(LifeWire) -- When her husband of more than a decade revealed he was gay, Anna Marie Will was surprised -- but not shocked.
Jim and Anna Marie Will decided to stay together after he announced he was gay.
Her husband, Jim, had never fit her stereotypical idea of the sports-loving, macho, straight guy, and the two had even gone to gay bars with a friend who was gay. But that didn't mean she was prepared for the news.
"Neither one of us had a clue -- he didn't know what being gay meant for him. ... He needed to figure that out," recalls Anna Marie Will, of Sacramento, California. "I needed to figure out what his being gay meant for me, and whether I could incorporate that into my life and my marriage."
What they did know was that they believed in their marriage and wanted to make it work. Jim Will's revelation in 2001 began a three-year process during which they sorted out their feelings for each other. Ultimately, the couple, whose daughter turns 15 in March, decided to stay together.
"He had to learn to talk to me -- he had spent so many years not saying what was really on his mind, and not dealing with his true feelings," says Anna Marie Will, now 39, a worker's compensation program administrator. "We found out once we got past all that, our marriage was so much better. We still loved each other as people and partners."
Although Jim Will, 39, a secretary, had known on some level about his true orientation since he was 5, he didn't want to lose his deep bond with Anna Marie, whom he first befriended when they were in high school.
"When we married, and now still, we feel that we could spend the rest of our lives together," he says. "We want to be together."
An uncommon commitment
The Wills' commitment to making their mixed-orientation marriage work over the long haul is more the exception for couples in this situation.
Nearly all couples decide to end their marriage by the third year of a spouse coming out, according to informal research conducted by Amity Pierce Buxton, a founder of and spokeswoman for the Straight Spouse Network, a support group that claims to reach about 7,000 spouses.
Even if the union is likely to end because one spouse is gay or lesbian, Buxton and her group try to help couples resolve their feelings in as positive a manner as possible.
The straight spouse is likely to feel that his or her sexual orientation has been rejected, says Buxton, whose first marriage ended in the early '80s after her husband came out. The straight spouse often also feels deceived and questions his or her beliefs about gender, as well as assumptions about the relationship: Wasn't I enough of a woman to keep him from straying? Wasn't I man enough to keep her from "turning"?
"After the initial shock, they gradually get to face the reality of the changes," says Buxton, author of "The Other Side of the Closet: The Coming-Out Crisis for Straight Spouses and Families."
"Once they realize they can't go back, only then can they start ... deciding what's best for them."
What Should You Tell the Kids?
Mixed-orientation couples like the Wills who also are parents must figure out what -- if anything -- to tell the kids about their relationship.
If the gay or lesbian spouse is not planning to act on his or her orientation, it may not be necessary to explain the situation at all, according to Shara Sand, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, at Yeshiva University.
For couples who agree on an open relationship, they may feel they have to broach the subject with their child. But Sand believes it's not advisable to do so before he or she reaches age 10, or the point at which they are capable of understanding abstract concepts.
"I might say something like, 'Mom and Dad still love each other very much... but we have a need to be close to other people. Some people have relationship where it's okay to live with someone and also be close to other people'," Sand suggests.
At no time should the couple discuss their sex life with their kids.
"I do think we've become a little boundary-less," Sand says. "I don't think it's necessarily appropriate for children to be led into the intimate part of their parents' relationship ever. Even if you have an open marriage, and you go out swinging, it's not something you necessarily tell your children."
One thing's familiar -- compromise
The Wills didn't talk much about their situation for about three months while Anna Marie Will began to come to terms with it. Then they started a series of discussions about the future of their relationship -- talks that were helped when she consulted the Straight Spouse Network and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. The Wills set aside a time each week to discuss their feelings, rather than have the issue dominate their daily lives.
Eventually, they decided to have an open relationship, in which either could seek companionship from other people, and to continue their marriage on both an emotional and a sexual level. Nevertheless, Jim identifies himself as gay, not bisexual. Anna Marie is straight.
"Both of us are free to do whatever we choose," Anna Marie Will says. "I haven't strayed beyond the marriage because I'm happy with the marriage in a mental and physical capacity."
Jim Will says he has had encounters with men but has not pursued a full-fledged relationship.
"To this day, I have a very difficult time going out," he says. "It's not cheating because she knows what I'm doing, but something about it is not right for me, and then the experience doesn't seem worth it.
"I feel like I need to find the balance somehow of living both sides," he says.
The Wills' relationship, albeit nontraditional, seems to be like most marriages in one respect: It's all about compromise.
"You can't help who you love," Anna Marie Will says. "I can't imagine sharing a sunrise or sunset, or good day or bad day, with anyone else.
"When you find that person, you know that's it."
Says her husband: "Your relationship can be different from everyone else's, and if it works for you in your heart, that's what you do." E-mail to a friend
LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to web publishers. Robert DiGiacomo is a Philadelphia-based writer whose work has appeared in USA Today, Yahoo.com and The Boston Globe.
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