‘Trauma’ for gay fathers in straight marriages

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The trauma of marriage break-up for Irish gay fathers who come out after having children during a heterosexual marriage has been revealed in a study.

The research from NUI Galway reveals that many of the gay fathers in the study experienced suicidal thoughts over the breakdown of their marriage and loss of family life.

In the study ‘Coming-Out Experiences of Irish Gay Fathers Who Have Been Heterosexually Married’ nine men reflected on their experiences of marriage and separation, assuming a gay identity, and social and family relationships.

The authors said all the participants recalled suppressing same-gender sexual desires before they married.

“[This] was primarily due to religious and societal expectation and homophobia”, said the study.

Along with the expectation they felt to have a heterosexual relationship, seven of them said “a love for and a connection with their wife-to-be and an attraction to the institution of marriage” pulled them towards marriage.

The men ranged in age from 42 to 65 with eight identifying as Catholic and Evangelical Christian.

All the men grew up and got married in the latter half of the 20th century, with the average length of marriage just over 23 years.

The number of children they had with their spouse ranged from one to five.

Most participants in the study cited an awareness of a changing Ireland drew them to the “increasingly available gay scene”.

Just over half the participants acknowledged cruising while a similar number had “hook-ups” from frequenting gay pubs or used online contact to discreetly connect with sexual partners. The authors said most of the men in the study didn’t act to end their marriage.

In most cases the balancing act between private gay self-identification, covert sexual behaviour, and continued marriage was disrupted through unwilling discovery,” said the study.

The marital and family loss was “experienced as traumatic”.

“Suicidal ideation occurred for most”, said the study published in the Journal of Homosexuality.

The authors — Siobhán C Daly, Pádraig MacNeela, and Kiran M Sarma — said exact numbers of heterosexually married gay men are undetermined but they are estimated to be as high as 20%.

They used interpretative phenomenological analysis which means how the men viewed their own life experiences. Three of the men were living alone, five lived with their same-gender partner (for at least six years), and one lived with both his wife and partner in separate homes.

The study carried out in the School of Psychology in NUI Galway found the period surrounding the marital breakup involved feelings of anxiety, sadness, distress, and psychological pain.

While four participants credited their children with a reason and focus for living, memories of depression and suicidal ideation, in five cases, or suicidal attempts, in one case, was recounted.

“This study highlights for gay fathers the importance of, and continued access to, their children during and following marital separation,” said the authors.

“There is a therapeutic need for meaningful support, such as online networks; empathetic counselling; and community spaces that facilitate the expression and exploration of identities.”

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