Jessica Frew

Centering the straight spouse and the route to self

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On their wedding night, Kylie’s husband came out to her as bisexual. (He now identifies as gay.) Six months later, as they were moving into a new apartment, he confessed he’d been cheating on her with men. So they did what many devout Mormon couples would do and called their bishop. They turned to that local Church authority even though, since they were so new to the neighborhood, they hadn’t even met him. Mormons are trained to follow the rule book.

For generations, men who told their bishops about their ‘struggle with same-sex attraction’ were urged to get married right away and never tell anyone, certainly not their future wives. It’s a recipe for years of misery and heartbreak, and not everyone makes it out alive. Fortunately, there are now countless stories of gay men’s journeys to self, how they worked their way out of the closet and into authentic lives.

But their straight wives who get their hearts broken also have to start new lives. That’s made harder not just because the arc of progress is less clear but also because of the passive role society casts women into.

Kylie’s story was part of a special episode of the Husband-in-Law podcast, which Jessica Frew (pictured above) hosts with her gay ex-husband Steve and straight husband Matt. (Jessica is also hosting a free online workshop on this topic on Wednesday, January 19 at 7p MT. Here’s how she described it: “Do you feel left behind and alone while your partner/ex is riding the rainbow? They are flying that flag loud and proud while you are feeling unseen, unheard and unsure of where to go from here.” Registration here)

Coming out stories have a familiar feel-good arc, but I don’t think that’s the only reason straight wives’ stories are overlooked. Feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray posits that Western society tends to view women as commodities and not as active subjects. (This would also help explain why most mixed orientation marriages seem to be a gay man and straight woman: Unmarried women are seen as unwanted passive goods while unmarried men are pressured to marry.)

Irigaray’s research showed that, when men and women were asked to make up sentences, both avoided using ‘she’ as the active subject of a sentence. (Actually, the word was ‘elle.’ She worked in French.)  

Crafting a better life requires you to be an active subject. It’s essential to what Jessica calls throwing out the manual. To recognize your ability to set your own rules you have to recognize yourself as an active subject. This was called “owning your agency” on a Questions from the Closet podcast featuring Jessica. I’ve been thinking of it as a self-realized self.

The journey of how to get to a self-realized self starts with self-recognition. The essential lesson is that no one owns you, and you don’t own anyone, Jessica explains. That lets Jessica manage as an active Latter-day Saint who can co-parent joyfully with a man now outside the Church.

A self-realized self is essential to having healthy relationships. After three years, a couple babies, and many cheating incidents, Kylie and her spouse ended the marriage. They’ve both left the Church and fel better about their lives. Kylie describes realizing that she had three distinct roles with him: the best friend, the ex, the baby mama, and that it was up to her to figure out what she wanted from each.

‘Follow the path,’ we’re taught as Mormons. Sometimes it’s only when that’s impossible that we ask a better question, one only a self-realized self can ask ‘how do I proceed?’

“I feel like I’ve gotten to know myself better,” another woman (also named Kylie) tells Jessica, describing what it takes to manage a relationship with her ex. That’s an accomplishment of the self-realized self.

The reward is love: authentic relationships with yourself and others.

[Update Jan 19: I edited this slightly and added a quote]

PS: Don’t forget to vote for the Brodie Awards (exMo books, podcasts and more). Polls remain open until Sunday, January 23, 2022 at 10:00 a.m. Switzerland time.

9 thoughts on “Centering the straight spouse and the route to self

  1. Years ago, Carol Lynn Pearson said, “Enough women have been sacrifice on this altar.” So true. And that fact still makes me mad. Straight spouses in mixed-orientation marriages deserve to be seen and heard. The Church should be ashamed of the role it played in so much heart-break.

