Gay Men in Heterosexual Marriages: A Blog Series (Part I)

An Introduction

My client sat in the chair looking down at the floor, glancing up briefly to make eye contact, then darting his eyes back to the carpet. He spoke quietly, as if almost afraid to be heard. He clutched his hands throughout the session, displaying all the markers of an anxious man in the throes of shame. He was a new client to my practice: a married, middle-aged, suburban dad with a high-powered career. A colleague had given him my number months before. It took him a long time to muster the courage to call and make an appointment. Towards the end of our first session he looked up at me and said, “I think I’m in love…with another man. I’m scared and I don’t know what to do.”

I have worked with hundreds of gay men in heterosexual marriages struggling with being in the closet or wanting to emerge from it. There is so much about these men that is misunderstood and very few studies or little literature to provide insight. I decided to share my thoughts and research about these men and their struggles at a conference a few years ago. That presentation led to other opportunities to tell their story and of my work with them. Those presentations prompted men to write to me looking for guidance and support. My work with these men is informed by my own research, the experiences of my friends, but largely from over 20 years of working with men living two lives. Many of these men have been on a quest for an authentic life. These are some of the most courageous people I have encountered. They have decided to leave their secret selves behind and in the process heal old wounds, recover from past traumas and live wholeheartedly as gay men.

Maybe you are a man struggling with these issues and have no one to talk to and feel alone. I hope this blog series will provide some solace to let you know that you are not alone. Perhaps you are a therapist seeking to help your clients with these issues. I hope this series of blogs will be a resource to you and to those you are helping.

For those of you who want to understand more about these men, I’d like to give you some insight into their interior lives. Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine living your life with a secret, one that you have guarded closely for many, many years, possibly starting from childhood. A secret you keep from your spouse, your children, family, friends and co-workers. You may have built a whole life on top of and around this secret. You fear that if you reveal this hidden part of yourself you will be harshly judged, shamed, ostracized or abandoned. You believe you have a lot to lose. At times you may contemplate embracing this hidden self, living as a whole, authentic person. But with that contemplation comes the fear that if you embrace this part of yourself your world could unravel and come crashing down around you.

If you are a gay man in a straight marriage you are not alone. Let’s look at some numbers: In the 1970’s, Masters and Johnson discovered in their research that 23% of gay men and women had previously been in a straight marriage. Recent studies conducted by the Family Pride Coalition reveal that 20% of gay American men are married to a woman. In 2011, demographer Gary Gates found that of the 27 million American men married at that time, 1.6%, or 436,000 identified as gay or bisexual.

Since they were little boys, these men have been conditioned by their parents and society to try and fit into a straight mold. These boys often recognize that there is something different about them as compared to their male peers. Other boys may notice this too, leading to bullying and harassment. This leaves the gay youth feeling deep shame which becomes unexpressed and internalized. Parents often initially make the assumption their son will be straight. The programming and conditioning begins early. Parents may recognize that little Timmy is “different” yet not know how to respond to him or reject him. A father may distance himself from his son. Consider that the father is the first man the young gay boy will fall in love with and want to become attached to. If the father emotionally rejects him, it will be the boy’s first emotional betrayal. Some boys may then bond deeply or become enmeshed with mothers who overcompensate in protecting the boy. If the gay youth has no mentors, role models or people that accept him as he is, he will further wall off his homosexuality or only allow that part of himself to come out in secret.

Over the course of this blog series, I will bring some clarity and insight about this population. For those gay men in straight marriages I hope this series can offer some validation to your experience.

I will explore the reasons why gay men enter into heterosexual marriages, look at the dynamics of mixed orientation relationships and how to begin to help lead a more integrated and fulfilled life. A series on this subject would be sorely lacking if it did not address the trauma and complex emotions that the wives of these men experience once there has been a discovery or a disclosure that a husband is gay.

In the next blog in this series we will look a bit more into who these men are and why they choose to marry women.

Ruptured Attachments: What’s Porn Got To Do With It?

As a sex addiction therapist I work with my clients to help them understand how their compulsive use of porn impacts their lives and relationships. In this process it is often helpful to look at the “who, what, why, where and how” of their porn use. I go beyond asking my clients the obvious questions of “How often do you masturbate to porn?” and “How often do you have sex with your partner?” I break it down more by asking, “What types of porn do you watch? Vanilla? BDSM?” “What types of scenarios are you aroused by?” “Where do you watch porn? At the office? At home? Where in your home do you use it?” The answer to this last question is typically in a place where my client can keep it secret from his partner. So here my client is: in his home having a sexual experience that does not include his husband or wife. I begin to reflect of how this may be affecting his relationship and how his partner might be impacted.

