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For nearly 40 years, my sister has been married to a good man, and he and she have served faithfully in the Church their whole marriage. They have a beautiful family complete with lots of children and grandchildren. They have always been regarded as the happy, model family, where love was abounding and others were welcome. A few months ago, that vision was shattered when my brother-in-law confessed to being bi-sexual, but predominantly gay. He now plans to leave the Church and his wife and pursue his “authentic self”. Her youngest son, whom she loves and is a delight, has also revealed that he is gay and plans to eventually embrace that lifestyle now that he has gone away to college. My sister had no clue whatsoever of her husband’s orientation. She was aware that he struggled with pornography some years ago, but she assumed it was girls he was looking at. I have a feeling he has spent much more time than she knows with pornography, for him to embrace this decision so late in life. She is still very much in love with him and was eager to get help to work things out and keep the marriage together. He cares for her, too, but after careful consideration, has decided to move forward. We can see that he is somewhat excited to start this new adventure in his life, and she’s getting in his way. He also seems to be annoyed and less caring of her. Thus, they plan to start divorce proceedings the end of the year.
He has moved to a different state but plans to enjoy the holidays with his family. My sister is a positive, happy, loyal, and forgiving person. I’m certain that with God’s help, she will be a survivor, but, of course, she carries an enormous ache in her heart. She is trying to be loving and understanding, and can’t believe that the man she once regarded as a spiritual giant now seems so distant with her and the Spirit–even though, supposedly, he doesn’t have a gay relationship yet. Now my sister is trying to carve a new and lonely path. Her husband seems bothered that after several months, she isn’t able to move on! I was just wondering if you had any counsel to help her through any of this. She is putting one foot in front of the other and continuing to function, but suffers greatly inside. They are getting professional counseling to help them through the process, but I particularly value your thoughts and opinion and was just wondered if you had things to add.
Your sister is going to need years of compassionate support from you and others as she pieces her life back together. This devastating disclosure and subsequent divorce will make her question much about herself and others that it’s important for you to allow her room to sort through all of her questions. I’m purposefully not going to give her directives and advice, primarily because she’s not asking me for help. And, I don’t want you to become another person in her life who is going to tell her what to do. When she’s ready, she’ll ask for the support she needs from you and others. In the meantime, you have a unique and critical role to play in her life.
When something shocking like this happens, everyone seems to have a reflexive opinion and position to share on the matter. Your sister will hear plenty of unhelpful comments and suggestions over the coming weeks and months. However, like most things, this is more complicated than anyone on the outside (or inside, for that matter) can even imagine. It takes time, counseling, and inspiration to make sense of what happened and what to do.
She is seeking professional guidance and likely working with her local ecclesiastical leaders to get direction, so the most helpful thing you and others can do is to give her a nonjudgmental place to sort through her feelings and reactions. She will move through the common grief and loss feelings of shock, anger, sadness, bargaining, and eventually acceptance. She will likely ask hard questions that don’t have answers. She might blame herself. She might blame others. She will have days where she feels hopeful and relieved. Conversely, she will also have days where she can’t see any hope for her future. With everything changing around her, you can be someone in her life who is a constant. You can stay with her after the gossip and sensationalism has died down and she’s still left trying to make sense of how to move forward.
She will spend years working on setting healthy limits with her soon-to-be ex-husband and creating her new normal with her children and grandchildren. You can be someone she doesn’t have to manage or worry about. The best way you can do this is to avoid the temptation to make things certain for her and become directive. Instead of responding out of your own fear and anxiety for her future, you can listen and respond with loving confidence that she is not alone and that she is enough.
Dr. Omar Minwalla identified thirteen areas impacted when there is sexual addiction present in a relationship. Granted, I don’t know if your brother-in-law has a sexual addiction, but these areas of trauma will help illuminate how much work and sorting your sister will need to do over the coming years. The areas of impact are:
- Discovery Trauma
- Disclosure Trauma
- Reality-Ego Fragmentation (dealing with the deception and making sense of reality)
- Impact to Body and Medical Intersection
- External Crisis and Destabilization
- Hypervigilance and Re-Experiencing
- Dynamics of Perpetration, Violation and Abuse
- Sexual Trauma
- Gender Wounds and Gender-Based Trauma
- Relational Trauma and Attachment Injuries
- Family, Communal and Social Injuries
- Treatment-Induced Trauma
- Existential and Spiritual Trauma[i]
As you can see, she will be sorting through layers of loss and healing for years. You can position yourself as a long-term resource for listening and understanding as she makes new discoveries and connections. You’ve already shared many opinions about how he got to this point and why he’s making these choices. I would discourage you from making further evaluations and conjectures. It might help you make sense of things in your own mind, but the most important realizations and conclusions will come from her.
You will “mourn with those that mourn”[ii] for many years to come, as the losses will become clearer as time moves forward. Your sister and her family will benefit greatly from your steadiness and compassion. It will be a relief to have a place where she doesn’t have to pretend or have the answers. She will need a place where she doesn’t have to defend herself, reassure you, or explain everything she’s doing. Check on her often, listen, invite her to share, physically hold her, and give your deepest devotion and love.
Henri J. M. Nouwen described the challenge of offering compassion to people in great pain:
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”[iii]
Your journey with your sister will expand your ability to feel love and compassion for another person. The answers and direction will come. You don’t have to worry about that. Just don’t leave your sister alone to figure all of this out. She will need you now more than ever.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[ii] Mosiah 18:9