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Infidelity and Forgiveness: The Complexities of Coming Out in a Straight Relationship
By Loren A. Olson, MD, DLFAPA

All relationships have rules, but sometimes those rules get broken. When we are in a relationship, we expect that our partner will keep our interests in mind even if he or she is tempted to disregard the rules. When the rules are violated, the wrongdoer may be called on to account for his or her behavior. Sexual infidelity is the epitome of “rule breaking” and can disrupt or end meaningful relationships.

I know something about breaking rules because I was married with two children when I unexpectedly fell in love with a man. Things suddenly shifted inside my head, and I went from thinking I was straight to knowing I was gay; nothing else could explain what I felt.

By most measures, my marriage was good. My wife and I were best friends and had an acceptable sex life. Shortly before I came out to my wife, she had no idea about my conflict concerning my sexual orientation.

Research on gay men has frequently focused on fidelity and the capacity to sustain long-term relationships. Yet almost nothing has been written about men who have sex with men (MSM). These men believe they are too straight to be gay, but others see them as too gay to be straight. Many of them are married.

In Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire, Lisa Diamond, PhD, wrote that the gender of women’s sexual desire may be fluid, but researchers generally agree that men’s homosexual attractions never change and may grow stronger over time.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 7% of men have sex with men, but gay men are estimated to comprise about 4% of the population. These figures suggest that about 3% of men have sex with men although they do not identify themselves as gay. A study published in 2006 in the Annals of Internal Medicine indicated that nearly 10% of men in New York City who were surveyed and were identified as straight had sex exclusively with men, and nearly 10% of married men had experienced sex with another man in the preceding year.

If we accept these percentages as valid, the number of MSM who call themselves straight may be greater than the number of men who identify themselves as gay. Except for the occasional exposure of some high-profile individuals, these men are virtually invisible.

Challenges of MSM Coming Out
Although people seem to be coming out at younger and younger ages, for various reasons, many MSM do not see coming out as a possibility. Early LGBT literature described coming out as a linear process typically completed by the mid-20s. However, for MSM who have led a heterosexual life, coming out is complex. It is like a sailing ship that tacks from port to port in high seas and heavy winds. MSM don’t come out because they don’t see themselves as gay and don’t want to sacrifice the privileges of being heterosexual.

The decision to remain in the closet is impacted more by the fear of loss rather than the prospect of potential gain. MSM may refer to themselves as bisexual or “curious.” They engage in homosexual behavior, but they resist assuming a gay identity because they can’t identify with the stereotype. Some gay activists criticize MSM as not being actualized. It is essential for therapists to understand that “being gay” and “doing gay” are not the same, and a client may be a long way from accepting a gay identity.

In therapy with MSM, the first question that must be answered is, “How would you intend to live your life if the homosexual attractions never go away?” The next step is to challenge the expectation of potential losses and gains that may result from coming out. The MSM client should be helped to understand that he can choose to come out in only a limited way. If the client raises the issue of “conversion therapy,” he must be informed that position papers for the national associations representing social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and pediatricians have all stated that not only is conversion therapy ineffective, it can also be quite damaging.

However, in some societies, coming out is impossible. Many men with whom I have corresponded have said to me, “Please, take this torment away from me.” One young African man said, “I may as well kill myself now, because if anyone finds out about me, I will be killed.” One young Chinese student said that as the oldest son, his culture expected him to marry and care for his parents. He felt he could not abandon those obligations. He asked whether he should marry even though he could not function sexually with a woman.

The Frustration of Sexual Infidelity
Sexual infidelity is not the ultimate betrayal; the lies used to cover the offense are far more damaging. The injured spouse feels a mixture of emotions: anger, hurt, righteous indignation, and a wish for revenge. Lying erodes the trust that must form the basis of a successful relationship.

Spouses often become suspicious of infidelity because something is disrupting the normal day-to-day functioning of their relationship. The offender may be angry, critical, or dissatisfied. He may act guilty, anxious, or disengaged. Attention, including sexual, may decrease or, in fact, increase.

Being faithful when in a relationship is difficult for many couples, straight or gay. Friends will usually tell the injured spouse, “Get rid of him. Once a cheater, always a cheater,” and there is some data to support that conclusion. About 60% of cheaters reoffend. Because homosexual attractions will never go away, the number for MSM may be even higher. When the spouse discovers a reoccurring betrayal, it sends her a message that the offender neither regretted the offense nor seriously intended to change.