Imagine your own relationship and how compulsive porn use could affect it: You are lying in bed waiting for your husband, hoping to spend some intimate time with him. If you were to discover he was down the hall masturbating to streaming porn videos how would you feel? Many partners experience a range of emotions including hurt, confusion, anger, and shame. These discoveries leave some partners wondering, “Am I not enough?” “Why does he find porn more arousing than me?” “I will never have the body some of the porn models have…does he want that?” Prior to a discovery or disclosure, many partners report that something was not right in how their partner responded to them. He may have been irritable, quick to anger, detached, there but not there.

One begins to wonder where the porn user’s mind is in relation to his partner. The answer is: not present. Connection between partners is broken. There is a rupture in the relationship. Repeated use of porn, and the secrecy involved in its use, creates more and more of these ruptures leading to a wider divide in a coupleship. Not only is physical intimacy threatened, but emotional connection can be endangered as well. Emotional connection is the foundation of healthy, loving, hot sex with an intimate partner.

Evidence for the decline in emotional and physical intimacy in relationships related to porn use was recently presented at the American Sociological Association (ASA) Annual Meeting. In a decade long study, which collected data from thousands of American adults titled “Til Porn Do Us Part”, researchers cited that pornography use is associated with a significant increase in the probability of divorce for married Americans. The couples participating in the study reported having a good marital quality before porn was introduced into their dynamic. The group surveyed excluded couples that reported poor marital quality at the beginning of the study. The study also found that the younger a person was when he or she began viewing porn, the higher his or her probability was of getting divorced. Overall, the research presented highlighted marital instability and low levels of happiness in the coupleship the longer porn was viewed by one or both of the partners. One can view these findings and see how broken attachments and connections can be attributed to the compulsive use of pornography.

The allure of porn is very strong. It is hard for many people to just stop watching, potentially leading to porn addiction. All of that erotic imagery bombards the reward center in the brain, flooding it with neurochemicals creating a high similar to cocaine or heroin. Chief among these chemicals is dopamine. Dopamine lights up the reward circuitry in our brains, fueling more desire and cravings often leading to addiction. This clearly takes ones’ mind off of their partner increasing fixation with porn. With the compulsive use of porn, the brain’s neural pathways begin to build stronger connections in the reward center. These powerful connections can reorient us from our intimate partners to porn. Our arousal pattern is changed: porn will turn us on– not our partners. This leads to emotional and physical problems in the bedroom. Porn addicts, some as young as 25, report porn-induced erectile dysfunction, post-orgasmic illness syndrome (POIS), and problems with ejaculation. For more on the biological and physical impact of porn check out www.yourbrainonporn.com, an immensely informative site exploring the science behind porn addiction with educational (but not dry) videos, reboot strategies, and blogs written by people struggling with porn addiction. Like all addictions it can lead to out-of-control behavior and negative physical, social, and psychological consequences. When we look at broken connections between partners we are looking at serious relational consequences.

So we can begin to see how compulsive porn use threatens the connection between romantic partners. I liken it to all relationships where one partner is in addiction. The addiction becomes the third party in the relationship and this third party is always present, taking more time, energy, and affection out of the coupleship. Many porn addicts have shared with me that the thought of using porn, with its excitement and intensity, is always humming in the background as they move through their day. If you are in that preoccupied state, you are longing for your next “hit.” Getting that next hit becomes a priority. A powerful relationship with porn develops. Now, enter your boyfriend who wants to spend time with you: go out to dinner, see a movie, share a workout or a shower. “No”, your porn partner says, “I want my hit…now.” This leads you to get irritable with your boyfriend. You make an excuse to avoid spending time with him. You ignore his bids for attention and affection leaving him feeling dismissed, flatten, sad and angry. Again a connection is broken. There is less security and stability in the relationship.

I think for some couples using porn together may be a positive thing in the boudoir as long as it does not become a required part of a couple’s sex life. Porn use becomes problematic when one, or both, partners get hooked on the addictive high and desire porn more than a loving partner.

The Emotional Engines of Anxiety

Anxiety is an emotional and physical reaction to a perceived fear, threat or challenge that often stems from uncertainty about potential circumstances or situations. In short, anxiety is the fear of uncertainty.

If you suffer from anxiety and are interested in calming it, you may have considered Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I have found CBT to be an effective way to help those of us who struggle with anxiety. However, I also feel we cheat ourselves out of a deeper understanding and greater peace unless we delve a bit more deeply into the roots of our anxiety than is usually done with CBT alone. Instead of practicing techniques to quell your anxiety, let your anxiety be a guide into your psyche.

