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Coming out -- as a couple

By Ian Kerner, CNN Contributor
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Tue June 25, 2013
What happens if you and your partner aren't
What happens if you and your partner aren't "out" to the same degree?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some same-sex partners are out with family, for instance, but not at work
  • When one partner doesn't publicly acknowledge being gay, it can cause problems
  • A person's past may provide the key to staying closeted

Editor's note: Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, writes about sex and relationships for CNN Health. Read more from him on his website, GoodInBed.

(CNN) -- Between celebratory parades for Pride Month and increased calls for marriage equality, it would seem that, for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, things are indeed getting better.

But what happens if you're in relationship with a partner who just isn't comfortable being "out" with his or her sexual identity? Does the desire to keep your sexuality private create tension, or can an LGBT couple still succeed when one person isn't ready to go public? I recently asked some of my colleagues for their insight on this issue.

"With most of the LGBT couples that I see, both partners are out, but to varying degrees," said New Jersey-based psychotherapist Israel Martinez, who specializes in LGBT therapy. "One partner may be out with his or her family but not at work, and the other is out in both situations but is shy about holding hands in public, for example."

That may not always pose a problem for couples, but it can certainly be an issue when one partner doesn't publicly acknowledge being homosexual at all.

Ian Kerner
Ian Kerner

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"In my experience, the partner who is more 'out' tends to see the partner who is more 'closeted' as less emotionally healthy," explained Gordon Powell, a psychotherapist in New York. "Meanwhile, the closeted partner may feel judged and criticized."

Such emotions can simmer, creating tension for even the happiest couples. "If the couple is closeted because of one partner, that person often feels guilt, anxiety and fear of abandonment," sex therapist Margie Nichols added. "And the 'out' partner may feel anger and eventually distance and disconnection from the relationship."

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There are any number of reasons why a partner may not feel comfortable coming out: "My experience has been that the majority of couples are usually on the same page," therapist Dennis Holly said. "Those that are not usually have one partner who comes from a highly religious family or exhibits an unusually high level of internalized homophobia or an insecure gay identity."

A person's past may provide the key to an urge to remain closeted.

"When treating couples, I always consider their old relationships, feelings, and childhood," psychotherapist Lois Horowitz said. "LGBT people who were bullied in school or by family, for example, tend to internalize a stigmatized identity at an early developmental stage and may grow into adulthood struggling with feelings of shame and anxiety."

This can result in internalized homophobia -- and can have lasting effects when that person is in a relationship.

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"In general, when a couple is not 'out,' both partners feel invisible, invalidated as people and as a couple," Nichols said. "It makes the relationship seem 'less than' opposite-sex relationships. It feels somehow like the invisibility is also a tacit agreement that, 'Yes, we have something to be ashamed of; society is right, our relationships are defective and so are we.' "

It's no wonder, then, that relationships can be challenging for someone who isn't comfortable addressing his or her sexual identity.

"It's harder to stay closeted when you're part of a couple, because it's harder to hide," explained psychotherapist Sheila Bloom Josephson. "If you're a single woman and go home for the holidays and your parents ask you if you've met any nice men, you can just say, 'No.' But if you bring your female partner home with you, you're more clearly telling your family that you're a lesbian."

So what should you do if you're in a relationship with a closeted partner? The first step is to remember that coming out is a continual process, not a single event, psychotherapist Kathleen Del Mar Miller said. Recognize that your significant other's coming-out process may be very different than yours -- and that's OK.

It can help for the closeted partner to articulate his or her concerns. "There can be very cogent reasons why someone may not be out, and it's their partner's responsibility to realize and understand that, without simply blaming them," Josephson said.

Michigan psychotherapist Joe Kort agrees. "I challenge couples to address their fears about coming out," he said. "Are you getting real cues from your family or friends that they won't accept you, or is it your own internalized homophobia talking? Are you truly at risk for being judged and rejected by others? If it's the latter, you can work together as a couple to protect and insulate your relationship from outside threats."

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Martinez added, "Once you identify the potential problems caused by one partner remaining closeted, you can determine if coming out is a necessity for the relationship or if there are alternative ways of thinking, behaving or feeling that could help meet those needs.

"For instance, I recently worked with a couple where one partner would never tell his family that he was gay because culturally, they were not tolerant of homosexuals," he said. "The other partner struggled with this because he felt excluded from the family, only ever being introduced as the partner's 'friend.' "

But, Martinez said, the partner "was able to eventually meet his need of feeling included in the family by paying more attention to caring letters he would receive from the partner's children, the words of affection from his partner's mother and the personal invitations to family-only events from the partner's brother."

By viewing you and your partner as a team, you can work together to address the complexities of being out -- or not -- and put your relationship first.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ian Kerner.

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