Why did he marry me in the first place? How could I have been so blind? How could I not know she was lesbian? So many questions plague straight spouses when gay mates come out. It’s easy to blame ourselves: What’s wrong with me? Did I cause this chameleon to change colors? In reality, the gay partner usually experiences an evolution of self-recognition that may take years, and it has nothing to do with that person’s spouse.
Understanding their gay partners’ psychological process helps straight spouses feel less disoriented and better able to cope with unexpected and puzzling behaviors. Homosexual Identity Formation, a theoretical model developed by Dr. Vivienne Cass, helps explain the long period of internal conflict preceding most gays’ self-recognition. Cass’s six-stage formulation clarifies their process and helps explain the surprise and shock of their straight mates.
The first stage of identity confusion begins with the awareness of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that feel incongruent with heterosexual identity. It is marked by inner turmoil and alienation while the person tries to resolve sexual confusion in isolation. Two outcomes are possible in this early stage. Inhibition and denial may bring closure to the issue, or continued stress from the incongruent homosexual manifestations force the individual into the second stage of identity comparison.
This second stage involves exploration of differences between the individual and others. Social alienation and feeling out of place—not belonging—are common. Not wanting to be “different,” the gay spouse usually continues to pass as heterosexual. While some feel good about their growing awareness of homosexuality, others react with denial, more intense heterosexual behavior, or by becoming asexual. Many devalue themselves and fall into a pattern of self-hatred that, in extreme forms, may lead to suicide.
Tensions of that second stage often lead into a third phase, identity tolerance. Here, individuals view themselves as probably gay and begin contacting the homosexual subculture. This contact alleviates their feelings of isolation and alienation from homosexuality and they begin to detach emotionally from their heterosexual relationships. This is when their straight spouses feel growing separation and emotional distance.
Any negative experiences with other gays during this exploration may feed self-hatred and a desire to end homosexual impulses. However, if the initiation feels positive, greater self-esteem and a sense of empowerment may follow. As contact with the homosexual community increases, anxiety over possible discovery intensifies, along with attraction toward the forbidden.
In the fourth stage of identity acceptance, identification with other homosexuals increases. The person’s sexual identity may be selectively disclosed to heterosexuals who can be trusted to keep the secret. This is an ambivalent and difficult stage, with the gay spouse managing to fit in with both homosexual and straight culture. Inner conflict between the emerging identity and society’s rejection may lead to the next stage, identity pride.
This more aggressive stance values homosexual culture and devalues heterosexual norms. There is anger about societal limitations. Deepening commitment to gay life in this stage often results in changes of job, marriage, or home. Destructive, impulsive actions may be expected, as well as constructive activism on gay issues, such as AIDS prevention and treatment.
As attitudes settle, positive acceptance from members of the heterosexual community can lead to the final, sixth stage of identity synthesis. Anger and pride may remain, but they are tempered as the gay person experiences similarities to straight individuals and differences from other homosexual individuals. Seen through a broader perspective, the person integrates the gay identity as one among other important aspects of the self, and personal and public identities synthesize.
This whole evolution of gay self-identification deeply impacts family. During the first stages of identity confusion, and comparison, your gay partner may be emotionally suppressed, distant, depressed, needy, or alternating between neediness and emotional distance. In identity tolerance and acceptance, your partner becomes more confident, but also increasingly detached. Growing involvement with the gay community means more absence from home. Your mate’s life is split between two worlds, putting you both in the closet.
In the fifth stage, identity pride, expect dramatic, impulsive, abrupt changes, as your partner shifts to the extreme of a gay lifestyle. You will probably experience rejection, but it has little to do with you personally. This is not your fault.
If the gay mate moves on to the final stage of identity synthesis, often a balanced, friendly relationship can eventually be salvaged. This is not a speedy process. A perplexed, conflicted individual may be confused about sexual identity for years and may never go through all of these stages. But Cass’s model helps to clarify the theoretical journey and may help you understand your own history as a straight spouse.
Awareness of Cass’s six stages can facilitate healing and peace of mind for all involved. When a gay husband or lesbian wife can be recognized as evolving through their own phases of self-awareness, it is much easier to blame no one and to move more freely into a newly defined future.