Married to a Man, in Love With a Woman
"I looked online for support groups just to get information, and to sort through my own confusion on where the heck I stand in all of this," said Maggie. "But there isn't a lot out there for [women] like us. You can post on a lesbian site but they're out there dissing women who are married Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ The support groups are for the men, and the media's talking about the men."
"Maggie," 41, recently left her conservative Christian community and moved with her family to northwest Indiana. She's a mother of four and will be married for 20 years this summer. Last year, she fell in love with a woman.
Maggie found a support group for her questioning sexuality through Joanne Fleisher's "Ask Joanne" message board on her website LavenderVisions.com. But Maggie wishes there were more resources for women like her.
"I look at Joanne's website, and I see how some of the women are still platonic with their husbands. They have this sort of partnership where they both have separate interests," said Maggie. "I don't know if I can do that -- my husband and I have been best friends for 23 years. I can't picture it because it's been miserable."
Maggie met her girlfriend, "Ginny," who is also married, last summer while doing research for a book that she was working on. They formed an instant friendship and began to exchange frequent emails. It wasn't until Ginny came down for a visit in December that Maggie realized her sexual attraction for her.
Their emails became more personal as they became closer friends, and on New Year's Eve, Maggie confessed to Ginny that she was attracted to her. Maggie wanted to prepare her, just in case Maggie acted strange when Ginny and her husband came over to Maggie and her husband's house for a visit soon after New Year's.
"I told her I'm straight. I don't know what's going on," said Maggie. "And she said don't worry about it, it'll be OK. Then two weeks later, before she came down by herself for a visit, she said, 'I have to tell you before I come down, I'm bi (bisexual).' And I was like suddenly that just changed all the rules.
"I told my husband about it. And he said, 'I think you should go for it -- as a writer you need to experience these things' Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ He says he's OK, but I think he very much wants to be OK. I think he might feel that if I tell him no, that I'll eventually leave him Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ So she showed up, and the chemistry just happened. It was just such a huge shock because I think I was expecting to be freaked out, but I wasn't," said Maggie.
|Denise Garrow-Pruitt, right, was married for 25 years to her husband before she married her current partner in 2003.|
Rick, Maggie's husband, said over email that he feels secure enough in their love for each other to support her exploration of these new feelings.
"I felt that this was an 'identity' issue for [Maggie] and that even though we are married (and under vows), I did not feel that it was my place to disallow her to find out more about herself," said Rick. "I suppose that some of the decision came from the 'sex with two women' fantasy that is always resident in my head. That thought was secondary to the first, though."
"[Ginny's] husband knew about it, [too], but then two weeks later he said he couldn't take it anymore," said Maggie, "that there were too many emotions involved, and that she couldn't see me anymore or talk to me anymore. And after about two weeks, she emailed me from an email account she had set up, and we've been emailing ever since. We talk on the phone three or four times a week."
Ginny's husband later gave them an offer: The only way Ginny could see Maggie was if Maggie came to their house for a threesome.
"That was his compromise," said Maggie. "And I was like, 'No, this isn't about sex. That's what you want to turn it into because you don't like the emotions. I'm sorry, that's not going to work for me.'"
"And now my husband says, 'Are you going to go out and get another girlfriend?' I know that he's expecting that I'm going to want to stay in the marriage and have a girlfriend. I don't know if I would. It would have to be something that fate intervened, or I hit it off with somebody in a second because this has been so difficult emotionally," said Maggie.
"I am sure that this consumes a huge portion of her thoughts, and sometimes I get the feeling that my allotted space in her thoughts has gotten smaller," said Rick. "As a result, I find myself questioning her about what she's thinking -- if she is mad at me or not, telling her that I love her more times than is normal for a man married for 20 years. And sometimes Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ silent fits -- kicking and screaming -- because I was feeling jealous of her time. If [Maggie] and I were not as close as we are Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ I could easily see how this could destroy a relationship quickly."
It's also affected their sex life. Since the night Maggie spent alone with Ginny, she has to think of women in order to get sexually aroused.
"And now he's pulling back from me," said Maggie. "He says, 'If you only think of women every time we're together, that's a problem.' I don't know how to change that. I don't know how to go back."
But Maggie admits that in the past, she's had moments when she felt attracted to other women but made herself forget about these feelings.
"One time I was in this conversation with a woman at church Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ and we were in the middle of some conversation about kids' diapers, or who knows what else, when I had this feeling that I just wanted to kiss her," said Maggie. "It was like an error message on a computer -- you click no and the screen disappears, and you have no idea what's wrong, but everything is still working fine. And so I just put it in the closet -- who cares. I figured everybody has those kinds of thoughts."
