Navigating a relationship with someone who hasn’t come out to his family

Dear Dr. Rachel,

I’m a gay man in my 40s who has been out for about 20 years. For eight months I’ve been seeing a man who is divorced from a woman and has two teenage children with whom he shares custody.  The month we started dating is the same month his divorce became final, so needless to say he is new to the idea of living the life of a gay man. While together we have passion, trust, honesty, and generosity, more so than with other relationships I’ve been in. We have dates out and about town, he’s met friends of mine, spent weekends at my cabin and we’ve done other things that are very typical of dating. However, he’s not out to his ex-wife, kids, family and co-workers. Therefore, I have not met any of them and have not been included in gatherings, events or holidays that involve them. I want to be “in the moment” and be present when we do spend time together, but we sometimes have weeks apart because of schedules and work. It’s hard to not get frustrated and anxious because of his separation between what we have and the rest of his life. He’s not trying to act straight or pretend he’s not gay. He just isn’t sure how to come out without disrupting the lives of his kids and others closest to him. 

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This is less about disrupting the lives of people close to your boyfriend* and more about him being stuck in fear. Unfortunately, we live in a world where people discriminate against others based on who they love and how they love. Coming out of the closet requires bravery.

My hunch is that your boyfriend grew-up in a home where image and appearances were highly valued. He may have learned he needed to present himself in a certain manner in order to earn approval. This was true for many of us. Rather than learning that simply being a human on this earth means we’re worthy of love, we were taught that our value comes from our doing versus our natural being. Perhaps he was raised in a home that prescribed a religion forbidding homosexuality. These teachings are hard to shed because they’re engrained in us from such an impressionable age. This translates to people being more cautious in their change process, despite wanting desperately to cross over to the further shore.

Obviously you’re at different ends of the spectrum regarding being fully out as a gay man. Unlike you, he has spent his entire adult life compartmentalized, toggling between who he is and who he thinks he should be. And although this may not be his preference, it has become familiar and safe for him. The longer someone lives the facade, the more entrenched it becomes.

Anytime we can’t “own” and embrace who we are, both our light and our dark, we experience shame. There’s a saying, “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” He is straddling between his secret and his authenticity. He takes risks by being in public with you, no doubt because he cares for you immensely, but also because his heart yearns to be real. Continue to model for him how vibrant and rich the life of a gay man can be. And hopefully sooner rather than later he can present to the world his complete self, free from hiding or pretending. This will be powerful for his children to model as well.

Timing in life is powerful. Particularly in relationships, timing is huge. Your timing in this relationship is as fractured as his sense of self. Not only is he closeted, but he’s freshly recovering from a divorce, which is a significant loss even in the best of circumstances.

The two of you can love each other, but even the strongest connection can crumble under strained circumstances. That’s why communication and empathy are essential as you work through these differences. Continue to expose yourselves to one another. If you haven’t already done so, look your boyfriend in the eye, tell him you cherish him and you believe in him. Help him understand that it’s time for him to evolve, both for the sake of the relationship and for the opportunity to step into his own truth.

When I see clients for couple’s therapy, I ask each person what they’re getting from the relationship. You stated you’re receiving passion, trust, honesty and generosity. These are gifts. But at eight months into the relationship, you deserve to be invited into the layers of his life and community just as you have done with him. You deserve more consistent contact — weeks apart without seeing each other allows him to maintain his double life and disrupts the continuity of your relationship.

Naturally your mind will float in and out of the important question, ‘where is this relationship going?’ Know your boundaries in this relationship. Are you able to accept what he can give right now? How long are you willing to wait to share more of his life with you? As you live each day into these answers, practice being in the present moment and having patience with his process. Stick around as long as you feel your love is reciprocated and you’re growing emotionally and spiritually from the relationship. Indulge in the aspects of your own life that nourish and sustain you.

(*You didn’t mention your preferred label but I’m taking the liberty of calling him your boyfriend.)

Dr. Rachel Allyn is a licensed psychologist in private practice. Learn more about her unique style of therapy at DrRachelAllyn.com. Send questions to Rachel@DrRachelAllyn.com.