Monday, October 29, 2012

Open Marriage or Divorce: "It's better to be divorced."

Helen and I exchanged a few emails about our lives and circumstances.  She's the young woman I quoted in my last post, the one who wrote about her parents' open marriage.

At the time of our conversation I was thinking about coming out to my kids, so we talked about that.  We also talked about the reasons why many married men "on the down-low" have no desire to come out.  On that subject, Helen realized something new:
You made me realize that my mother and my father's family wanted him in the closet at least as badly as he wanted to be there too.  In fact, he might have felt he was doing the right thing by not living openly.  He probably felt like he was protecting them.  
This is a revelation to me, and I don't know why I didn't see it before.
 On the subject of hiding same-sex attractions from one's children, Helen had this to say:
I glanced at "[Another blog]," and couldn't help but compare the two of you.  
The author of that blog wrote something to the effect that he hopes his kids never find out that he's a liar and a cheat.  
He's kidding himself.  The thing these guys don't understand is that it's better to be divorced and to have an open, genuine relationship with your children than it is to be married but lie to your kids every day for the rest of your life.  
I'm not unsympathetic.  I know how it happens.  People have been brought up to believe that their marriage and family are their real relationships, while their relationships with their lovers are secret and disposable.  They're not real and therefore not important.  That's how you end up with men who believe that "women are for romance and men are for sex."  They've never seen a romantic relationship between two men really work.  But they can and do work, and every gay person today (in most parts of this country) can pursue a genuine, loving, and public relationship with the person they love, if they really want to.  

Also, I think that all parents are guilty of forgetting that they're meant to be raising functional, independent adults.  I only have a toddler, but even I have to remind myself that these days of high dependence won't last forever and that someday she'll be a grown woman.  If I want to have a close relationship with her then, it's important to be as honest and compassionate as I can be now. 
Helen has conflicted feelings about her father.  She loves him but she also feels betrayed by his lies and cheating.  Actually, when you think about it, she feels exactly the same way many straight spouses do, just less vehemently.

She makes the assumption that every kid will eventually learn the truth about his or her cheating parent.  Yet, ironically, no man on the down-low ever expects to be caught.

I suppose that's the nature of the beast.  If you expect to be caught, why bother hiding?

How many cheating spouses are eventually caught?  No one knows.  Many of them, certainly.  Especially these days when it's easy to get tripped up in your own digital handiwork.

I've seen a number of teenagers post stories about how they discovered their father's cheating because they found some form of electronic evidence.  Before the Internet, I remember when guys would talk about finding their dad's porn stash.  Now that porn stashes are kept on computers and phones, I wonder how many teenagers go looking for their dad's porn and are shocked by what they find.  I've never read a story about that happening, at least as far as I can remember, but I'm sure it happens.

Anyway, my point is that electronic secrets are not as secret as we think they are.  Those very popular Apple products, for example, keep track of the apps you download.  If someone in your family innocently syncs a new device to your existing Apple account....whoops, there's Grindr!

My advice to spouses with secrets is to expect that the truth will some day be revealed, and when it is, expect that your spouse won't be the only important person in your life who feels angry and betrayed.  Yes, some secrets do make it to the grave, but mostly, they don't.  For that reason, it's best to prepare for the worst.

What do you think?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"My Parents' Open Marriage"

A few months ago I had a fascinating email exchange with a 30-something woman, Helen, about her parents' mixed orientation open marriage.  It was an amazing conversation; no one writes about this stuff!

Helen is now old enough, and experienced enough, to understand her parents as real and imperfect individuals.  And, as a wife and mother herself, she's sympathetic to the stresses and responsibilities her parents faced.  Yet she's still able to be balanced and critical about her parents.  I've never read a story like hers before.