Denise Garrow-Pruitt did and continues to have the same thoughts.
Garrow-Pruitt, 45, also knows firsthand what this personal dilemma feels like and has met hundreds of women through the "Married But Not Straight" groups she runs in Cambridge and Natick, Mass. Garrow-Pruitt was married for 25 years to her husband before she decided to leave him and pursue a monogamous relationship with her current partner, and later marriage, after Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in the state in 2003.
"About 10 years into our marriage I realized that he was probably the only man that I could actually love," said Garrow-Pruitt. "It was something about women that intrigued me. I wasn't exactly sure because in my upbringing I didn't know any gay people. I had a really good friend whose sister was gay, but she was pretty ostracized from her family."
"We were both very young when I started to realize something wasn't right. And [my husband] was like, 'There's this thing called bisexuality,'" said Garrow-Pruitt. "I knew these feelings existed, but I couldn't deal with them -- I was very busy being a mother and being active in the church and my community."
Garrow-Pruitt got pregnant at age 14 and was pressured by her elite parents to marry. So she married her best friend who was not the father of her baby. Three kids later, and in graduate school, Garrow-Pruitt met the "first love of my female [-loving] life."
The relationship began in 1987 with a strong friendship. Garrow-Pruitt's first female love was an out lesbian who yearned to have children. After the women spent time as close friends, Garrow-Pruitt's brother agreed to donate his sperm for artificial insemination. And then the two women became closer and eventually lovers.
"My husband did not know for many years, and then there came a point when I told him," said Garrow-Pruitt. "And he said, 'When I'm home, you're with me and the family. When I'm gone, I don't care what you do.'"
In 1999, Garrow-Pruitt's girlfriend called the relationship off. "She wanted more for herself," said Garrow-Pruitt. "She wanted to be in a relationship where it was just her and another person. She didn't feel that I was that person because I was committed to this man and to my family."
Garrow-Pruitt's husband continued to accept her bisexuality and suggested that she casually date other women, but not get too emotionally involved with them in order to avoid another heart break.
"I would find women, date them for a while, and then eventually we would get to the same point: 'I want a commitment,'" said Garrow-Pruitt. "Well, my commitment is my marriage and my children. That's not going to change. I was always very honest."
Then five years ago, Garrow-Pruitt met the woman she is married to now.
"I think as a person I started to change, and I realized that my children were getting older," said Garrow-Pruitt. "When they were younger, I couldn't even consider changing the family life that they had. But as they got older, I realized that they needed me less and less. And my life didn't make sense to me. I was unhappy with my life."
Garrow-Pruitt still recalls her friends' warnings, 'But you had everything. You had the suburban house, the husband who took care of you, the girlfriend -- you could come and go as you pleased.' But in my heart of hearts, I felt very fragmented. I felt that I wanted one place, one person, and not having to play these roles of wife and then girlfriend. I just wanted one life. I had a dual life, and it was tiring!" Garrow-Pruitt explained.
The separation from her husband was difficult, and he was angry. But after a while the anger subsided, and they continue to have an amicable relationship. Her children -- the oldest is 30, the youngest is 16 -- are supportive of their mother and her new life.
"It's a good story. I can't say that about everybody that I know," said Garrow-Pruitt. "I've been luckier than other people. I had a good support network throughout the transition process -- one that I had to make myself -- but they helped me come to terms with things that I had to come to terms with."
Joanne Fleisher found herself in a similar predicament more than 25 years ago. And yes, despite the media's recent focus on "Brokeback Man," she knows plenty of women, too, who face what the lead characters of "Brokeback Mountain," Ennis and Jack faced. Although precise numbers are impossible to come by, Fleisher receives over 200 monthly individual posts on her "Ask Joanne" Message Board. She is a trained couples therapist based in Philadelphia, Penn., who works with married women, lesbian and bisexual women facing "coming out" and relationship issues, as well as straight individuals and couples. She is also the author of "Living Two Lives: Married to a Man and in Love With a Woman."
"The bottom line is, no matter what the decision is, there is going to be a loss in some way," said Fleisher. "If the woman decides she's going to stay married, then the loss is of this gay aspect of herself. And she is going to have to deal with that and struggle with that because it's a part of her authentic being. But if she goes in the direction of coming out, she's going to lose her marriage -- and there's a tremendous loss there. And it can be on a lot of levels -- she might love her husband, maybe not in a romantic way but certainly in a family way; and she might have been very comfortable materially and have to let go of a way of life. And then if she decides to maintain both ways -- the man is giving up something, and she is always going to have to try balancing two relationships and then maybe not getting the full experience of either one. So there's just no way to reach a decision where you're not going to experience some pain."