How to Deal When Your Partner Isn't Out of the Closet, and You Are
DEAR DR. JENN,
I have been out of the closet since my late teens. My girlfriend is not out. Her best friend knows she’s gay, but none of her family, colleagues, or most of her friend group know. When we go out, she won’t hold my hand or show any PDA. We live in a very LBGT-friendly city so there is not a threat to our safety. She tells me it’s more that she’s worried about telling her parents. But her company is having a summer BBQ where people bring their partners and families, and she doesn’t feel comfortable bringing me. I want to support her being out when it’s comfortable, but I have already done the work to be out of the closet myself. I love her and feel stuck. —Back in the Closet
DEAR BACK IN,
When you love someone you want to shout it from the rooftops but when your relationship is a secret to her world, you can’t. When you are with someone who is in the closet, on some level, it pulls you back in too. Unlike the sexy sneaking around of high school years, dating someone who is not public about your relationship can start to feel shameful. As much as you know that it is not about you, being something like a dirty little secret never feels good. As a result, relationships that have a big disparity regarding how “out” each person is tend to be time limited.
Not being able to share important life events, family, friends and work experiences prevents two people from being able to fully share their lives together. This prevents deep emotional intimacy from taking place. Part of what helps us know our partner really well is seeing them in different circumstances and getting to know the people they care about. When one person is living in secrecy, this can’t take place and puts the couple at a disadvantage. And here’s some more bad news: I am not about to give you advice on how to get someone out of the closet who is not ready to be. I’m only going to tell you how to navigate this situation thoughtfully and with love.
In my clinical experience, coming out is a development process. There is a level of strength and maturity that needs to be in place before taking this step. Also, having a strong support system goes a long way. One must have a certain level of autonomy and individuation to take the chance of a parent disapproving or, worse yet, abandoning the relationship. Unfortunately, your role in that process is pretty limited. Here’s what you can do to support your girlfriend, and hopefully find a way to be together that works for both of you.
Understand that this is not about you. This is an issue that preexisted you. We like to think that if we are amazing enough, sexy enough, and they love us enough everything will change. We want to believe that our love will inspire and make the person we love work through their issues and take a risk. But that is not usually the case.
Don’t give ultimatums. It is not fair to pressure someone who is not ready or feels they might be in jeopardy (loss of a job, abandonment by family, and violence can all be real risks to some people coming out). It is a very personal decision that, sadly, can potentially have massive repercussions.
Encourage her to get support. Instead of pressuring her to live up to your expression of identity (or the relationship), encourage her to try a support group (in person or online), do some bibliotherapy, or work with therapist with specific experience with LGBT individuals. This will help her address the issues that hold her back with a neutral person and take some pressure off your relationship.
Give credit for baby steps. Coming out is not black-and-white. Sometimes a person is out in one situation and not another. I once had a client whose boyfriend was out with his family and friends but not at work. It was hard not to be invited to work events with other S.O.’s and it caused a lot of tension. Eventually, when his partner switched to a less conservative company, he felt comfortable coming out at work and then began including his partner in every way. They were able to process their feelings together along the way, which helped my client be patient with his boyfriend’s process. Each time your girlfriend takes a step in the right direction, no matter how small, give her support and recognition.
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Don’t out her. If you are getting impatient, frustrated, and your anger is building, you may be tempted to out her. Don’t do it! It is passive aggressive, disrespectful and could put her in harm’s way. You have to respect her process, even if you don’t like it.
Recognize you don’t have to stay. If the relationship, under these circumstances, does not work for you, you may acknowledge that changing the relationship isn’t possible — but removing yourself from it is. Sometimes you have to choose to take good care of yourself and leave. You can always leave the door open should you be single when she has taken that important step.
Have empathy. Living in secrecy is incredibly painful. People tend to only choose that option when the anticipated pain of sharing the information appears to be greater. As agonizing as this is for you, understand that the person you love is living in conflict daily. Carrying a secret like this that is such a core part of who you are and how you relate to the world is very shame inducing. In my clinical experience, this can wear away at self-esteem and create depression and anxiety. Try to be a tender support to her.
Know that even if your relationship is not acknowledged by others, it is significant. There is a tendency to diminish what we cannot share. You can share a great love, have an incredible connection and a meaningful relationship without anyone but the two of you knowing about it. It may not spell certainty in the future of the relationship, but that doesn’t mean that what you feel right now is not legit.