What A Difference A Year (and a few months) Makes

This Fall my son went off to college, and this weekend is parents weekend, where all the families come up to the University to visit.  When I think back to the summer of 2013 when my wife and I separated, and the painful months leading up to my moving out of our home of many years into my own apartment, I marvel at how far we have come. 

The two years between coming out to my wife and our separation were the two most painful years of my life.  It is hard to describe the misery I was in.  I wanted to leave the marriage and come out fully as a gay man but was so frightened about starting over in my mid-50s.  And my own internalized homophobia kept reappearing in my thoughts about the gay world I was about to enter, and had to be identified and called out for what they were—untrue.  I also knew how youth-centric gay culture is and feared that I had missed my window to enter the gay world.  And then there was my wife.  She worked to put on a happy face for our son but privately was in tremendous pain.  Thankfully she was not angry, but she was deeply hurt.  

Moving out of the house for me was going from feeling suffocated in my life to breathing deeply and with pleasure.  Moving into my own apartment was one of the happiest days of my life. It was a fresh start and a new level of freedom to be fully the man I wanted to be, which had been hidden for too many years.

The summer I moved out, my son was working at an overnight camp a 9-hour drive from our house. At my wife’s insistence, I moved out of the house only after my son went off to camp. She didn’t want me to tell our son that I was moving out until the summer was over, fearing it would ruin his summer. While I did not agree and felt it was a mistake to lie to him, I went along with her plan.

I had come out to my son about nine months before I moved out of the house, and from the beginning, he had been tremendously supportive. As I drove up to camp to pick my son up at the end of the summer, I was nervous about the conversation to come but trusted that his love and friendship for both his parents and his support of me when I came out to him, would help ease the discussion.

We had only just left the camp when my son asked me how my summer had been. The trip home called for an overnight stop in a hotel on the way home so that my son could visit a friend. The timing of disclosing our separation, that my wife and I had discussed, called for me to wait until the next morning to talk to him about the separation. In the weeks leading up to pick up my son from camp, my wife had repeatedly asked me to tell her exactly, word-for-word, what I was planning to say to our son, again fearing some wrong word would ‘damage’ him in some unknown way. So when my son asked how my summer had been as we drove away from camp, I felt the moment was now to tell him the truth, and told him that I had moved out of the house two months earlier and that his mom and I had separated.

He began to sob for a few minutes and then pulled himself together. He had known it was coming, and while it really was not a surprise, the reality of it had hit him. Over the next day and a half driving home we had plenty of time to talk about what had occurred. He was very practical: Where was I living? (a few miles away); Did I still plan to pay for college? (yes); Did I still plan to support his mom? (yes); Did we need to sell the house? (No). Once the basic terrain of his life had stability, he was surprisingly accepting of what had occurred.

Before picking up my son from camp at the end of the summer, my wife asked me to meet with each member of her family: parents, brother, sister and sister-in-law, to ensure that when my son came home from camp, we would not feel awkward or uncomfortable getting together as an extended family. My wife and I had already planned to be together, at a minimum, for the Jewish High Holidays in September, which included multiple meals and religious services together, and later in the year for Thanksgiving and Passover. Those summer meetings, particularly with her parents, began the healing with her family that needed to occur.

I always loved my wife’s parents. In some ways, I was closer to them than my own parents, and I knew that in coming out and separating from my wife, I might lose them in my life. While her parents did not fully understand, her father said he still saw me as a son and loved me. I was so awed by her parent’s good will and love for me in the midst of their own hurt and pain. Getting together with them was a very moving and emotional experience.  I felt the meetings, particularly with her parents, were healing for all of us.

When I moved out of my home, I knew that my wife and I had a lot of repairing our relationship that needed to occur. Our son was entering 11th grade in the Fall of 2013 and we had agreed to try and have dinner together at least one to two nights a week, at my request.

When I first moved out I came over to my house for dinner a few nights a week and my wife cooked. It was a strange experience to be entering the home I had just moved out of two months earlier for dinner with my son and wife, but it also helped begin the healing. My wife soon said that she felt uncomfortable making and serving me dinner given our new situation, so we began to meet in restaurants for dinner on a weekly basis.

When my son returned from camp, we gave him my in-law’s old car. As the year evolved, he and I began to meet, just the two of us, weekly for dinner. Separately I also met regularly my wife for dinner, again at my request.

Little by little her hurt and pain seemed to lessen and it was easier for us to be together. She also began to rebuild her life. She began making new friends and got involved volunteering with a local not-for-profit group that she cared about.

All this brings us to parents weekend at my son’s university seventeen months after we separated.  My wife drove up to the school with her parents, who I have always been close with. I flew up to the school separately and met everyone at the hotel. It was to be three days together as a ‘family’.  And so far, it has been pleasant and easy.

It is such a strange feeling because other then the sleeping arrangements, I am in one room and my wife and in-laws are in a suite together, it feels like very little has changed between us. It has been easy and comfortable for us to be together. We laugh and tell old family stories. I felt at ease with my wife and her parents I had hoped could survive the coming out and separation. But getting to this point took a year of steady and thoughtful work on my part with my wife and her family, and particularly my in-laws, to repair the hurt and pain of what everyone had seen for years as a wonderful marriage.

Two dimensions have been critical to getting this far. First, my son’s continuous support of me has been tremendous. Secondly, while my wife was tremendously hurt by our separation, she has not been angry, unlike so many wives in similar situations. She was clear that she wanted to make sure that our issues did not hurt our son, so she was willing, early on, to put her hurt aside to do what was best for our son. These two cornerstones of what occurred in the family dynamics paved the way for healing and have allowed both my wife and me to move forward in our lives.

What a difference a year and five months have made to allow a wonderful weekend to take place visiting my son at college.

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