“Kevin” is a man in his mid-50s, married with two children. His wife began to suspect he was interested in men and searched for clues of his deception. She found his online name and address for a gay chat room and began sending him e-mails as if she were a man interested in a “hook-up.” Not knowing the messages were actually from his wife, Kevin arranged to meet “him” for coffee.

When confronted, Kevin made the perfect apology to his wife. He expressed his guilt and admitted that what he had done was wrong. He gave no excuse or defense for having wronged her, telling his wife she had every right to feel hurt. Kevin’s wife begrudgingly put him “on probation.” He assumed a submissive posture in the relationship, leading to a complete reversal in the power dynamics within their relationship. He promised to stop seeing men—but he didn’t.

The betrayer may believe his confession has erased his guilt. He may argue his intentions were good and that he lied to his spouse to protect her. He may believe his behavior was unintended or due to extenuating circumstances; therefore, it must be excusable.

With the risk of reoffending so high, the therapist will want to explore these questions with the straight spouse: “Why are you willing to settle for so little? Are you prepared for the humiliation of public exposure of your spouse’s illicit homosexual activity?”

Revelation could lead to public disrespect and her loss of social status. Such disgrace may provoke feelings of hatred and a wish to hide or escape. In some cases, the straight spouse clings to her relationship with the MSM in a very dysfunctional way, a reflection of her own lack of investment in the relationship.

Couples in Therapy
Infidelity occurs in the context of both hetero- and homosexual relationships. In either case, the crucial issues in working through the crisis are as follows:

• the degree of commitment to the relationship;

• the severity of the offense;

• the degree to which the offender sincerely apologizes;

• conciliatory behavior;

• the capacity for forgiveness; and

• the personalities of each individual.

In Secret Historian, author Justin Spring wrote, “If one does not want to suppress his nature and yet is afraid of expressing it, what is he to do?” Working with couples in which one member is an MSM, the primary issue is whether they should remain married given the permanency of his struggle against homosexual attraction. When couples are committed to remaining married, the question becomes, “Are you willing to modify the rules of the relationship in some way to allow for some same-sex expression outside the marriage?” Any discussion of changing the rules must include an exploration of safe sex.

If the couple is not open to modifying the rules, the questions become, “Can you truly forgive your spouse? What will be the consequences if it happens again?” If the couple chooses to remain together, it can take years to restore trust. The offender must truly regret and be sorry for the pain he has caused his wife. He must assure her that the offense was an aberration and not due to a deficiency in the relationship. He must accept responsibility for what has happened. But his efforts to suppress his homosexual attraction may cause him to experience sadness, depression, thoughts of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and other self-destructive behaviors.

The therapist must explore the following questions with these client(s):

• What rules have been broken?

• Are there degrees of infractions? How serious is this one?

• How sorry is “sorry enough”?

• When, if ever, is it safe to fully trust again?

All relationships have rules; rules are broken. For the straight spouse, two steps form the basis of forgiveness: First, there must be a release of the negative effects of her partner’s betrayal, and second, she must be able to experience some sense of empathy for the pain experienced by the MSM. The therapist must help the clients enhance the sense of empathy each member of the couple has for the other’s pain.

Whether they remain together or separate, as the straight spouse develops a sense of empathy for the MSM’s struggle, it can lead to more positive interpersonal behavior, reduce the wish to retaliate, and increase the motivation for reconciliation. For the straight spouse, healing the assault on her self-esteem will mean reassigning causation for the offense; she must stop blaming herself or her spouse. The offender also needs to be able to see himself through her eyes.

We expect that our partner will always take our interests into account, but the reality is that rules are sometimes broken. Without forgiveness, the betrayal will undermine meaningful relationships. Forgiveness cannot come without empathy. Without forgiveness, a couple may remain bound together through hatred—even if they separate and divorce. Author, ethicist, and theologian Louis B. Smedes said, “Forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.”

— Loren A. Olson, MD, author of Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, is a psychiatrist in private practice in Des Moines, IA. He is a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and a recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Olson came out when he was 40, after an 18-year marriage. He is now legally married to Doug Mortimer, his partner of 24 years.