Sex & Relationships

Dear John, I Love Jane: When Women Leave Their Husbands for Other Women

Coming out to her husband of 10 years, Libbie Miller discovers that the truth is a big relief.

The following is an essay by Libbie Miller, excerpted fromDear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women, edited by Candace Walsh and Laura Andre (Seal Press, 2010).

Hey, lady! How are ya?" asks Lori, my perfectly coiffed hairdresser. She bears a striking resemblance to a young Loni Anderson. "I'm all right. Could be better, could be worse," I reply.

"Just all right? That's the best you can muster?" she teases. Both Lori and I hail from Middle America, where steak and corn are dinnertime staples, and conversation is honest and straightforward. Lori has no trouble filling the conversational space that transpires over a cut and color session. "You know, not once have you ever said you're doing great, or even good," she says. The inflection of her voice changes from carefree to deeply concerned and her volume drops considerably. She circles from the back of the chair, removing the mirror from our discussion, and grabs the armrests of my chair as she looks me right in the eyes. "Are you depressed, Libbie?" I make incoherent noises, meant to be the beginnings of an appropriate response, but I'm coming up empty as I squirm awkwardly in my chair, looking around for the nearest possible escape. A lump rises in my throat as I feel wetness permeate the corners of my eyes. My face reddens as I realize I'm about to cry . . . in public. I flounder for a response that doesn't come. Her delicate, manicured hands rise to her mouth as she slowly shakes her head and says, "Oh, Libbie. I'm so sorry, sweetie." I'm quiet, and so is she, for the duration of my appointment, although my head is swimming with thoughts.

Ballsy, Lori. Ballsy indeed, but dead on, I think to myself as I start my car's engine. It took a blond, size 4, Loni Anderson look-alike to point out the obvious: something I knew was there but dared not address. But now I have no choice. The lid is off and the contents are leaking out uncontrollably. It's time to confront this thing once and for all. I can't continue to ride along as a complacent passenger to my own life. I can see the edge of the cliff that drops into the unknown. I can't keep backing away. And so here comes the burning question. The question that scares the living shit out of me every time it floats to the surface, only to be quickly squelched by something else. Anything else. Ice cream, that marked-down Crate & Barrel sofa, whether I need to pick up dog food. Anything that doesn't start the question with "am" and end in "lesbian."

Inappropriate Things

I remember one day walking through Omaha's Westroads Mall, at the age of fourteen, when my mother and I passed two women holding hands as they peered into a Benetton store window display. We stared at them as we approached and passed them by. My mother hissed, "My God. Get a room," loud enough for only me to hear. I stared at my mother blankly. "It makes me sick to see those people being so inappropriate in public places . . . out there for everyone to see," she said, with such contempt in her voice that it still chills me to the bone. In that moment I wanted to ask her why two women holding hands was any different than a man and a woman holding hands, but instead, I remained quiet and just kept walking.

Sure, my mother mentioned gay male friends of hers who were hairdressers, or fun, flamboyant coworkers every now and then, but not once did I ever hear her use the word "lesbian." Being a lesbian was unfathomable. I was raised in a conservative household; homosexuality was about as far from appropriate as you could get. Though gay men seemed harmless, even humorous, providing the color to some of my mother's more entertaining stories, lesbians were another subject entirely. They were far too inappropriate to recognize, let alone talk about. The moment in the mall was about as much as she'd ever said, but it was more than enough for me to understand that being a lesbian was a vulgar thing. And that moment is undoubtedly the reason my mother stepped in to create distance between Karen, my best friend in high school, and me. I shared a more intense connection with her than anyone I'd ever known.

I lived to make Karen happy, and wanted to be around her as much as I possibly could. We spent almost every day after school in her bedroom listening to Dave Matthews Band, Bush, Candlebox, Oasis . . . the list goes on. Karen's love for alternative music sparked my own; a passion that still lives in me to this day. We talked about the prettiest girls in school, and obsessed about Craig, Karen's crush, as we lay side-by-side in her bed, slowly rubbing each other's arms in what we called "tickle-scratchies." "Do my back?" she requested one day as she removed her Phish T-shirt, rolled onto her stomach, and reached behind to unlatch her bra. With my hands trembling and my heart racing I reached for her beautiful naked back, taking in the warm glow of her olive skin. "You can sit on my legs if you want," she said as her big brown eyes met mine. There was a Fourth of July fireworks celebration happening in my underpants. It was exhilarating . . . and dangerous.

