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On Your Own

Can Marriage to an Ex-Gay Man Work?

January 14, 1985|HOWARD HALPERN

"I have read your columns about what a shock it often is when parents find out that their child is gay. Well, how about what a shock it is to find out your boyfriend is gay? That's what just happened to me, and I feel as though I've been hit on the head."

This letter is from Julie, a 25-year-old commercial artist. She continues: "Mitchel and I have been going out for more than a year. He's 30 and a successful stockbroker. At first we just dated occasionally, but for the last few months it's been hot and heavy. I fell in love with him, and we began to talk about getting married. He said that before we married he had to tell me that his sexual activities have mostly been with other men since college, and that I'm the only woman he's gone out with for a long time.

Confused and Furious "I thought I'd faint. I was furious with him. Now I'm just mixed up. One thing that particularly confuses me is that we've had a great sexual relationship, in fact the best I've ever had.

"I told him I need some time to think, so I haven't seen him in the last two weeks since his confession. I feel very alone; I'm not going to tell my parents and friends. What should I do?"

Julie is facing a complicated decision. I can only tell her, and others in a similar position, what my experiences have been in more than 30 years of practicing psychotherapy, in which I've sometimes worked with people who form romantic relationships with others who have a different sexual orientation.

I've known instances in which people have married as part of a valiant attempt to fight their tendency to be attracted to persons of the same sex; because they wanted children and a family life; because they wanted to avoid the social and practical difficulties and indignities that gays often face; because they have had strong feelings about homosexuality as a moral and religious issue, etc.

In many instances, as time passes, the urge to become involved in homosexual activity again becomes compelling. And often the person acts upon this need either by having extramarital affairs with others of the same sex or, at times, by ending the marriage and re-entering the gay life.

I've known other instances in which, although the urge to return to gay activities is strong, the married person chooses not to act on it. The presence of this urge can have differing effects on the marriage. I recall one young man who left his wife and baby--amicably, I may add--to return to gay sexuality. When he finally got up the nerve to tell his father the "real" reason he was getting a divorce, his father said, "I wish I had had the courage to do that at your age."

The son told me, "Only then did I realize how deeply unhappy and lost my father had always seemed to me, and I understood why."

'One of the Best I Know' There are also stories that are more encouraging to people in Julie's position. I know situations in which, as far as I can see, such a marriage has worked out just fine. For example, I think of one woman who, about 20 years ago, struggled with the same decision that Julie is facing and chose to marry. Two decades and four children later, she tells me that she has a happy marriage--"one of the best I know." I don't know whether her husband still feels homosexual attractions, but it is possible that for him, and others I have known, those urges carry little weight compared to the pleasure they find in their marital relationships.

What are the differences between the marriages that have worked and those that have not? The main factor is the motivation of the people involved. If the primary motivation of the gay partner is to force himself into a straight life, the chances of a successful marriage are slim compared to a marriage in which the primary motivation is a strong and loving attraction.

And as far as questioning your motivation, Julie, if you have repeatedly become involved with gay men, as some women do, then you must question whether it is a pattern. Do you choose a partner with built-in problems because you fear a sustained intimate relationship? Do you have fears of facing whatever a male-to-female relationship may mean to you? These questions are relevant only if this is a pattern for you.

Motivation for Gay Activities Another important factor in determining the possibility of a successful marriage is the motivation for a partner's gay activities, which can vary. If there has been a lifetime pattern of intense attraction to other males, it will be much harder to put aside than if one's gay life has largely been a reaction to fears of women, doubts about one's ability to satisfy them or other feelings of inadequacy that may now be largely overcome.

So you need to talk to Mitch about this, to ask him to level with you about the origins and meanings of his gay activities and about his motivation for wanting to marry you. The loving feelings and good sex between you are very positive, but they do not absolutely ordain that his orientation will remain primarily heterosexual. Consider seriously the other things you learn when talking with Mitch. Marrying a person with a gay history has its risks, but depending upon what you learn, you need not rule it out.

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