When Marc finally came clean with his wife, it was like flicking a light switch. In an instant, he’d changed both of their lives. For him, it was the beginning of his liberation, but for her, it was the end of a dream. They’d been together for twelve years, bought and renovated a house, and had two daughters, Madeline and Kate. They were busy, happy, and stressed, like most parents who set themselves to the task of raising young children. But behind the appearance of a flourishing family, Marc was living a lie.
Mary sensed that something was awry. Her husband had become increasingly distant and distracted, but she chalked it up to life in the family lane. One night when Marc seemed particularly unsettled, Mary quizzed him about what was going on. He fled to the living room, and she followed him, demanding an answer. Bursting into tears, Marc confessed to his wife that he was gay. For months, he’d been struggling to come to grips with the secret of his sexuality, and in anticipation of a moment like this had written her a long letter trying to explain. He brought it out, and they sat and read it together. Mary struggled to digest what she was reading, and then she did something remarkable. She opened her heart to her husband.
Over the years, Marc had ignored whatever hazy sexual attraction he felt toward men and had tried to live a straight life. When he was thirty-three, he met Mary and was instantly attracted to her. After a year, their liaison became more serious, and they decided to buy a house together and start a family. It was a project Marc invested in wholeheartedly. “It was always a confirmation that I was not gay because I was able to love her.”
“Our passion didn’t come back after Kate was born,” Marc recalls, and he found he was beginning to have dreams again about being intimate with men. He felt guilty and frightened as he realized that the part of him he’d been repressing wasn’t going to go away. His relationship with Mary suffered. “I could show my affection by hugging her, but I think deep down, my saying ‘I love you’ was like a lie to her.”
At the same time, Marc changed jobs, moving from a hectic office environment to a start-up operation where he spent a lot of time on his own. One day, while he was online, he made a bold move. “I checked out bisexuality and gay fathers and suddenly I saw a profile of the ‘typical gay father.’ It was basically my whole history. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not alone.'”
He searched out a therapist who would understand his dilemma. It was the first time he had ever talked to someone about it, and he desperately wanted to find out if he was “bi” or gay. He asked his therapist if, in his experience, people did well when they tried to make peace with their urges, and the therapist said, “Do you want me to answer that question for you?” And Marc said, “No.”
Over the next few months, Marc wrestled with what to do. He came out to a gay friend at work and felt huge relief about doing so. “I had to go to Edmonton, and he told me he had a friend there who’s a gay father and asked if I wanted to meet him. He was the second person that I talked to, and it was obvious to me that I had to come out to Mary. I wrote a long letter on the plane home.” That was the letter Marc gave to Mary.
Mary was deeply hurt and confused by Marc’s revelation. What threw her more than the confession was how Marc’s news might jeopardize their family. Her self-esteem plummeted. “I felt like there was something wrong with me, which I now know is standard in mixed-orientation marriages. The gay spouse comes out of the closet, and the straight spouse goes in. I went to see my priest and she said, ‘You’re grieving your hopes and dreams.’ I had to rebuild a vision of the future.”
Mary maintained crystalline clarity about one thing: she did not want her family shattered. Marc’s focus on what mattered most to him was also unwavering; his wife and children were the center of his world. “Marc and I spent a lot of time doing some family bonding,” said Mary. “That helped to rebuild the trust so that we could reinvent ourselves as a family.” They agreed to a go-slow deal, and used the next half-year to adjust and bounce around ideas about how to create a new shape for their family.
Just a week before Marc made his announcement, Mary had heard a radio interview with Cate Cochran about an article she had written for Toronto Life magazine describing how she and her ex-husband had reconfigured their family by sharing a duplexed house. “After that,” confessed Mary, “I went out and bought the magazine and read it in secret and put it under my mattress.” The article didn’t stay hidden for long before she presented it to Marc, saying, “Why do you want to break up the family? There are options, and we need to figure out something else.”
They decided they’d take a vacation together as a family. Preserving small rituals was important in that process, and there were spontaneous events that gave everyone in the family pleasure. There were also logistical issues to deal with; sleeping arrangements had to change. They had to explain the situation to their daughters. Kate, who is only six, has been oblivious to the import of the changes. “I never really told her that I was gay because she’s too young,” said Marc. He broke the news to nine-year-old Madeleine while the two of them were out biking. She said, “Wow!” and her first two questions were, “Why are you gay?” and “How did you become gay?” I told her, “I think Daddy was born like this. Daddy really loves you.”
Madeleine wanted to check on her mother to make sure she was all right. “I told her I was sad because I didn’t have a boyfriend anymore, that Daddy was still my best friend. She told me that she’d help me find a boyfriend.”
As they began to relax into the experience of regrouping as an unconventional family, Mary started to gain confidence that she and Marc could build something completely new. “A number of the books I read confirmed what I was coming to terms with, that there was no benefit in being angry or in tearing your life apart if you don’t have to.” But it really irked her that the preponderance of materials she picked up about divorce were so bleak. “They all assumed that you go off and have separate lives and have nothing to do with each other.” The assumption that it was the kids who should have to move back and forth between two parental homes and live out of a suitcase also riled Mary. This was not what she wanted for her daughters. “I am really curious how many positive alternatives exist that nobody ever talks about,” she said. “Only angry people seem to talk.”
Marc and Mary began new relationships — at around the same time. On Mother’s Day, Marc invited the whole gang to a restaurant to celebrate. They are taking a “more the merrier” approach to their expanding new family, and it’s working for the kids, too, according to Marc. “They both have lots of opportunities to know my friend and Mary’s friend, and everyone is accepting each other very well.”
Mary believes that she and Marc will remain kin to each other for the rest of their lives. “I think that when you have kids, the words ’till death do us part’ gain a biological imperative. It’s up to us if we are going to be functional or dysfunctional. Marc and I are still best friends, and you don’t throw away love, you don’t undo it. If it’s there, you nurture it. The problem is there’s no model for doing that when your marriage ceases to exist. You have to invent it.”
Mary and Marc chose to observe the first wedding anniversary after their split in a special way. Getting married had been an important statement to one another and the world. Marc remembers, “We said if we can’t commit as husband and wife, we can recommit as friends.” They repeated the vows they’d made to each other nine years before, and then made another gesture to symbolize their ongoing relationship. Each removed the wedding band from the left hand and placed it on the ring finger of the right hand. Together, they had come out to the world.
From Reconcilable Differences: Marriages End. Families Don’t. by Cate Cochran. Reprinted by permission of Second Story Press. Available at your local bookstore.