I didn't spend much time dwelling on what those afternoons with Karen meant. I knew they touched on the borders of highly risque behavior, but that made it even more exciting. The intensity of the time we spent together was only matched by the secrecy surrounding those afternoons in her bedroom. We never discussed it with anyone else, not even to this day. I just knew that it was the one thing I looked forward to as I watched my seventh-period classroom's clock hover on 3:00 pm, and thought of how I would die if she ever stopped inviting me over to her house after school. My mother didn't know what was happening during those afternoons in Karen's bedroom, but she knew I was with her when I wasn't at home. "I think you're spending far too much time with Karen. It's unhealthy to be so attached to another girl," my mother said. Her face flashed a look of absolute disgust--the same one I saw three years earlier that day at the mall. And it was the same look of disgust I would see many years later after I came out to her--the look permanently burned on my brain whenever I think of that intensely uncomfortable, nakedly vulnerable visit. Her disapproval catalyzed a crippling, ominous filter in my mind that remained well into my adulthood. It caught daydreams that meandered to the surface before they could settle into the fabric of my thoughts. These daydreams and questions had lurked in the shadows of my mind for so long, but went no further.

'Til Death Do Us Part

I caught Eric's eye the summer following high school graduation while on vacation in Myrtle Beach. He was a Marine to his core. He loved being a Marine, was raised in a Southern family, and came from a long line of soldiers. He was driven by his need to protect those he loved, was proud of his chosen field, and was as loyal as anyone I've ever known.

We spent our first night together just talking, asking one another question after question about our hometowns, what our parents were like, pivotal life moments, and anything else we could uncover while exploring the possibility of a connection. I could see that there was so much pain underneath his bright and upbeat exterior. He spoke slowly and softly, proceeding as cautiously as a gravel truck during an ice storm, when he told me he had joined the Marines soon after his brother had taken his own life. Even though we shared so much of ourselves so quickly, I could tell that revealing this truth was not easy. "I'm really never this open with anyone," he said, shaking his head in disbelief as though he was as much talking to himself as he was to me. "Ask any of my friends . . . family even. I'm usually the most guarded guy around, but something about you just makes me want to tell you everything, and I rarely tell anyone anything." This was the moment I chose to stay with him--this damaged person who was genuinely good, and deserved an amazing life full of happiness. He trusted me, and that felt like a gift. It felt like a changing of the guard. He was handing me his heart and now it was up to me to protect it. To keep it safe. Happy. Loved. I accepted his gift and committed myself to becoming everything that he needed me to be.

I was eighteen and Eric was barely twenty-one. Friends, family, and countless others said, "You two are way too young to be getting married. You need to slow down and do some growing up together." Naive and optimistic, we stood firm in our commitment to proving everyone wrong. The belief that we wouldn't make it was the catalyst that pushed us down the aisle. We were resolute in our commitment to proving to everyone that young, lasting love was possible.

Euphoria and elation carried both of us through the first six months, and by year's end, we were rolling through the drive-thru wedding chapel in Las Vegas, exchanging "I do's" with the same irreverence you might have ordering a #2 Value Meal at McDonald's. This seemed like a good idea at the time--romantic and exciting, even. A cynic might suggest, though, if you can't bring yourselves to get out of the car to declare your undying eternal love, you probably have no business saying "I do" in the first place.

So This Is Marriage . . .

I was completely content with Eric, and happy with our relationship. I was his everything. He was my comfort. Laughter was plentiful for him, as I never failed to deliver the perfectly timed punch line. I planned every trip we took with the precision and clarity that could only be matched by the most seasoned of cruise directors. I orchestrated the joyous moments of our life so he need only sit back and enjoy the ride.

He was a warm blanket in my life. He could talk me down off of my neurotic ledge when I was convinced our three golden retrievers would find a way to leap out of the back of our 4Runner and into oncoming traffic. He had the longest eyelashes of anyone I had ever seen--and was so secure in his own masculinity that he even let me apply my Clinique lash-lengthening mascara to them on one occasion. He indulged my gluttonous nature, too. Every Saturday morning, I knew I'd be awakened by the smell of cinnamon rolls, fresh out of the air-compressed Pillsbury canister. Over the course of eleven years we experienced many things. We got our first dog together. We said tearful, gut-wrenching airport good-byes each time he left for yet another seven-month deployment; sealing our bond and pacifying the loneliness with countless letters, emails, and care packages. We bought and designed our first real home together--one that didn't have a plastic outdoor patio set standing in as a formal dining room table.