I feel honored that she shared it with me and I couldn't be more pleased that she has given me permission to share it with you.  Here is that story, in her own words: 
My father was gay or bisexual (depending on who you asked).  He and my mother were very close, best friends even.  And my mother says the sex was good (I suspect though that she doesn't have the highest sex drive).  My dad knew he was gay from an early age, and actually confessed to my mother that he was bisexual prior to their getting married at age 23 in the late 60s.  She was shocked, but he assured her that he'd never cheat on her and that he loved her, and so they went ahead with the wedding.  Fast-forwarding to just before my birth in the late 70s, my dad became very ill while my mother was pregnant with me, and while in the hospital was diagnosed with Hepatitis B (which I still carry in my liver cells, via my mom).  It became clear that he had been cheating on her for some time, but despite a lot of fighting, neither of them wanted a divorce.  My mother instead agreed to have a secretly open relationship, where my father could sleep with other men as long as he was discreet and did not endanger the family in any way.  I know this sounds like a pie-in-the-sky sane solution, so let me add that my mother tears up when talking about her agreeing to my father's extramarital affairs to this day.  She was not really okay with the situation, but with a newborn and a partner who was a good husband and father, she felt that it was a deal with the devil that she had to make.

Throughout my childhood I was surrounded by wonderful gay men, but I had no idea about their sexual orientation.  I was given Disney collectible items, taken to musicals, and was just in general very well treated and loved.  Then just before my brother was born, the HIV test was invented, and my father discovered he was infected.  Miraculously, neither my mother nor brother were infected.  My mother was very upset, since her agreement on extramarital affairs was contingent on safe sex, and while it's possible that my father had become infected long before, it seems unlikely given my mother's negative status.  My father became quite sick, then received a liver transplant when I was 12 (they didn't know whether HIV would re-infect the liver at that time), then slowly became sick again.  While I obviously knew he was ill, I knew nothing of the cause while I was a child.  When I was 15 I studied abroad for a school-year, and prior to my leaving, my dad sat me down and told me he was infected with HIV; he and I were close and he was afraid that he would die while I was gone and would find out from another source.  I was shocked.  When I asked my mother how it could have happened, she yelled at me, telling me that I was being purposefully stupid and that I shouldn't need it spelled out for me that my father was gay.  I had been raised to believe, through church, that being gay was wrong and that was a very difficult year for me, grappling with these issues in a foreign country.  I decided at the end of it that if my beloved dad was gay, it couldn't be so bad and I "forgave" him for his orientation.  But to this day I haven't been able to forgive him for the callous way he treated my mother, his willful ignorance of the pain he caused her.  He died when I was 20.  We attended one queer event together, a documentary on how to approach families with same-sex parents in the school system.  I always wonder how our relationship and my feelings toward my father would have been different had we had time to really be honest about this part if his life.

There are three main points I'd like to convey.  #1 is that a closeted parent puts the whole family in the closet.  To this day I can't speak openly, because my grandparents and father's sisters are deeply hurt and offended if I do.  We are so closed off that my poor brother didn't learn my father was gay until he was 21, seven years after my father's death.  This is not a fair burden to require your children to carry.  #2 is that open-marriages can work, but only in the true absence of any kind of coercion.  If your children are grown and you and your wife are in good health, then yes, perhaps she could give you her honest opinion about what would be acceptable to her.  Otherwise you have to assume that she will feel undue pressure to keep her family together and might agree to something that she's not genuinely okay with.  #3 This one is harder to describe, but I'll try.  I feel that by not having an example in my parents, I was cheated of a model of a healthy sexual love and instead I inherited negative views about sex that I've worked hard to overcome.  I remember as a child watching my uncle affectionately pat my aunt on her bottom and feeling completely confused by it.  I now strongly believe that it is optimal for parents to have a healthy sexual relationship with each other.  It gives the children a sense of security and greatly helps when it's time for the children to navigate their own dating lives.  I'm happily married, but as a teenager I was a mess - I had no clue how men felt about women, or what to do with my feelings for men.  The underlying message of my parents' relationship was that sex isn't important between people who love each other, but is very important to have fun amongst strangers.  I hope my children see sex as something that can bind two loving people together.

Therefore I strongly support same-sex marriage and romantic relationships for gay and lesbian people.  It is healthier for them, and it is healthier for their kids.  I understand how my parents came to the place that they did - my father would have been disowned had he come out as a young man, if not worse - and I think they both did their best in a difficult situation.  But I have much less sympathy for couples embarking on mixed-orientation unions now.  I have yet to see one that was loving, honest, fulfilling for both parties, and instilled a healthy sense of sexual worth in their kids. 
For those of you who are in an open marriage (whether your spouse knows it or not) I wonder how you would respond to Helen if she was your grown daughter?  Specifically, how would your reply to her three main points?