By Carol Shwanda
Remember when the governor of New Jersey announced he was gay? I sure do. I remember smiling ruefully to myself when I heard people talking about the scandal and asking, “How could his wife not know? Can you imagine being married to someone and not knowing he’s gay?” Yep, I can because it happened to me. I don’t mind telling people about this because I somehow feel it gives me a free pass for a failed marriage. There was no “we just grew apart” or ”we wanted different things” excuses. Nope. I married a gay guy. Not my fault. Except when you consider that I was, how should I say this?, STUPID enough to marry a gay guy in the first place. By way of explanation, let me just say this. My ex, whom I will refer to as Jared, was more the Rock Hudson type of gay rather than the Liberace sort. It wasn’t like he was into decorating or Broadway show tunes. He did like ballet, though, maybe that should have been a clue. These days when he comes over to the house to pick up the girls wearing Bermuda shorts and socks and sandals, I look at him and say to myself, “You are sooo gay. How did I miss that?” Back when he was still in the closet he played the part of the straight, ex-highschool football hero pretty convincingly and I and everyone else was fooled. And to answer the most often unasked question, yes, we did have sex. No problems there, so you can see, I really had no idea.
Jared and I met in 1987 at a Christmas party my roommate and I were throwing at our apartment. He was her guest. They worked together. He seemed like a nice, genuine guy who wore T-shirts and jeans and watched sports. At the time I had been having a lot of short-term romances with playboy types who strung me along with promises of trips to Jamaica and then dumped me with no notice. My current beau fit the profile, but hadn’t arrived yet, so Jared and I struck up a conversation about just exactly how did the guy who played Latke on Taxi die, (we learned we were both obscure trivia buffs) when my date showed up and whisked me away. Two weeks later the lothario stopped calling and I swore off dating forever. I was 26 and decided that marriage and children were just not going to happen for me. Little did I know. I concentrated on my career as a rising fashion industry star and embraced 80’s VCR technology.
Sometime around spring I decided it was time to venture out into the dating world again. I informed my roommate, who responded excitedly that Jared was still available, had just gotten his own apartment and really liked me. I was making chocolate chip cookies at the time and gave her some to give to him at work. A few days later he called and we went out on date. I liked him a lot, thought he was really nice, but did not get those nervous butterflies in my stomach, which I reasoned at the time was a good thing. It was the butterflies that had gotten me into so much trouble in the past. I didn’t feel that instant chemistry, but decided to wait it out until I did because I knew Jared was a nice, decent guy. A mensch, not a chump and all my friends liked him. After a month of dating I really fell for him and thought, “This is what love is supposed to feel like — calm. Not insecure or nerve wracking.” After 9 months of dating, we got engaged (at the ballet) and 9 months after that we were married. The first two years we lived the ’80’s yuppie, pre-kids lifestyle. We indulged our hobbies of dining out, browsing bookstores and going to movies.
In November of ’92 Jared got recruited by a high tech company in California and we were moved from the East coast to the West to start a new life. At the same time I got pregnant with Sophia. There were a lot of changes in our lives and the accompanying stress that goes with them. Jared became a work-a-holic which was kind of typical of the high tech boom in the early ’90’s. Something wasn’t right in my marriage, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I shrugged it off to the hectic life with small children. When Eva was born in ‘96 I quit my job to stay home, which only made Jared spend more time at work. Because I was now with the kids full time, I looked to him more to give me breaks with the girls. Instead, he worked 6 days a week and slept ’til noon on Sundays. We never did anything as a family. Forget vacations. I would have settled for help with the laundry. With our family all on the East Coast I spent a lot of time alone. I look back on those years and I don’t know how I survived. As a kid my dad was never an active participant in our family and I regretted that. I began to see the affects Jared’s absence had on the girls and it made me very sad. One year on Jared’s birthday, Sophia sat on the front porch with his gift on her lap and he never came home.
Why did I put up with this for so long? I was afraid of the alternative. Being the eternal optimist that I am, I looked on the bright side. I enjoyed my children and was grateful that I could afford to stay home and spend so much time with them. I looked for diversions and decided I needed a bigger house with a large yard so we could have a dog. We bought a minivan. I don’t know why Jared agreed to it because he told me later the trappings of a middle class lifestyle put him over the edge. A bigger house, a bigger mortgage. He was screaming inside. He felt imprisoned in a marriage he should never have been in and became more and more distraught and desperate. He coped by working, his only escape.
