A qualitative exploration of ‘coming out’ in the context of a heterosexual marriage in Ireland: the perspectives of children, spouses and self
Daly, Siobhán Christine
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Despite several decades of research into the sexual orientation of parents and spouses, there is a dearth of literature that explores the experience of having a parent or spouse declare a change in sexual orientation in the context of a heterosexual marriage and a historically conservative, religious culture. Furthermore, studies have largely ignored this experience from a holistic familial perspective. Aim. The aim of this research is to explore how Irish children experience a parent coming out as Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual (LGB), and to examine the ‘lived’ experience of coming out in the context of heterosexual marriage in Ireland from the perspective of the heterosexual and the same-gender spouse. Enhancing understanding of this phenomenon and exploring possible implications for practice is sought. While the thesis initially sought to explore the coming out process, the importance of the parental/marital separation experience became clear as the research progressed. Inevitably the research became focused on the coming out experience with co-occurring parental/marital separation. Methods. Three qualitative studies were conducted in this thesis in an attempt to represent the various parts of a family unit – the child, the heterosexual (female) spouse, and the same-gender (male) sexually orientated spouse. In Study 1, the experiences of 15 Irish sons and daughters (all adults) born into heterosexual unions whose parents have separated, one of whom has come out as Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual (LGB) were explored. Grounded Theory was the method used to guide the approach to data collection and analysis, and theory development. Study 2 explored how nine heterosexual female spouses (all mothers) made sense of a husband disclosing as gay during their marriage. Study 3 examined how nine gay fathers assumed a gay identity in the context of a heterosexual marriage and family ties in Ireland. Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis was the approach used in Studies 2 and 3. Findings: In Study 1, the primary concern of the sons and daughters was adjusting to the parental separation, as opposed to their parent being LGB. This involved varying degrees of loss, and adjusting to changes in the home environment and family structure. Parental support, the marital relationship and the parent-child relationship impacted on the adjustment process. Heightened reflection on sexual orientation, and an increased sensitivity to societal LGB prejudice were specifically associated with a parent coming out. In Study 2, the significance of the marital loss and marital identity for female spouses after a husband came out as gay was prominent. The process of separation involved trying to accommodate an altered marriage, mourning the marital loss and positioning themselves as single and separated. Concerns regarding possible separation and sexuality related social stigma were recalled. Those who experienced positive communication with, and empathy towards, their husbands facilitated the resolution of the hurt suffered. Professional support was perceived as judgemental pre-separation, and supportive post-separation. In Study 3 the influence of Irish cultural change on the experience of marriage, marital separation and same-gender sexuality was highlighted. A sample of Irish gay fathers transitioned from being married and suppressing ‘unacceptable’ same-gender sexual desires to their being separated and openly gay. The coming out process resulted in extramarital same-gender sexual thoughts for all, same-gender sexual affairs with existential angst (remorse) for most, and the eventual dissolution of their marriage. The loss of their family life was devastating. Positive father-child relationships and cohesion in repartnering with a man were recalled following the disclosure and separation. Conclusions. The findings of this thesis contribute to insights in relation to heterosexual marriage in a more conservative culture, coming out in a more liberal culture, and the process of parental and marital separation that can co-occur as a result. The marital separation, which was a difficult process, was considered more significant for children and spouses than issues relating to same-gender sexual orientation of the parent, husband or self. This process was intensified as a result of societal stigma relating to the same-gender sexuality and divorce. The implications of the findings and clinical considerations are discussed. Concluding suggestions for research are suggested.
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