Same-Sex Relationships: My Spouse Just Came Out — What About Our Kids?
The children are always a priority for parents in any divorce. But what if one of the parents comes out as being gay or lesbian? How will this affect the children? Research and counselors will tell you that kids are more resilient than adults in most cases. They just want the truth.
Judith E. Snow, MA, is a psychotherapist in private practice. She has written a book, entitled “How it Feels to Have a Gay or Lesbian Parent,” in which she interviewed children with a gay or lesbian parent. “With all the kids I talked with, the divorce was the greater issue, not the parent’s sexual orientation,” said Snow. “The next big issue was ‘How do I live in a world that doesn’t accept my parent?’ The kids often stay in the closet and don’t tell anyone about their parents’ sexual orientation.”
“Coming Out actually involves three waves, especially if children are involved,” said Amity P. Buxton, Ph.D., founder of the Straight Spouse Network (SSN). “The first wave involves the gay or lesbian spouse coming out. The second wave is when the straight spouse deals with the situation (which can take some time) and the third wave involves telling the kids. So the family is dealing with the issue at different times and from different perspectives which makes it very complicated.”
Younger children (up to 6) understand the many kinds of love, but not necessarily the sexuality part. So explaining in simple terms that “Daddy loves Bill” or “Mommy loves Sue” may be all that’s necessary.You could also explain that some families have two moms, some have a mom and a dad, some have two dads, some kids are raised by grandma and grandpa and some kids live with foster parents. This helps kids realize that their situation may not be that unusual.
The older child is beginning to understand sexuality, so parents can explain briefly about the gay parent. “But that is all the information that needs to be said when they are first told,” said Buxton. “At that time, parents need to say that they are open to any questions the children may have, whenever they want to ask them. It’s important to not make the homosexuality a big deal.”
Snow suggests that if possible both parents can tell the children together and present a united front. It’s important that the kids understand they are important to both of you as you explain the divorce and the reasons for it in plain, age-appropriate language. “It’s good to tell the children early,” stated Snow. “The worst thing that could happen is that nothing is ever explained to the kids.”
EFFECTS ON CHILDREN
According to Buxton, during the custody negotiations, it is easy to forget that the impact of homosexuality on a marriage is different than the effect on a parent-child relationship. “Kids are affected by the family breakup more than the fact that their dad is gay or mom is a lesbian,” stated Buxton. “However, those in middle school or above are affected by anti-gay attitudes. Then it’s their turn to go into the closet. Adolescents have the hardest time dealing with their parent’s disclosure, since they, too, are going through sexuality changes.”
As the children process the information, the straight parent becomes the model for how to handle it. The children cope better if both parents can work through any hostility and keep from making critical comments about the other parent. It’s also important to honor the child’slovefor each parent. “Unfortunately, there will be some parents who will think it is in the best interest of the children to shield them from the lesbian mom or the gay dad,” said Snow. “Fear drives a lot of these attitudes. Many people who are homophobic have never even met anyone who’s gay.”
Snow cited statements from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association (APA) that indicate there is no significant difference in children raised by gay parents or straight parents in terms of overall mental health and adjustment.
Children want and need both parents in their lives, so if both spouses act responsibly as parents, then some sort of shared parenting arrangement is ideal. Buxton stresses that sexual orientation should be kept out of the custody arrangements. “The main thing is that the kids have a secure, loving home wherever they are, and that they have as much contact with both parents as possible,” she said.
Snow agreed and makes the same parenting recommendations as with two straight parents. “Joint physical custody works great if the parents get along well,” she said. “The parenting skills have nothing to do with sexual orientation.”
What do the kids call mom’s new girlfriend or dad’s boyfriend? Will it be harmful for the child to be around the gay parent and the new partner? These are the kinds of concerns the straight parent will likely be feeling. Kids are bright and usually figure out the new relationship pretty quickly. So it’s best to be honest with them. They often will come up with their own way to introduce their gay parent’s partner. Either parent could offer the child some suggestions; simply the new partner’s first name is very appropriate. Above all, be helpful and honest with your kids.
“Children tell me they are angry if the parents don’t trust them with the truth,” said Buxton.”If the parent and new partner have a loving relationship built on caring and trust and the two men or women are kind, caring and responsible when the children are present, why should the straight parent be concerned? No more restrictions need to be placed on the gay/lesbian parent and his/her partner than on a straight parent and his/her new partner. Bedroom sex belongs in the bedroom, not for the children to observe.”
Snow has found the situation to be similar as with any stepparent family. “The kids usually like the new partners in their parents’ lives (gay and straight),” she said. “But the kids often don’t share with their school friends about their gay parent’s partner. Sometimes they are very open with it and even become little advocates for gays. A lot depends on where you live.”
Divorce involving a gay or lesbian spouse can be handled in a loving way, and that’s especially important when children are part of the marriage. Here are some tips to remember when dealing with your children.
TIPS TO HELP THE CHILDREN
1. Take time to work out your emotions before talking with your children.
2. Be truthful with yourself and with your kids throughout the divorce process and beyond.
3. Explain to your kids (together if possible) that you are available to listen as you all work through the situation. Realize you will all be processing at different stages.
4. Tell your kids (in age-appropriate terms) about the gay or lesbian parent. Understand that your kids may ‘go into the closet’ and not want to share this information with their friends.
5. Stress that the children are not to blame for the divorce.
6. Keep your anger at your spouse in check. Refrain from derogatory remarks about the other parent.
7. Downplay the homosexuality issue. If you don’t make it a big deal, neither will the kids.
8. Realize that the bigger issue for the kids is the divorce not the parent’s sexual orientation. Honor the child’s love and affection for both parents.
9. Seek out counseling and/or self-help groups for yourself and your children. (see: For More Information)
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
“How it Feels to Have a Gay or Lesbian Parent,” by Judith E. Snow.
“The Other Side of the Closet: The Coming-Out Crisis for Straight Spouses and Families,” by Amity P. Buxton, Ph. D.
Age Appropriate Children’s books for children with a gay or lesbian parent.
COLAGE Children of Lesbians & Gays Everywhere.
About the author: Jan Myers is a freelance writer whose articles have been published in Gannett newspapers. She and her ex-spouse (who is gay) are raising a son who is now 14. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org