THIS summer, soon after gay marriage became legal in New York, my sons held a wedding for my former husband and his partner of over 30 years. The grandchildren were flower girl and ring bearers. The wedding thrust me back to the time when we faced a terrible choice and decided to stay married for the children. That’s what motivated my then husband and me to carry on our incomplete marriage for its last nine years, and that’s how we explained our actions after the divorce. It was a convenient truth, and also a self-serving one.
The year was 1980. I was waiting for my husband of 15 years to return from the last party of a psychiatry convention. I could hear voices from down the hall, happy men enjoying their time together. When he came in, his face was grave. He sat down on the bed and said, “I have something I need to tell you.” He took a deep breath. “I’m homosexual.” At that moment I saw my future collapse before my eyes. I got the chills and ran to take a hot bath. It gave me time to think and warmed me, but not for long. We spent the night talking and lamenting. On the plane home, we held each other and sobbed and planned. By the time we landed, we had decided to keep his sexual orientation a secret and stay married for the sake of the children.
Of course we both wanted to protect our sons, who were 10 and 14. Divorce was not uncommon then, but the circumstances surrounding our relationship were controversial and would have created a scandal in our small university town, so staying married for the children helped us both feel better about ourselves and our lies. We thought they didn’t notice any change, and we were mistaken. Secrets have a way of seeping into the atmosphere. Kids are natural observers. They watch parents like hawks, and they know when something is wrong, even if they don’t know what. I desperately wanted the charade to work at home — we were doing this for the children. So covering for my husband on his two nights a week out, and his two vacations a year became second nature — he was a busy man with many meetings.
I paid a price for my silence with my closest friends, because a secret of this magnitude builds barriers. I just couldn’t bear to show them the spot I was in. And I was leery of advice. When I felt so alone, I could always remind myself what a good person I was being, sacrificing for the children.
The other reasons for staying married were not so charming. If I had thought, I’m staying for the money, I might have questioned the lies I told my sons about where their father was on the nights he spent with his future husband. Or if he had thought, I’m staying to promote my career as a psychoanalyst, he might have felt a little heavy on the ambition scale. Or if we both had realized that we were just too scared to face the world alone, I might have given up some of the pretending, and he might have realized the gravity of his original secret.
But never mind. We had an explanation that made people admire us when we finally went public. Other truths might have evoked pity or suspicion: what’s the matter with her radar? How could she accept a half a marriage instead of a whole one? Who is she, really? To say we stayed married for the children put an end to uncomfortable questions.
If I had faced the other reasons to stay in the marriage, the burden of our lies would probably have been harder to bear. But the burden on our sons might also have been lightened. It’s not so great for kids to be told they are the cause of their parents’ behavior, especially when that’s only part of the story. When they finally learned the truth, our sons were more disturbed by our deception than by the facts. Our reasons didn’t seem to matter anymore. Truth trumps lies every time.
The phrase “we stayed married for the children” is like a silk duvet on a complicated and imperfect marriage bed. Nobody really wants to turn back the covers, the unhappy spouses least of all.