On Healing 6/1/2009: An honest, hurtful choice

Dear Dan,
I have two children, both in their 30s. Ten years ago I came to the realization that my sexual orientation was not compatible with my long-term heterosexual marriage. My husband and I divorced amicably, but it devastated our children. For years they were angry, hurt, and distant.

Things are better now between them and me, at least on the surface, but I have never been able to talk to them about the whole issue. All their nonverbal body language and their clipped responses communicate their unwillingness to talk about it. And now complicating matters is that my ex-husband is remarried and is no longer speaking with me. That breakup is also something that I have not been able to discuss with my children.

To say that I suffer deep regret, remorse and guilt over all this is an understatement. I feel deep pain and sadness almost all the time over what I did to my family.

I know you do not give advice, but it is helpful just to share it with you.
– Remorseful

Dear Remorseful,
I can certainly understand your guilt. A naturalist once said that in nature there are no rights and wrongs, only decisions and consequences.

What were your choices? You could have stayed in a marriage that felt dishonest, pretending to be someone you were not. Or leave and try to live a life that felt more integrated and whole and offered you the possibility of romantic love.

You never said when you realized you were gay, but I am guessing that was well before you left. And if I’m right, it means you stayed in this marriage as long as you could and you probably stayed until your children were “launched” to try to diminish their pain.

Nevertheless, you made a choice that hurt your children and your husband. Of course their pain and sense of betrayal are understandable. Most any child is traumatized by divorce, but in your situation your children may have questions about whether their previous lives were a sham. Same with your husband.

It may also raise questions in your children’s minds about their own sexuality. So I can understand their anger and even their distance.

But that does not mean you did anything wrong. You acted with integrity. There are no real culprits here except perhaps the culture we live in. Because of our pervasive homophobia, you may not have felt free to explore or even understand your sexual identity. On the other hand, if you had realized your sexual orientation in adolescence, you never would have had these children or the experiences you did.

There is only one thing I don’t understand about your story and that is the lack of dialogue. It seems as if you’ve told your children some facts but haven’t really discussed what’s happened to them, and what all of this has been like for you. I wonder the same about your ex-husband. So what stops you all from having an open discussion?

Dear Dan,
The issue of dialogue is an important one. With my children I have been frightened away by their shutting down, their defensiveness and unwillingness to talk. And now that my relationship with them has improved, I am afraid to “rock the boat” and revisit such a painful past.

I have often desired the opportunity for an open discussion, but then revert back to my “let-sleeping-dogs-lie” position, which offers “safety,” but not healing.

Dear Remorseful,
In her poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” Maya Angelou said: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Many years ago, I saw a young man in his late 20s who was having difficulty with his life. He dropped out of college, went back and dropped out again. He tried various vocational opportunities, but was unsuccessful with all.

When I saw him, he didn’t seem depressed or terribly anxious and he was certainly bright enough, but there was something missing. His parents had been divorced for about 10 years, but everyone seemed to get along well.

So, to explore all avenues, I invited him to bring in his family of origin. Our session was interesting and amicable but still not revealing anything that gave me any insights for working with him.

Finally, at the end of the session, I looked around the room and shared my observation that this was the first time and could be the last time they would all share space together. So I asked if anyone wanted to say anything.

After several minutes of awkward silence, they all stood up and moved slowly toward the center of the room. And then they embraced for a long time.

The missing piece was the fact that no one had ever really had an opportunity to say goodbye to the family they once had. And like my often-quoted Sufi saying: “when the heart weeps for what it lost, the soul rejoices for what it’s found.”

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