A comment on the blog caught my eye recently. I had advised in my book, Divorce & Splitting Up: Advice from a Top Divorce Lawyer, that couples should talk more to each other. The reply from one devastated husband was as follows:
“It doesn’t help if your wife has not been open and honest with you! Being a lesbian is not a crime but marrying someone and having 3 children with him when you are, is at best deceitful! I was lied to. I lent legitimacy to her.”
Quite a reply and it deserves its own response. So here goes.
Society has changed more quickly and more radically over the last 30 years that I have been a lawyer than any other period in history. Only 30 years ago, women generally got married young, for the most part they didn’t go to university, and didn’t have a career. They were taught to depend on their husbands for an income, they didn’t have children outside marriage and, if they did, they were subject to stigma as were the children themselves. Generally, people didn’t live together before marriage. Eschewing marriage in favour of nothing at all and raising children in such a loose unit was frowned on to say the very least.
And as for being openly gay? Forget it.
Gay men were treated as criminals with contempt and abuse. They were regularly called offensive names, they couldn’t legally have consensual sex until 1967 and then they could only if they were over 21. The age of consent for gay sex wasn’t reduced to 18 until as late as 1994. In the meantime, being gay meant also being liable to prosecution with “male castration” as a punishment. They were offered the choice of taking female hormones rather than be sent to prison. The famous scientist and wartime codebreaker Alan Turing took his own life as a result of this practice.
And women? It wasn’t until 1997 that Angela Eagle “came out” as the first gay woman MP and it was not until the early 2000s that legislation was passed permitting civil partnerships and same sex adoption. The climate has improved but it took until 2014 for same sex marriage to become law in England. It is gradually being legalised around the world, but by no means everywhere.
So how easy is it in a society that doesn’t exactly welcome gay people with open arms to “come out” as gay?
There is no doubt from what I’ve heard during my career, that many people find it easier to deny their sexuality. Others manage to hide it but conduct clandestine relationships whilst ostensibly happily married to, or living with, someone of the opposite sex. They have children and they do their best. But ultimately at some point, even much later in life, the feelings they experience simply become too strong to deny. They need to live life but their way. The desire to be with another person too cannot be hidden any longer.
This is exactly the same regardless of sexual orientation. We’re wired ultimately to feel the same whether or not the object of our affections is the same or opposite sex to ourselves.
Coming out is extremely difficult and there are organisations to help. LGBT and Stonewall produce very good advice for people coming out as adults with families. It clearly isn’t easy.
I have always advocated that once your mind is made up, you should tell the truth. It’s simply not fair to your partner otherwise. And when the time comes, most spouses find out that telling someone, which means the marriage is ending, is one of the most difficult jobs they will ever have to do. But it has to be done. And when it is done, the fallout is going to be substantial.
But equally it’s far from easy for the other spouse/partner who has been left behind to come to terms with their partner’s sexual betrayal in more than one sense. Additionally they have to deal with the loss of a partner and acceptable parent to their children.
All the same feelings that occur on marital breakdown are the same as those that occur on bereavement. It cannot be helped. The event is profound. Shock, anger, and denial will all be in play but in this case there may be even more – revulsion, refusal to consider the spouse as a fit parent because of the shock of the ‘change’ in sexual orientation. The fact that this may have been ongoing for years is irrelevant. Time might play a part but it might simply entrench their position.
And so we come to my correspondent who clearly feels all these feelings. His pain is obvious. The comments are all about him, his loss, his betrayal, and reveal nothing of the wider picture including a concern for the children. Which is a shame.
What is required now is for this seismically fractured family to try and somehow regroup. For both parents to once again put the children first, since the welfare of the children is the most important consideration of all. They need to come together for the sake of these children who must surely be bewildered by the extreme judgement of their father against their presumably much-loved mother, notwithstanding the shock of the change to their lives.
We don’t know whether there is a new partner in their mother’s life and we don’t know how that has been handled. We don’t know what arrangements have been made for parenting the children or how the finances have been resolved. All we do know is there is one desperately hurt parent.
I would recommend he has counselling as soon as possible to help him through the pain and the trauma. Help him to understand that his wife had her own enormous issues to come to terms with. That ultimately we are all human beings and not one of us is perfect. To learn, as hard and as painful as it may be, to open his heart and to forgive. To move on, not least for the children. In law, being gay is no longer a crime. Gay people are treated equally. It is not a reason to vilify a person or treat them differently. It is vital that he is put on track as soon as possible. Doing so will benefit the whole family, not least him.