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Coming Out of Heterosexual Relationships
by Michele O'Mara, LCSW
Coming out is a challenging, process, whether you are 15, 21, or 50. The first step toward “coming out” is self-awareness or recognition of having feelings of attraction for persons of the same sex. This awareness may lead to confusion, attempts to deny or repress feelings of attraction, anxiety about unwanted feelings, or even attempts to “pass” as heterosexual. It is no secret that in our society there are a lot of societal stigmas, and negative feelings about being gay. As a result, some people delay, deny, avoid, and reject having any awareness of feelings of attractions for persons of the same sex. Sometimes these attractions are repressed deeply enough to be out of one’s conscious awareness.
In this state of denial (which can be either conscious or unconscious), men and women sometimes pursue heterosexual relationships. Some men and women experience many years of heterosexual relationships that sometimes include marriage and children. Sometimes, though, these men and women, for various reasons, begin to develop a greater self-awareness. This awareness may be triggered by various things such as: An undeniable attraction to someone of the same sex; a function of maturity and greater self-exploration; or from a sense of emptiness or longing which stems from having emotional needs that have not be met by their heterosexual relationships because of their same-sex attractions.
If you are someone in this position, and you are starting to explore, or allow yourself to become aware of attractions you have long denied, this can be a painful experience. Coming out to yourself and others is complicated when you experience this in the context of a committed heterosexual relationship. It is important, however, to know that you are not the only one experiencing this. There are many others like you. The following suggestions offer you some guidance about how to embark on this journey toward a greater understanding of your feelings and your authentic sexual orientation.
1. Identify a supportive friend, or person with whom you can begin to identify and share your conflicting feelings.
2. Start a journal. Document what you are feeling and find a way to express these. Containing conflicting feelings can be overwhelming and confusing. Take your time. Pay close attention to your feelings and expect to feel very sad and confused for some time. That is normal.
3. Find a gay-friendly counselor with whom you can process your feelings.
4. Acknowledge to your partner that you’re struggling with some confusing feelings. If your are in a relationship, acknowledge to him or her that you are struggling to understand some things about yourself that are confusing and that they are about you, not her. Explain that when you feel ready, you will share what you are experiencing with her. Reassure him in ways that feel honest to you such as: "you have done nothing wrong," "this is not about you," "I need to understand myself better before I can explain to you what I am feeling and that's why I am going to a therapist - to get help doing that." "I would like you to be a part of my process, but I need to understand what my process is before I can include you in it."
5. Identify your potential losses (former identity as heterosexual and all that accompanies that) and allow yourself to feel sad about these potential losses.
6. Explore with your therapist what it means to you to be gay. Growing up we either learn incorrect information about homosexuality, no information, or accurate information. It is essential to recognize the messages you grew up with that may not be accurate or true. These incorrect messages can negatively affect how you feel about yourself.
7. Recognize feelings of shame and find ways to let it go. One of the most painful parts of what you are going through is the intense amount of shame that often overshadows how you feel about yourself. Shame is the feeling that you are a “bad” person, or that you have done something very wrong. Shame is a common emotion felt by people in this situation and it can revolve around a lot of things, such as:
Feeling a sense of self-betrayal, for not allowing yourself to explore your orientation more directly, sooner
A feeling of betraying others and feeling like you've "led a lie" or misled loved ones.
Feeling like you've wasted years by not being honest with yourself or others.
Simply thinking that being gay is a bad, sinful or wrong thing.
If you can identify your shame (if you are aware of this feeling) and let it go (by talking about this with your therapist, journal writing, etc.) you can also get rid of some of the denial, fear, disgust, etc... that may keep you from being honest with yourself in this process.
8. Be honest with yourself. (Often we become confused to protect ourselves from our own truths...one of the things that gay and lesbian people tend to do is distrust our own feelings because we are socialized to believe that what we feel is "wrong," "bad," or "not real.")
9. Journal write what you are feeling. Writing is an excellent way to clarify and sort through conflicting feelings.
10. Read books on being gay, coming out, and related issues.
11. Find other gay/lesbian-identified people with whom you can connect. This is an important part of decreasing the sense of aloneness and isolation that you may be feeling.
12. Maintain balance in your life (such as eating, sleeping, working, time with kids/family/friends, etc). Coming out to yourself and others is an emotionally draining process. The sense of loss during this process can be overwhelming and leave you with a very lonely, scared feeling. Be sure to tend to the other important areas of your life so that you can retreat from this process to a place that is comfortable and familiar to you if you begin to feel overwhelmed.
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