First, take note of any negative beliefs you hold about yourself related to the anxiety. Be mindful that these are just thoughts and in most cases likely not true. These are the fictions we carry around about ourselves. For example, you learn that your company will be going through a downsizing. Without any real data you make the assumption that you will be laid off. This may trigger a negative belief that you are not good enough and that is why the company will lay you off. That is your emotional engine running you off the road.

Second, notice where you feel the anxiety in your body. Are your shoulders tense? Do you feel nausea? Now think back to other times and situations where you have had these thoughts and physical sensations. It may be helpful to write down these memories in a journal. You will likely begin to see a pattern emerge among the memories. Notice the emotions you have. Go beneath your anxiety. Do the memories evoke, fear, guilt or shame? These three powerful emotions may likely be the engines of your anxiety. A closer look at each may illuminate the motors and triggers of your anxious mind.

Fear

What are the things you fear the most? Is it the end of a relationship? Illness? Job loss? Each of these fears drives anxiety. Consider the fear of abandonment. Some people’s anxiety can be triggered when their partner doesn’t arrive for a dinner date or doesn’t return a text message in what the person feels is a reasonable amount of time. The anxious mind can begin to weave a tale of abandonment. You begin to think that your partner will leave you or that he is angry with you and wants to punish you. These thoughts trigger anxiety stemming from the deeper fear that your loved one will leave you. Many of us have known abandonment: the father that deserts our family, the mother that dies, or the partner that leaves us for a new lover. These traumas leave deep wounds, wounds that are opened when we perceive that we will be abandoned. The fictional stories we make up in our heads can often be traced back to the real and true traumas we experienced. The brain and the body remember the trauma and start the ignition of the anxious mind.

Guilt

Guilt is an emotional reaction we have when we believe we have done something bad or wronged another person. It can be a challenging and complex emotion to tap into since we hold it so deeply within our subconscious. For example, I have worked with many clients who feel guilt and shame (see below) about being gay or lesbian. They have grown up being fed a steady diet of myths that to be gay is to be bad. Many of these men and women feel that they if come out and identify as gay, they will be disloyal to their family and loved ones. They also fear (see above) being ostracized or disowned. So the gay man keeps his healthy romantic and sexual desires to himself and continues to feel guilt if he wishes to express these desires. Since guilt is a difficult emotion to express (keep in mind the gay man is also holding onto his secret), it surfaces in an anxious mind. The guilt coupled with the ongoing fear and shame of being discovered as gay creates powerfully strong emotional and physical reactions. If you are struggling with guilt, identify the things in life you feel guilty for. Examine the rationality of these things. Take responsibility for your part in these guilt-ridden situations and make amends if you feel that would help you recover. Do not take ownership for those parts of the situation you did not create.

Shame

Many of us struggle with social anxiety. This form of anxiety is often rooted in the negative belief that we are not good enough as we are. We falsely believe others are better than us or that no one will like us as we are. Where do these beliefs come from? Perhaps this was the messaging you received as a child from parents, caregivers, or bullies. Try and recall what was said about you. Next, think about what you believed about yourself. Lastly, what was the truth? For example, as a kid you may have been told your were “stupid” by your parents because you struggled in school. You may have come to believe this about yourself and felt shame about it. The truth may have been that you struggled in school because your brain was not ready to process the information being taught, or that you were not given enough support and encouragement from your parents and teachers. If that is true, do you still need to hold onto that shame? Have compassion for your younger self. Maybe you suffered from emotional, physical or sexual abuse. The trauma of abuse often leaves a child with a profound, if not always conscious, sense that they are flawed. “I did something wrong. I must be bad, I deserved the abuse I received.” Remember, most young children are egocentric and in the context of being abused truly do believe they deserve the treatment they get. As healthy adults we can see the irrationality of this. The irrational thoughts leave the child feeling that no one will love them as they are. That is shame. This belief stays deeply embedded in their souls. As adults it can often be triggered in social situations. That is social anxiety.

As you explore the deeper roots of these emotional engines, practice self-compassion and reach out for support. If you can tap into what lies beneath your anxiety, you may be able to calm and stabilize yourself. Since so many of our emotional reactions stem from memories and traumas from our past, keep in mind that that was then, this is now.

