As a straight spouse myself, I’m always interested in how the media depicts our situations. In most cases I shake my head as I see cartoonish one-sided clichés. Lately it’s been Christian couples who have vowed to pray away the “same-sex attraction” in a miserable and strained marriage.
So I was a bit nervous about the new Netflix comedy, Grace & Frankie. The premise of the show involves a double divorce of two closeted men who have had a 20-year affair while married to women. In the first episode the announce they are leaving their wives for a new life together and hilarity ensues. Actually most of the humor comes from the unconventional friendship that develops between their two dissimilar wives – The hippie Frankie, played by Lily Tomlin and the former model turned beauty executive played by Jane Fonda. I genuinely loved the show, the characters are three-dimensional and multi-layered, the acting is brilliant and both straight spouses are extremely funny and sympathetic. As much as I liked it, I was somewhat frustrated by the sugar-coated Hollywood take on everything.
Since I write about being a straight spouse and have been very public about my story, I’ve encountered literally hundreds of other straight spouses. I’ve read their stories on private Facebook groups, and listened to harrowing details in my local straight spouse support group. No two mixed orientation marriages are quite the same, and our experiences do fall in a spectrum of outcomes. However, certain patterns are quite common and we often remark that we feel like we married the same person. There was so much good in Grace & Frankie but I feel the need to break down Hollywood fantasy vs. reality.
Hollywood – Both of the gay men find the courage to finally come out to their wives, and reveal their 20 year-long affair.
Reality – I’d say with full confidence that in probably 80-90% of mixed orientation marriages, the closeted spouse doesn’t disclose anything. Most of us find out the hard way after months or years of searching for evidence. In some truly horrific cases, a spouse finds out the truth accidentally.
Hollywood – 20 years of infidelity are forgiven rather easily and the relationships remain close and intact
Reality – For most spouses, finding out your partner was having a secret affair with his or her best friend for the past 20 years would be devastating. The pain and betrayal would cause so much damage, it would be quite difficult to repair any sort of relationship. A person might question literally everything. Which business trip was really a liaison? Which emergency meeting at work was really a hook-up? How many times did my spouse blatantly lie to my face? Twenty years of lies and betrayal are hard to forgive regardless of the circumstances.
Hollywood – Both couples have quick and simple divorces and both gay husbands are greatly concerned for the emotional and financial welfare of their wives.
Reality – How many couples have an “easy” divorce? Most drag on for several months if not years. Some partners do everything they can to block and stall to delay the inevitable. Just like any divorce, a straight spouse will endure multiple court cases, shady legal maneuvers, psych evaluations, hiding of assets and vicious custody battles. Some spouses are completely abandoned when their partner come out. As soon as they are open about their orientation they want to discard their old identity and life. Divorces between mixed orientation couples are no different than the general population – many are brutal, long, inequitable and devastating.
Hollywood – Both gay husbands immediately openly declare their sexual orientation to anyone and everyone
Reality – If a person has lived a lie for a couple of decades, they rarely switch to immediately proclaiming the truth. I’ve known straight spouses who have watched their exes marry a same-sex partner and STILL not label themselves gay, bisexual or even hetero-flexible. They simply insist they’re straight despite their new gay spouse. It’s baffling but it’s incredibly common. Some closeted partners are so self-loathing they retreat back into the closet and marry another straight partner.
Hollywood – Both couples are financially well off, and no one suffers economic ruin.
Reality – Most television shows center around wealthy people. The trials of paying bills on time and making ends meet just isn’t compelling and set designers would rather feature beautiful sprawling homes than sad depressing ones. Grace & Frankie is no different. Of course most straight spouses suffer tremendous financial problems from foreclosure to bankruptcy just like any other divorced couple.
Hollywood – Even though both women are in their 70’s there is seemingly a limitless supply of available partners. Both women have love interests almost immediately.
Reality – As much as loved Frankie & Grace – This is pure fantasy.
Hollywood – Both husbands admit fault for cheating, lying and destroying their marriage.
Realities – This one is probably the most egregious. Although I do know some closeted men and women who do take full accountability for their actions, many more admit no fault whatsoever. Excuses abound from
- You knew I was gay the whole time
- Everyone knew I was gay
- My orientation had nothing to do with our divorce
- You made me gay
- If you were there for me I would have never turned to men/women
- If you were just more understanding about my cheating we’d still be together
- It was just sex, it meant nothing, I don’t know why you care so much
- I’m not gay, I was never gay, I’m just working some things out
Very few people actually admit they have done anything wrong, in a mixed orientation marriage or otherwise.
Hollywood – Both gay husbands seem to have healthy psychological profiles and don’t have any personality disorders
Reality – Most of us learn through therapists that our exes are narcissists. Narcissists rarely take responsibility for their actions and have a tendency to blame everyone around them for whatever damage or chaos they’ve caused. They lack empathy and view themselves as the ultimate victim. Narcissists are often charming and charismatic but ultimately they are extremely difficult partners in a marriage. Of course our spouses do NOT represent the larger LGTB community as most LGTB people would never marry a straight person. Narcissism has nothing to do with sexual orientation but more to do with someone marrying another person under false pretense. Of course not all closeted men and women who marry straight partners are narcissistic but it is such a common problem that I would be remiss not to mention it here.
There were some things the show got spot on.
Denial & Co-dependence
One of the wives remains in a deep state of denial despite the obvious evidence. She accepts her husband is gay but continues to use him as her main source of emotional support. She acts out in very co-dependent ways and won’t accept that he’s treated her horribly. This is quite common for many straight spouses as denial is the glue that keeps these marriages together for so long. It’s difficult to suddenly turn on the light and see reality.
Resentment & Sadness
The show also captured the deep resentment and sadness that both women experience. In reality it would most likely stretch out much longer and be more intense, but at least the producers and writers allowed both characters to get angry, meltdown, and process real emotions. The disclosure wasn’t just a punchline, it given real gravitas.
Conflicted emotions in adult children
The adult children of both couples also expressed deeply conflicted feelings towards their fathers. As adults they still saw that their fathers had both cheated, lied and betrayed their mothers while setting them adrift in their old age. Despite their love for their dads, they couldn’t ignore their misdeeds.
Realistic gay couple
Another thing I liked about the show is that the gay partners act like any couple, they fight, they get frustrated with each other, they have bad communication skills but ultimately love each other very deeply. They were a fully dimensional and believable couple.
Most mixed orientation marriages would make extremely boring and sad television shows, Our lives don’t get nicely wrapped up in cute 30 minute episodes. Many of us live with emotional damage and shattered trust for years. With all of this though, I’m glad our stories are getting told at all. Just a decade ago it would have been unheard of to have a show explore this topic. I hope one day people may wonder why anyone would marry someone to hide the fact that they were gay. It simply won’t make any sense to do something so against one’s nature.
I laughed and cried while watching Grace and Frankie and I can’t wait for the next season. Even though it’s largely a best case scenario fairy tale, at least both straight spouses are sympathetic and likable and their struggles and obstacles are given respect. I’m thankful to both Fonda and Tomlin for having the courage to tackle this subject and to make an entertaining and funny show about it.
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