What do you do when your husband of 20 years tells you he is gay and you feel you have been living a lie? How do your children cope? This 'unusual but not uncommon' situation is made all the harder because, unlike in the US, there is little support here for the straight spouses of homosexuals
Four children, 20 years of marriage and then the bombshell: "I'm gay". When Alison* heard her husband utter these words, her life and her children's lives imploded. As she describes it: "He was out of the closet, and we went in."
"You feel isolation, stigma and shame," says Alison. "You're afraid people will think there's something wrong with you. I would have no difficulty if one of my children was gay, but I do have a difficulty with a man telling me after 20 years of marriage that he is gay, that we lived a lie. If it's sad for him, it's nothing to the pain and grief it's caused to the rest of us."
Alison's reaction to her husband's admission was visceral - she felt out of control, rapidly lost weight, had difficulty sleeping and suffered panic and anxiety. "He had a new identity through his sexuality. But I was going crazy and was very depressed. I felt suicidal. I even rationalised it to myself, thinking, 'if I go, he'll have to be there for the kids'," she says.
"I've been put in the position of having lived a lie. I don't know what love is anymore. What did my marriage vows mean? I have often felt like the figure in Edvard Munch's painting, The Scream. It's a feeling of disorientation and unreality - almost madness. At first, I kept thinking I could knock some sense into him, or that I would wake up one morning and it would all have been a bad dream. Now I want to move beyond it but I don't know how," says Alison, who is still coming to terms with the trauma, two years afterwards.
The US has a strong support network for straight spouses of homosexuals and Alison searched for something similar in the Republic without success. "I feel it would help me to meet women in similar situations to mine," she says.
Feelings of disorientation, physical distress and internalised rage are common among women whose husbands come out, according to Carol Grever's book, My Husband is Gay: A Woman's Guide to Surviving the Crisis.
"Virtually all the \ women I interviewed agreed that their situation was grossly unfair. Their loss of security and isolation in the closet led most to question, 'Why me? What did I do to deserve this?'" Grever felt victimised, confused and hurt when her husband "came out" and left her after 30 years of marriage.
Alison had felt herself fighting for her marriage for several years before the revelation. Her husband's growing detachment led the couple to marriage counselling, where her husband's secret never emerged. Increasingly frustrated, Alison pushed her husband to explain why he was withdrawn.
His answer - that he was gay - was the last thing she expected and, to be honest, she would have found it easier to handle if he had admitted to a heterosexual affair. Yet she felt enormous empathy and grief for him. "At first, I thought it was a midlife crisis, as though he was saying 'I just want to be responsible for myself'. He was in utter turmoil within himself . . . in a very bad place. It became clear to me that it was important for him and the children, that he live with dignity."
So instead of throwing him out of the family home, Alison helped her husband to ease his way into his new life. He stayed in the family home for a considerable time after his admission, and when he left he did so in an organised fashion with Alison's help. Since then, she has taken all financial responsibility for the home and family, so that her husband can use his income to live in decent accommodation. She wants her children to be able to visit their father in a pleasant home.
Feeling "de-sexed" and "neutered" has made Alison re- evaluate her self-image. "I asked myself, if my only sexual partner in my life was gay, what does that make me out to be? I blamed myself, because it seemed that the only man I could attract was a gay man."
The revelations have also complicated her relationships with her teenage children, who have been unable to talk to her about their father. When they were eventually told, three of the four children had already guessed the truth. Alison worries about how her children are privately dealing with their father's sexuality, when they are not yet sure of who they are themselves.
"When my husband changed his identity, he changed ours as well," says Alison. "But it is not something that my children can talk to their friends about. I know that my husband loves our children, but he doesn't have to deal with the day-to-day impact on their lives. It's an awful nightmare - this sense of powerlessness. My husband is out there in the gay community and has friends to talk him through this. But my children and I are like an underground secret society. I would love to meet other women this has happened to."
Joan Rippingale, a counsellor who has been involved for more than a decade with a support group for parents of gay men, sees a desperate need for a support group facilitated by counsellors in which straight spouses could share their experiences.
In response to inquiries made for this article, the Marriage and Relationships Counselling Service (MRCS) has announced that it will facilitate such a group if there is sufficient demand and welcomes calls from women in Alison's situation. It also offers counselling to male/female couples in which homosexuality becomes an issue, a situation the MRCS describes as "uncommon but not unusual either".
*All names have been changed to protect the families involved
The Marriage and Relationships Counselling Service, 38 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin (tel: 01-6785256).
My Husband is Gay: A Woman's Guide to Surviving the Crisis (The Crossing Press, www.crossingpress.com).
Straight Spouse Network website: www.ssnetwk.org