforward about them. She felt betrayed and angry. He felt guilty, apologized profusely, recommitted himself to their traditional marriage, and swore he wouldn't have sex with another partner again.
In our next session, Rob said, "I told her what I knew she wanted to hear, but I know I can't recommit to our marriage the way it was. I think we each deserve to be happy and feel desired. And even though divorce isn't consistent with my religious beliefs, having sex outside my marriage—even if Mia and I agreed to this—is even harder for me to fathom than divorce. I need to talk to Mia about what our next steps should be."
For several sessions, Rob and I rehearsed this conversation with Mia—where he might have it, what her reaction(s) might be, and how he'd manage his reactions to hers. I encouraged him to clarify his thoughts by writing down what he wanted to say, and to write back to himself from Mia's perspective, to help him get the larger picture of what was going on for both of them. The conversation was difficult, but both were empathic with the other and honest about their own needs. In the same conversation, Mia shared that she'd decided months ago to seek a divorce.
As Rob's divorce was being finalized, his dating turned into a serious relationship, but it soon ended. The feedback he received from his partner was that he was "too intense" and "moved too quickly." He talked about how awkward dating was for what felt like the first time in his life. Not only was he dealing with what every divorced person deals with upon entering the world as a single person again, but he was entering the world as an available, out, gay man. He was in the process of reconciling his faith with his sexual orientation—which, for him, meant finding one man with whom to be monogamous. Gently, I encouraged him to look at his expectations about the speed with which he'd find a partner.
I've seen Rob, on and off, for five years since he and Mia divorced. His co-parenting relationship with Mia has remained solid, though it's seen moments of strain when either or both of them have been dating someone more seriously. He's remained sober through these years, and continues to date with a greater sense of contentment and less pressure. He's found a Roman Catholic religious community that's accepting of his sexual orientation. Still, he sometimes grieves for the loss of how he used to view the concept of "family," and he struggles with reconciling his divorce and sexual orientation with his faith. We recently reminisced about our first meeting, and I reminded him of the first words he'd shared with me. "I'm so much less clear about who I am," he joked, "and that feels so good."
This blog is excerpted from "Between Gay and Straight" by Jeff Levy. The full version is available in the May/June 2010 issue, The Secret World of Men: What Therapists Need to Know.
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