We became best friends over those years. We both knew that intimacy was an important piece of the equation--essential, actually--but we shoved it under the rug for a good while and tried not to dwell on it. We were so good everywhere else. Everywhere but the bedroom. I truly felt in my heart that a great friendship was enough to carry us to the very end. Perhaps I clung to this false conviction more than Eric did.

In the first years of our marriage, he was always the initiator of sex. The idea of it never excited me. I would have preferred to skip it altogether and fast-forward to cuddling. When he realized this, he pushed me on the issue. "Why is it that I'm always the one nudging us into the bedroom?" he asked flatly one afternoon. It was a Sunday afternoon--one without any obligations and perfect for a lazy afternoon of lovemaking. I could feel my face growing red with embarrassment, and my defenses rose. It was a fair question that deserved a thoughtful, truthful answer. But I couldn't give one. "That's not true," I said. "I initiate."

"Name one time," he demanded. My mind was empty, and hurt by his accusation. "I'm just not . . . "

He cut me off. "Not that sexual, I know! That's bullshit," he said. From that point forward, I did my best to show my gratitude for his love--even invited him to the bedroom once each week--but he saw this as more of a chore for me, like sweeping the kitchen. And it was. He loved me so effortlessly and genuinely. I loved him the best I could, but loving someone and being in love are two different things.

The Search for Answers

Why didn't I want to make love to my husband? The answer was there, trying to peek out, but I still wasn't ready to discover it. I wanted so badly for things to fall into place, for the answers to come. But the courage wasn't there. Not yet.

During Eric's third deployment, I was confronted with an uncomfortable amount of alone time. I found myself spending countless hours researching message boards, online articles, and shopping the unlimited Internet marketplace for books on sexuality, thinking I'd find the answer once and for all and put this nagging lesbian suspicion away for good. The Internet became my most trusted confidant. It was there that I met a nameless, faceless lesbian, and engaged in a one-night stand of sorts, letting our keyboards take us in any direction we wanted. I came to life in a way I hadn't ever before with Eric. I felt parts of my body awaken for the first time. And what blew me away was that I could feel this way without even physically touching this woman. The sheer thought of being with her was stronger than anything I'd ever felt before in the presence of my own husband. It exhilarated me, and broke my heart all at once.

The day he returned from that deployment, I told him I had something to confess. He sat on the bed and looked up at me with his big, brown, kind eyes. "Tell me," he said as he gently grabbed my hands. There was a softness to his face that wrapped around me like a warm winter sweater and told me that somehow it would be okay. "I had cyber-sex one time while you were gone . . . with a woman." He stared at me as I stared back. I had spoken of Karen before, so this wasn't the first time he'd heard news of this nature. He decided not to push for details. Neither of us had the courage to address what we both knew was there. My secret was out on the table. Together, we reattached the lid to the box neither of us wanted to open.

Confronting Reality . . . Finally

Thirteen years into a military career, four reenlistments, and four deployments later, we found ourselves parked on the couch of a warm and friendly marriage counselor who coddled us in our admissions and cajoled us into reaching a compromise. Six sessions in I said, "I can't deal with the military and the endless separations anymore."

His reply? "I can't get out. I just can't do it."

I think in therapy this is what's called the "a-ha" moment. A heavy sadness blanketed us in that small room. We walked to the car together in silence. We sat down and clicked our seatbelts, and I stared at my lap while he turned the ignition. "Where do we go from here?" I asked, searching his face for an assurance that was no longer there.

His eyes slowly rose to meet mine as he said softly, "I don't know, Lib. I honestly don't know." We both knew in that moment that our shared vacation planning, days spent in the park with dogs, mornings opening Christmas presents together . . . everything that involved "us," was dangerously close to becoming a distant memory.

When Eric packed to leave that night for his fourth deployment, neither of us knew what to say or how to act. The relationship--or more accurately, the friendship--had dulled to a point unrecognizable to both of us. We were different people. We hadn't been living in the same house for almost a year due to the fact that he'd been relocated to California and I opted to stay in Phoenix. We no longer shared the end-of-day moments like most couples. I had friends he'd never met or even heard of. As I walked him into the airport, like I had so many times before, tears were not in my eyes, nor were they in his. We no longer felt like Eric and Libbie--the kids who met in Myrtle Beach more than a decade before. We were just two people who happened to share a stack of bills and a hefty mortgage. There was a suffocating heaviness in both of our hearts, but not because he was leaving. It was because "we" were already gone. "Be safe and call me when you get there," I said.

