Photo: Courtesy of Janine Cole
One Saturday morning last fall, my marriage ended before I even had a chance to finish my coffee. Our three kids were clearing the table—an onslaught of nine-year-olds were arriving any minute for my daughter’s book club. As our kids stacked breakfast dishes in the kitchen, my husband, Mike, looked up from across the table and said, “I’m gay.”
I wish I could tell you what I said in response, but I can’t. I can vividly recall the defeat in Mike’s face and how he could barely look me in the eye. But as to what I said? It’s a complete blank. I went on autopilot and focused on the imminent gathering of 10 kids that we were taking on a field trip to the Children’s Book Bank for the next few hours. “Did you brush your teeth?” I asked them. “The kids will be here soon!”
I’d feared this day would come. Deep down, some part of me knew it would. We had spent the past two years on an emotional roller coaster, discussing (oh, so much discussing) his burgeoning attraction to men, trying to incorporate it into our marriage. After all we’d been through, to accept that this was the end of our marriage and almost 21 years together left me heartbroken and numb.
We’d known each other since junior high school and started dating in the first year of university. Together, we had navigated so many life changes: a year in Japan, multiple careers, infertility, a near-death experience and three kids. He was my Thursday-night Yahtzee opponent, my social wingman (as he was usually the life of the party), my best friend.
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Now, we had a new challenge: We had to find a way to forge new lives apart with the same love and respect that we’d shown each other for decades. I did my best to focus on what we had and reminded myself that we were separating because of love—not for lack of it.
But that didn’t make it any easier.
I didn’t even know what a “mixed-orientation marriage” was until I discovered I was already in one. Two years earlier, while our two youngest kids were napping, Mike told me on our back porch that he had recently discovered that he was also attracted to men. He was adamant that he didn’t want to lose me—he wanted to make our marriage work and make those other feelings go away. But they were there, and they were getting stronger. I cried so loudly that our eldest child opened the door to ask what was wrong.
I was already exhausted from trying to keep our kids (then 7, 3 and 1) alive, not to mention fed and clothed. Now, I was completely underwater, trying to help my husband figure out his sexuality. We talked about it all the time: after the kids went to bed, when we got to work and on the streetcar on our way out to meet friends. We decided that we’d keep this to ourselves—it was something we needed to figure out without the judgment of others. I felt unsure about our future and often shut out of what was really going on in his mind, but we told no one.
After months of discussion, he disclosed that he thought he might be bisexual. It was then that we realized we needed professional support. We found an awesome psychotherapist who asked tough questions. Within 20 minutes, she accomplished more than we had in weeks of talking. She concluded that my ideal was to remain monogamous—something my husband could not do. It felt like an ultimatum: I could either accompany him on this journey or split. Both options were terrifying.
We both knew how much we had to lose: our family, our home, each other. I didn’t doubt that he loved me and wanted to stay married. As scary and heartbreaking as it was, I couldn’t walk away—he needed me, and I needed to know where this would take us.
After spending several months in weekly counselling sessions and most of our waking moments (when we weren’t dealing with the kids) dissecting every part of our relationship and his sexuality, I came to accept what he needed and what he was asking of me. I could let him explore. I had nothing to lose by trying, so I agreed to an open marriage—well, a one-sided one anyway. With all that was going on and three young kids, finding someone else to have sex with just wasn’t something I was remotely interested in. I had everything I needed with Mike, but he needed this to help him figure things out.
That’s when I realized just how stretchy love can be.
Online research suggests that you should have an agreement before you enter into an open relationship so that each partner knows the boundaries. We drafted an agreement and negotiated the details: Mike could go out every other Wednesday evening. He needed to be safe. He could communicate with his potential friend during the week but not at home—not during family time.
He already had a person in mind that he wanted to explore with—a man he’d met in an online forum for men who were trying to make their mixed-orientation marriages work. Their lives were eerily parallel: They were bisexual and married to heterosexual women, had kids and wanted to remain married but be able to explore their sexuality.
It was all planned, but now it was going to happen. Intellectually, I had wrapped my head around it, but my heart was still lagging behind. Those first few times he met his friend, I had what I can only describe as out-of-body experiences.
Women in online support groups (Making Mixed-Orientation Marriages Work, Alternate Path, New Normal Facebook—I joined them all) suggested that I do something for myself on those nights, such as meet up with friends or book a massage, but I just couldn’t do it. I found that I needed to maintain as much normalcy as I could, which meant staying home with our three kids, going through familiar motions.
There were definitely moments when it felt imbalanced. There was the time when I was picking up the kids from daycare from two different locations in a snowstorm on my bike (because he drove to visit his friend). Or when the kids were exceptionally challenging at bedtime and there were three loads of laundry to fold. But being with the kids and doing routine things kept me focused on why I was doing this.
On the Wednesdays when Mike would see his friend, I’d try to ignore him getting ready in the morning. It was sometimes painful to watch him put in a little more effort than he normally would. I found it easier not to have any contact with him on those days until I received a text around 9:30 p.m. saying “I’m on my way home.” Those words were the reason I was able to do this for him—it meant that their evening was over. He was coming home. I had made it through.
After a few months of Wednesdays, Mike’s friend came to realize that he was gay, not bisexual. He and his wife decided to end their marriage. I held my breath as I asked my husband if this changed things for them, for him or for us. This had been my fear from the beginning. He said it didn’t—he was confident in his bisexuality and assured me that he wasn’t gay. I was the love of his life and he was still very much attracted to me—as surprising as it may sound, we were still sexually active, even more so during this time. The level of openness and transparency this required actually brought us closer.