Shortly after our move to the new house, Jared and I were barely speaking. He left for work before the girls got up for school and came home after they were in bed. He refused the warmed dinners I saved for him saying he had already eaten at the office. I knew something was seriously wrong with him and kept prodding him for explanations and answers. He would push me away and tell me I was imagining things and to leave him alone. Around the same time Sophia was diagnosed with a learning disability and needed a lot of my attention. I was exhausted all the time and did not know what to do about my marriage so I did nothing. I think I went months without even looking in Jared’s direction, until one day I saw him get out of the shower and was shocked to see that he was dangerously thin. Jared was always a slender guy with a small build. Six feet tall he usually weighed around 155 lbs. I could see the bones sticking out of his ribcage. I exclaimed, “Oh my God, you are so thin! What is wrong with you?” and demanded he get on the scale and he did. He weighed 128 lbs. He admitted to me that he thought he was anorexic, but he wouldn’t explain why. I told him he needed to get counseling and he agreed and even ate some breakfast.
I was encouraged by his admission, yet very troubled. After he left for work I got on the Internet to research anorexia in men and found an article that offered two explanations. The first one I immediately discounted and scoffed at. Anorexia in men is caused by the suppression of latent homosexual tendencies. Ridiculous. My husband is not gay. I read on. The second reason seemed more likely. Repressed memories and hostilities as a result of an authoritarian father. That had to be it. Of course, growing up in the sixties, who didn’t have an authoritarian father? Armed with my new knowledge, I decided to approach Jared that evening. Instead we had a big fight about something and he went to bed. I stayed up stewing and watching stupid TV shows. Something told me I had to confront him. I had to know. I went into the bedroom, sat on his side of the bed and woke him up. I told him, “Jared, I am your wife. You have to tell me what is bothering you. I don’t care what it is. This is eating us both up. Tell me. I have to know.”
At first he said nothing. Tears started to stream down his face and his body was shuddering and rocking slightly. Softly, he started repeating these words over and over again. “I just want to be happy. I just want to be happy. I just want to be happy.” It was at that moment that it hit me like a ton of bricks. I remembered what I read on the Internet. He’s gay. So I asked him, “Jared, are you gay?” (He told me later he could not believe I had guessed.) As if the words were coming from the bowels of his being, for the first time in his life he admitted to someone, me, his wife, that he was gay. It was as if he were speaking in slow motion and under water. “Would you hate me if I told you that I think I am bisexual?” I was so relieved to finally know that I wept too. “No, I don’t hate you, I love you.” I assured him. I promised to help him and to stick by him. I knew that night my marriage was over, but I could not admit it to myself. The girls were little, I hadn’t worked in years and he was a basket case. I threw myself into my plan to get him well. I started the next day stuffing him with high calorie smoothies and calling around for referrals for therapists. Jared told me later that if I had not come in and forced the truth out of him he would most likely have killed himself the next day. That was his plan. I know now that he was having a nervous breakdown.
For the next two years we clung to the hope that somehow we could make our marriage work. Jared considered himself bi-sexual, and by marrying me he was simply making a choice. During the first two years of our marriage he was fine with his decision. It was when I got pregnant with Sophia that he started to feel confined and panicked. Once everything was out in the open and we both sought counseling, we explored all of the thoughts, issues, conflicts and struggles he was feeling. I read books, searched the Internet and consulted experts in the field. One of the most significant things I learned, and probably the greatest source of confusion and controversy regarding human sexuality, is that some people, not all, but some, have varying levels of homosexuality and/or heterosexuality in their makeup. While some people, like myself, have no doubts about their sexual orientation. I have always known that I am straight. Likewise, there are gay people who have similar certainties of their homosexual orientation. However, there are those, like Jared, who are not so sure and are unfortunately therefore so conflicted. This uncertainty coupled with the social construct opposing homosexuality is what closets so many people.
After two years of feeling like I was walking on eggshells, always watching Jared to make sure he was OK, of meeting his needs and not my own, I decided I needed more. I needed to be either with a man who wanted to be with me or to be alone. It was a difficult decision and one that was long overdue. The tipping point came at one of our final visits to see our marriage counselor. The counselor suggested that we settle on some kind of “arrangement” , in which we would agree to time apart and I would simply look the other way while Jared went off on some gay Club Med trip. This apparently works for some people. Not for me. With tears streaming down my face I made a vow to myself that I deserved better and I would find it.