The Ashley Madison Hack: Surviving the Crisis of Discovery

The recent hacking of Ashley Madison.com, a website dedicated to helping people seek out extramarital affairs, has raised much fear and anxiety among those who created profiles on the site. The data of over 30 million alleged members has been compromised. More people will surely be impacted. Many of these people have logged on out of curiosity. Others have sought something more. Troy Hunt, an Austrian Internet security expert, has created a website, Have I Been Pwned? that helps people determine if their online data has been compromised in a security breach. He claims that his email inbox is filled with hundreds of men and women worried that their online life will be exposed. Users of the site fear losing their families and facing humiliation by friends, co-workers and employers. Some reports attribute the suicides of two Ashley Madison members to the data breach.

The millions of users who have possibly checked out Ashley Madison does not surprise me. Do I think over 30 million people have had extramarital affairs? No, though some users clearly have. I believe millions have logged on out of curiosity. We live in an online culture that allows us to explore fantasies many of us have been curious about but we’re afraid to explore. The Internet with its anonymity makes exploration possible in what many believe is a secure, confidential environment. Ashley Madison has been marketed to break a taboo to seek sexual dalliances outside of marriage or a committed, monogamous relationship. After all the site’s tag line is “Life is short. Have an affair.” Taboos have been broken and boundaries crossed simply by creating an account.

This is a data breach with potentially devastating consequences. There are many victims in this hacking: those who have contemplated or entered into extramarital affairs and their traumatized spouses who have learned of their loved one’s betrayal. If you are reading this post you may have already logged onto Hunt’s site, typed in your spouse’s email and found that their data has been breached.  This discovery has probably felt like a kick in the heart or a tsunami rushing through your body and soul.

In this post I would like to offer the following guidelines to survive this man made disaster of betrayal. If you are the victim of the breach you have been betrayed by your faith in Internet security. If you are a victim’s spouse, you have been betrayed by the person you love and trust the most.

For Spouses and Partners:

Assess Your Health Risk

If your spouse has disclosed, or you have learned of his or her indiscretion, you need to know if your health has been put at risk. I recommend being tested for STDs.

That being said, I caution you to not jump to conclusions. If you have entered your spouse’s email address into Have I Been Pawned? and it was cited as being hacked, it does mean he or she ever visited Ashley Madison.  There are some sources citing that even if an email address has been hacked, and is listed on Mr. Hunt’s site, it does not necessarily mean the email was used on Ashley Madison or is in any way connected to the site. Hunt has been running this site for a number of years. Your spouse’s email may have been hacked from another website unrelated to Ashley Madison.

Your Emotions Are Normal

If your spouse discloses, or you learn that he or she is a member of Ashley Madison, you may feel you are going crazy. You are not. You are likely having symptoms consistent with the trauma of betrayal. Many spouses who been betrayed by their partners experience shame, anger, fear, disorientation and grief. You may be in shock and feeling completely overwhelmed. However, do not let the emotions of the trauma sway your judgment and decision-making.

As time goes on you may notice that you are preoccupied with what your spouse is doing and also wondering what he or she has done. You will have many questions you want answers to. Be mindful that learning too many details, both physical and emotional, of what your spouse has done may further traumatized you and inhibit your recovery. Too many details include the content of emails or text messages, names of sexual partners (unless it is someone you know) and places where liaisons took place. One client I worked with learned that her spouse would meet sexual partners at a local bar. Every time my client drove by the bar she felt the tsunami of betrayal flooding her again.

Seek Support

You likely feel you need support. Yes, you do. Use good judgment and caution in who you trust to tell of your spouse’s betrayal. Even the best of friends may not know how to respond to your trauma. Some may not be able to keep your confidence. Friends have a hard time staying objective in these situations. That is why I strong encourage you to seek out support and guidance from a trained therapist or counselor experienced in working with infidelity. You may also want to consider couples therapy.

For Spouses Who Have Had Liaisons on Ashley Madison:

Regroup and Reflect

If you have been actively engaged on Ashley Madison you may possibly be fearing discovery and experiencing intense feelings of shame, guilt and remorse. If your spouse has learned of your activity, this emotional distress has been compounded exponentially. You may be worried about your future and the devastating losses you may suffer. This flooding of emotions may be affecting your judgment and causing confusion and disorientation. You may feel at some risk to harming yourself. I strongly encourage you to seek out a trained mental health professional experienced in working with people who have betrayed their spouses.

This crisis is an opportunity to reflect on what you have done and why. People have affairs for a range of reasons: anger at their spouse, a reenactment of past trauma, or curiosity and sexual excitement run amok. If the behavior was compulsive you may be struggling with a sexual addiction.

Be Honest

It goes without saying that you need to end all online activity. You also need to sever any and all ties with people you have met with or chatted with online. If they have your email address or cell number, request that they not contact you again. Whether your liaisons on Ashley Madison were real or virtual, both are betrayals of your spouse’s trust. The first step in rebuilding that trust is honesty. To lie, keep secrets, or omit information about what you have done is equally bad or worse than what you have done with another person.