Five years earlier, in the same scenario, I would have demanded, between giant sobs, that he call me at every possible chance. He nodded in assurance.

"Don't forget to feed the dogs when you get home," he said. It was my turn to nod.

Five years earlier he would have smiled at me and said he'd be thinking of me every second.

"I guess that's everything?" I said as he pulled down his last large sea bag.

Before, he would have held me in his arms and told me repeatedly that he loved me with all of his heart while he stroked my hair and I soaked his shirt with my tears.

"Yep," he said. For the first time we didn't know what to do. Do we kiss? Not wanting to force something that just wasn't there, he pulled me in and we hugged. It was the last hug we would ever share as husband and wife. We both knew it.

Soon after, there were scheduled phone calls and emails as there had been all those times before, but they were far less frequent and included the bare minimum of details. I shared with him that I had decided to take up playing guitar. He let me know that he was doing really well in his Fantasy Football League. We were skimming the surface of one another's lives.

With nothing but time, it's hard to continue to suppress everything you've refuted since you were young. I found myself thinking often of my high school days and the afternoons spent in Karen's bedroom. I retraced my virtual one-night stand repeatedly--reflecting on the words we used, the imagery we created as our bodies intertwined. I allowed myself some much-awaited latitude. I let my mind dwell on the feelings that created a barrier to a successful marriage with a good man. I entertained the thoughts I knew would be challenging for my friends and family to accept, especially my mother. I considered the emotions that seemed foreign to me but were stronger than anything I'd ever felt. My daydreams were daring--pressing on soft lips, meandering down the inviting curves of a faceless woman with a beautiful body.

"I get the feeling that something is up with you," Eric says over the phone with an undeniable tinge of concern in his voice, like he's bracing for something we both know but are afraid to confront.

I breathe in heavily, gathering every last bit of my courage. So this is it. This is the moment that changes everything, I think to myself before opening my mouth to say, "There's something that's been weighing heavily on me, for a very long time, longer than I can even remember." Choose your words carefully, Libbie. Be delicate with his heart, I remind myself. "I know saying this will affect the both of us in a way that is irreversible, which is why I've been hesitant to even think it, let alone say it," I say, buying time with awkward utterances as my voice quivers. I feel myself teetering over the edge of a cliff. My subconscious is screaming at me to just say it already, woman! as my conscious mind begins to pace around the sharp edges of the steep drop.

Silence ensues until he chimes in, "Are you there?" I run to the edge and take my leap of faith that's been patiently waiting in the wings for as long as I can remember.

"I . . . I think I'm attracted to women," I whisper. "I think I'm gay, Eric. Oh my god, I'm so sorry. I'm so very, very sorry." I feel my face grow hot instantly as tears begin to well up in the corners of my eyes. Silence. "Are you there?" I ask desperately. "Eric?" "I'm here," he says. "There's no reason to be sorry," he says, choosing his next words with meticulous sensitivity. I sit down on the couch to steady my shaky legs. "Here's the deal . . . I just want you to be happy. Life is way too short to not live truthfully," he says. His immediate acceptance is shocking.

"Are you surprised? Are you okay?!"

"I'm not surprised," he says. I reflect back to each and every Sunday night he went to bed while I slithered secretly into my L Word world; the confession I'd made to him one year prior; the story of Karen and me that I shared with him one night after two bottles of wine; the look on Karen's face when she first met Eric. "We're going to be fine," he assures me. "I love you," I say, and mean it.

"I love you, too," he says from the other end, thousands of miles away in the Iraqi desert. We hang up and I fall to the ground. It's done. Relief. I say it out loud for the very first time. "I'm a lesbian."

Copyright Seal Press, 2010 -- All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Libbie Miller’s life was not particularly interesting until she finally came out to her husband of 10 years. It was then she decided she had a story worth sharing. She’s now engaged to be married to her best friend, who not only rivals her Converse collection, but is equally as neurotic (in a cute, When Harry Met Sally kind of way.) When she’s not at her day job churning out corporate copy, she’s concert hopping or wine tasting with her fiancée, learning to play more than two chords on her guitar or hanging out with her four animals in Phoenix, Arizona.
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