But the roller coaster ride just kept on going. Shortly after his friend and his wife split, Mike came home in tears. Mike’s friend had broken things off with him because he’d fallen in love with him. Yet another first, and yet another challenge to navigate. If it was just a physical release for my husband, why was he so emotional? Did the fact that he was so visibly distraught mean that he was in love, too? I did what I thought was best and suggested that we find him a new “friend.”
Another thing I never thought I’d do with my husband? Help him write an ad for a new same-sex partner. We worked on it together over a glass of wine on our front porch, smiling and waving at unknowing neighbours as they walked by. We laughed and said this wasn’t something we ever thought we’d be doing when we said our vows.
Humour was key as we tried to move forward and enjoy the rest of the summer as a family. We had a few more cottage weekends and seemed to be having fun. We visited his parents near Collingwood, ferried over to Toronto Island (one of our favourite things to do) and spent the final weekend of summer at a friend’s cottage. But things felt different, and I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach. I feared that the shift I had worried about from the beginning was happening. For the first time, I felt like I wasn’t enough.
That first week of school, I was scrolling through pictures on my phone when I came across one that made my heart sink. The kids were gathered around the fire, eating s’mores, but something in the background came into focus for me: the look on my husband’s face as he sat in a chair with all of the chaos going on around him. Pain. Fear. Unhappiness. Just a few days later came his final disclosure at the breakfast table.
I sent him that picture and said, “If you ever doubted telling me and knowing what you had to do, look at this picture.” I’m sure his decision to fully come out to me was the hardest one that he has ever had to make, but it was the right one. There just were no more options for us as a couple.
Immediately, the business of carefully dismantling our marriage began. Everything that had felt so natural for the past 21 years suddenly felt taboo—I had to stop myself from reaching for his hand or his mouth to kiss.
My sadness and anger had no target—our situation was blameless. There wasn’t anything I could have done differently, and I couldn’t expect him to be anyone other than himself. So I made another vow to myself: This wasn’t going to destroy me or our family.
A week later, we celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary. We lit some candles on the front porch, opened a bottle of champagne and toasted to new beginnings. It was scary, and it was sad. But we’ve made it so far with love and respect; our separation could be handled the same way.
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It was no surprise, but painful nonetheless, when he told me that he had developed feelings for his Wednesday-night friend and that they were going to pursue a relationship. This was the hardest part for me. Their relationship represented everything I overcame in the past two years out of love for him. It was hard enough that our marriage was ending, but to know that he was in love with the man I had worked really, really hard to accept as his physical partner felt like my heart had been ripped out and stomped on.
I know it wasn’t intentional. And with my heart further behind in the acceptance process, I did what I knew had to be done: I stepped aside and let him go.
When it was time to start spreading the news, we decided to tell close friends and family first. Not surprisingly, everyone was sad but supportive.
Telling the kids was harder—there never is a perfect time. We told the younger two first and kept it really simple for them. We said, “You know how Mommy and Daddy always say you love who you love, no matter who they are?” They kind of nodded. “Well, Daddy has discovered that he likes boys and Mommy is OK with that.” And then we told them that he’d be getting his own place but that we’d always be a family. You could tell that they didn’t quite get what it meant, but we felt slightly relieved that it had gone as well as expected.
When we told our older daughter, she looked thoughtful and didn’t say much. She knew what it meant but admitted that she was confused. I mean, after all, we were happy and rarely fought. It wasn’t until he moved out that it really hit her. At bedtime one night, soon after Mike moved out, she asked, “How long will Daddy love you like a wife?” This was her way of conveying what she knew needed to be done.
We needed to fall out of love, and she was worried about that for all of us.
I grieved hard for the end of our marriage. My pain wasn’t our pain anymore; it was all mine. I don’t doubt for a second that it was difficult for him, but he had someone waiting for him, a new apartment and a new way forward. It was hard to watch him start his new life while I surveyed the damage in mine.
I allowed myself a short time to grieve. The two years we spent working it out helped me let go faster (my heart did finally catch up!). Life needed to go on, and I had three kids who needed me. I let my children see a window into my sadness but was also able to show them my strength and excitement around rebuilding me.
His discovery freed us—I see that now. Neither one of us could have continued on the path we were on, no matter how much love there was between us. The mental acrobatics of balancing, incorporating and supporting his relationship with his friend meant that I didn’t have much energy to take care of myself.
When 2016 came to an end, I was ready to focus on me—2017 was going to be my year. I saw an opportunity for my own fresh start, and it was empowering to start thinking about things that would make me happy. I signed up for sailing classes and filled my social calendar with amazing people, often coming home from those evenings feeling energized and full.
I feel grateful for the 21 years that Mike and I had together but especially those last two years. As challenging as that time was, we grew as individuals and as a family. I thought of the lessons we were able to pass on to our kids: We showed them that love sometimes means letting go when it’s the right thing to do, that being who you are is always best, and that family doesn’t fit one mould. We also showed them that separating doesn’t mean less love or more anger; it means different love and new ideas about what a family can be.
We’ve all come a long way in a year. In fact, it blows my mind. Tomorrow will be our middle child’s sixth birthday, and we’re all coming together to celebrate at the house. When I say we, I mean everyone—our family circle has grown. Mike’s parents, my parents, his partner and mine, my sister and brother-in-law and our three wonderful kids will all be there. Mike and I found a way to redefine our family and make room for new members. It was anything but easy, but we learned an important lesson: When love is your foundation, anything is possible.
This article was originally published in November 2017.