Take Responsibility

Refrain from getting defensive when confronted by your spouse. Defensiveness is often rooted in fear and shame. Yes, you have much to be afraid of. You have done some shameful things. But becoming defensive with your wounded spouse only shows that you are not taking responsibility for what you have done. Taking responsibility is another significant step towards rebuilding trust. Acknowledge what you have done. Acknowledge that your actions have traumatized your spouse. Defensiveness will only deepen the chasm between the two of you. You will be subjected to a thousand slings and arrows and you will suffer their stinging pain if you want to resurrect your marriage. If you have been actively engaged on Ashley Madison and with some of it’s members, a large part of you has not been fully present in your own marriage. If your spouse decides to stay in your union, you need to show him or her that you have completely come home.

The Ashley Madison hack forces all of us to question not only our online privacy but also how we conduct ourselves on the Internet. If you are married and created an account on Ashley Madison or any of her sister websites or hook up apps, you need to look at what triggered you to live a virtual or double life. The more one lives a double life, the more one becomes detached from his or her reality and the person they have made a commitment to. Now is a time to heal the wounds your double life has created.

Shame, Guilt and Addiction

A new study in Clinical Psychological Science confirms and lends proof to what many of us in the addiction field have known for years: shame can be a powerful barrier to recovery. The study, conducted by two psychologists at the University of British Columbia looked at the impact shame and guilt has on alcoholics in recovery.  Among the things they wanted to explore was whether behavioral displays of shame predicted whether recovering alcoholics would relapse in the future. The more shame addicts felt about their drinking, the more likely they would relapse. While those who only had feelings of guilt were less likely to relapse. Their findings demonstrate that shame-related behaviors may be predictors of relapse for those in recovery.  It is important to distinguish between these two emotions. Guilt meaning “I did something bad.” Shame interpreted and internalized as “I am bad.”

Shame is one of the most powerful and destructive emotions we humans experience. The genesis of shame can take many forms: abuse or neglect from parents, bullying by classmates, or negative messaging from society about our race, color, or sexual orientation. We live in a shame-based culture. To one degree or another we’ve all been shamed along the way.  Receiving consistent negative messaging and behaviors can lead to deep psychic wounds.

We humans internalize these negative messages leading to a negative self-perception. We may see ourselves as “bad”, ”defective”, or “unworthy.” The depression and anxiety that these internal messages trigger are not emotions most of us would want to reflect upon. So we seek escape: alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, exercise, and the list goes on. Our negative self-concept can lead us to accept relationships in which we are not loved or appreciated and jobs where we are not acknowledged. Shame presents itself in insidious, unconscious ways through our body language, our thoughts, and the sensations in our physical selves.

Shame also has a positive, healthy purpose in our lives. Healthy shame is triggered when we commit a moral violation–shameful situations we create. For example a person commits a crime, and then to the extent that the person still has a conscience, the healthy, internal message is: “I did something I am ashamed of.” Perhaps this will lead the person to correct or make amends for the crime. We do not want to do things that would embarrass or ostracize us. Shame can serve as an internal steering wheel in the traffic of human relationships. If we feel shame or embarrassment, we acknowledge that we were disrespectful or inappropriate. We want to fit in, to belong. Shame can act as a guide in our socialization.

Recognizing the problems that unhealthy shame creates often prompts people to get professional help. Committing to work through an addiction or ceasing dysfunctional ways of living requires a deep exploration into the dark sides of our souls.  It can lead to the roots of our shame. In this process we can see how shame splits us off into a good self and a bad self. The “bad” self can run amuck and constantly question the thoughts and actions of the “good” self.

It is important and can be life altering to acknowledge our feelings of shame and move through them. They do not have to own us. The process requires us to explore the traumas in our lives and examine the messages they have left us with. We hold the shame in our minds and our bodies. Yes, we have all done things to feel guilty about; we do not have to feel ashamed of them.

Overcoming the Sexual Abuse of a Parent

“The following is taken from an interview I did with Jaleh Weber, a journalist at Yahoo.com. While I struggled with the idea that there are “tips” on how to overcome the sexual abuse of a parent I do agree with the message Jaleh wanted to convey.” -Mark Falango

Where you sexually abused by a parent and are unsure on how to go about in healing from the abuse? To help understand what type of impact sexual abuse of a parent can have on someone’s overall life and what you can do to overcome the sexual abuse you experienced from your parent, I have interviewed psychotherapist Mark Falango LCSW. Continue reading