After twelve years of marriage, two children and a relocation across the country, Jared and I ended our marriage, but not our family. I was determined to keep my dignity and composure and to have a positive divorce. We told the kids in February of 2002. It was Black history month and the girls were learning about segregation in school. I used that backdrop to make the comparison of discrimination against gay people. I explained to the girls that Daddy was gay. Because we live in a very liberal community where there are lots of gay couples, the girls knew that some people of the same sex are happier being together. However, not everyone is accepting of gay people which is why their father kept his feelings a secret for so long. I told them that because we love Daddy we want him to be happy and we have to let him find what is going to make him happy. At first they were worried they would not get to see their father very often. They both have friends whose parents were divorced and the dads had moved out of the area. I assured them they could see their father whenever they wanted to and they do. Although the children live primarily with me they see their father every day when he takes them to school.
About six months after Jared moved out, he met Keith, his life partner to whom he is now married. Shortly after, it was Jared’s birthday. I suggested to Jared that he invite Keith to our house for dinner. I did this for the girls to show an act of solidarity and to give my approval. I wanted the girls to know that is was OK to welcome Keith into their lives. I never wanted them to feel like they had to choose sides or feel guilty about liking him. I also didn’t want them to worry about me.
The morning of his birthday, Jared met the girls and me at our country club to go swimming. As I watched Jared rough house with the girls in the pool, tossing them in the air and playing Marco Polo, I realized I had never seen him so happy. During our marriage, when I could get him to come with us to the pool, he often sat on the sidelines reading a book, retreating into himself. When I saw how delighted the girls were with his attention, I knew that I made the right decision. I sacrificed my marriage, so that my children could have a father.
Later, Keith arrived at the house with gifts in hand for me and the girls. While I got dinner started, Keith and Jared played hopscotch and jumprope outside with the girls. Later, Jared wrote me a lovely thank you email telling me how much he appreciated my generosity and that it was the best birthday he ever had.
Was I always so amicable and giving? No. There were several times I felt such incredible anger and resentment toward Jared that I could have clocked him. I spend many mornings sobbing in the shower. Jared, because of his guilt I guess, put up with a lot of my tirades and sarcastic barbs until one day he asked me point blank, “How long are you going to punish me? I’ll give you twenty years and then after that the statute of limitations runs out and you have to forgive me.” He sounded like he was joking, but I knew he was serious. I realized at that moment that I was only hurting myself and if the girls sensed my feelings, they would suffer too. I decided from that point on to take stock of my life and acknowledge what was good. I had two wonderful daughters, a beautiful home (which I got to keep in the divorce settlement), I lived in a beautiful place and I had the talent, intelligence and perseverance to start over.
Why did Jared marry me you wonder? I asked him the same question. His answer, besides the fact that he loved me, was that he wanted a family and a conventional lifestyle. When we separated he did right by me and the kids. He gave me the house, paid very generous child and spousal support so I could continue to stay home with the girls while I figured out what I wanted to do since I hadn’t worked in a while. At the time of our divorce, an acquaintance of mine from my kids’ school was also getting a divorce. Her husband left her for another woman and moved to Brazil, but only after he drained their bank accounts. Since he was self-employed he was able to hide his assets and income. She, like me, had been a stay-at-home mom with three kids. Her car was repossessed and her landlord evicted her for non-payment of rent. She was forced to go on public assistance. Now I ask you, which man, my ex-husband or hers, had better family values?
Although I have no regrets about marrying Jared, I know that if he had felt the freedom to live as an openly gay person, who had the rights to marry and have children, we would never have gotten married. This brings me to the topic of same sex marriage and the general acceptance of homosexuality. We, as compassionate and reasonable people have to dispel this notion that it is wrong to be gay, that homosexuality is a disease that has to be cured or prevented. It is not. It just is. Accept it. By doing so you would save others from experiencing the pain and unhappiness we have had to endure as the result of society’s discrimination against homosexuality.
To read more about Carol Shwanda’s life as a newly remarried mom with two kids and three step kids, check out her blended family blog at: www.shwanda.com