  2. Many years ago, I saw “Tidy Endings,” starring Harvey Fierstein and Stockard Channing. He’s upset when his partner dies of AIDS because she gets to be the grieving widow. He wants that title for himself. As the movie progresses, we slowly begin to see a bit more of her story, including the fact that she was infected with HIV by their shared partner. This was in the days before effective treatment, when infection was a death sentence. It’s a shock in the story to realize SHE has a story, too. But as you point out, I’ve seen virtually nothing else about this in the years since. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096266/

  3. I also think that part of the problem is shame. LDS women whose husbands come out and leave feel so much shame they often don’t want to talk about it at all. I once asked a friend of mine in this exact position if she wanted to write about her experience and she was horrified by the idea. She wanted as few people to know as possible. Shame and silence are both forms of oppression.

  4. Monya, thanks for the link, I had forgotten about that post. 🙂

    As I’ve said before on this blog, I think that promoting the stories of the straight spouses can also be beneficial to young gay people (particularly young LDS gay men) for the following reason:

    Since the only real role for women in the church is wife/mother, there’s this impression that when an LDS man marries an LDS woman, he’s almost invariably doing her a favor. So a young gay guy would often get the message that by marrying a straight woman who’s in love with him, he’s only sacrificing his own happiness — everyone else just benefits from his selfless sacrifice. But if they get the message that, no, the choice to start a mixed-orientation-marriage doesn’t just hurt the gay spouse, it hurts the straight spouse as well, then probably fewer of them will make this regrettable lose-lose choice.

    Fortunately, though, I think there’s more awareness these days (even in LDS circles) that you can’t just pray/wish the gay away, so you should accept and embrace yourself the way you are.

  5. Monya, thanks for this thoughtful post. I’m reminded of Harper Pitt, the straight Mormon wife to the gay man in “Angels in America.” As Chanson points out, the straight spouse’s story is important, too.

  6. I have been talking and writing about this issue for decades and it is mind-boggling to me that progress is so slow.

    I would point out first of all that one does not need to “posit” that “Western society tends to view women as commodities and not as active subjects”–this point can be discussed as settled fact, at least in English and American society. The English law of coverture, which was imported to North America, meant that women ceased to exist as a legal entity upon marriage. The way it was explained to me is this: a man and a woman are one, and that one is the husband. This is why married women couldn’t own property or sue anyone–especially their own husbands: they did not legally exist. They were merely appendages to their husbands.

    This is one reason polygamy could seem so appropriate to misogynists like Joseph Smith: what’s the big deal about having more than one appendage?

    I think there are other reasons most MOMs that we know of are between gay men and straight women. One might be that we care about male sexuality more than female sexuality, so a marriage where a man is sexually frustrated might matter more to society than a marriage where a woman is sexually frustrated.

    In 2006, I organized a Sunstone panel about the erasure of women from the issue of homosexuality in the COJCOLDS, and my presentation was revised and published. You can find it here, thought you have to scroll down two pages. A couple of excerpts:

    patriarchy endows men with a sense of entitlement … that blinds them to the real cost of their actions; Schow quotes a recently divorced gay man who states that “I think a lot of gay men contemplating heterosexual marriage underestimate the impact that their actions have on their future spouse.” Whereas women are trained, through doctrines like the new and everlasting covenant, to accept, however grudgingly, that they will not have the exclusive regard or affection of their husbands, that indeed their feelings about their marriage are of secondary importance to the patriarch’s wielding of authority.

    and

    gay men must be willing to renounce the privileges of patriarchy if they are truly interested in justice and equality not only for themselves as members of a marginalized community, but for all marginalized subjects. Furthermore, straight people who advocate for greater rights and respect for gay women and men must also critique any discussion of homosexuality that privileges, automatically and without acknowledgment of what is being excluded, men and their concerns over women and theirs. As a male friend who critiqued an early draft of this essay put it, a “form of liberation of one group of people–gay men [which, let us not forget, accounts for around 5% of the population]–that ignores the consequences of their actions on other groups–women [50% of the population]–does not amount to a liberation at all.” Instead, it raises “the question of whether in the defense of such a generalized form of privilege [i.e., the right to be head of the family in conventional heterosexual marriages], patriarchy doesn’t in fact (attempt to) transform the political demands of gay men into demands that in the end provide support for the patriarchy and other sorts or forms of hierarchy and privilege.”

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