For two years, Janine Cole fought alongside her husband to preserve their marriage—and their family. When he finally told her he was gay, she learned just how stretchy love can be.
One Saturday morning almost two years ago, my marriage ended before I even had a chance to finish my coffee. Our three children were clearing the table for an onslaught of nine-year-olds who were arriving any minute for my daughter’s book club. As the kids stacked breakfast dishes in the kitchen, my husband, Mike, looked up from across the table and said, “I’m gay.”
I wish I could tell you what I said in response, but I can only recall the defeat in Mike’s face and how he was barely able to look me in the eye. I went on autopilot and focused on the imminent field trip to the Children’s Book Bank. “Did you brush your teeth?” I asked the kids. “Everyone will be here soon!”
Deep down, part of me knew this day would come. Mike and I had spent the previous two years on an emotional roller coaster, endlessly discussing his burgeoning attraction to men, trying to incorporate it into our marriage. After all that we’d been through, to accept that this was the end of our marriage left me heartbroken.
"I cried so loudly that our eldest child opened the door to ask what was wrong"
We’d known each other since secondary school and started dating in our first year of university. Together, we had navigated so many life changes: a year in Japan, multiple careers, infertility, a near-death experience and three kids. He was my Thursday-night Scrabble opponent, the life of the party and my best friend.
Now, we had another challenge: we had to find a way to forge new lives apart with the same love and respect we’d shown each other during our two decades together. I did my best to focus on what we had and reminded myself that we were separating because of love—not for lack of it.
But that awareness didn’t make matters any easier.
Photo by Shelby Deeter
I didn’t even know what a “mixed-orientation marriage” was until I realised I was in one. In October of 2014, while our two youngest kids were napping, Mike told me in the back garden that he had discovered he was also attracted to men. He was adamant that he didn’t want to lose me, and that he wanted those other feelings to go away. But they were there, and they were getting stronger. I cried so loudly that our eldest child opened the door to ask what was wrong.
I was already exhausted from trying to keep our kids (then seven, three and one) alive, not to mention fed and clothed. Now, I was underwater, trying to help my husband determine his sexuality. We talked about it all the time: after the kids went to bed, on the bus on our way to meet friends and texting when we got to work. We decided that we’d keep it to ourselves—it was something we needed to digest without the judgment of others.
After months of discussion, he disclosed that he might be bisexual, and we sought professional support. We found a wonderful psychotherapist who asked tough questions. Within 20 minutes, she accomplished more than we had in all that time. She concluded that my ideal was to remain monogamous, something my husband could not do. It felt like an ultimatum: I could either accompany him on this journey or we could split. Both options were terrifying.
We knew how much was at stake: our family, our home and each other. I didn’t doubt that he loved me and wanted to stay married. As scary as the situation was, I couldn’t walk away—he needed me, and I needed to know where this would take us.
With the help of our weekly counselling sessions, I came to accept what he was asking of me. I could let him explore. I had nothing to lose by trying, so I agreed to an open marriage—well, a one-sided one anyway. With all that was going on and caring for three kids, finding someone else to have sex with wasn’t something I was remotely interested in. I had everything I needed with Mike, but he needed this to help him figure things out.
That’s when I realised just how stretchy love can be.
Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography
Relationship experts suggest that you should have a clear agreement before you enter into an open relationship so that each partner knows the boundaries. We negotiated the details: Mike could go out every other Wednesday evening; he needed to be safe; and he could communicate with a potential sexual partner during the week but not at home, not during family time.
He already had a person in mind—someone he’d met in an online forum for men in mixed-orientation marriages. Their circumstances were perfectly parallel: they were bisexual and married to heterosexual women, had kids and wanted to remain married but be able to explore their sexuality.
Intellectually, I had wrapped my head around all this, but my heart was lagging behind. Those first few times he went to meet James*, I had what I can only describe as out-of-body experiences.
Women in online support groups suggested that I do something for myself on those nights, such as meet up with friends or book a massage, but I couldn’t. I needed to maintain as much normalcy as I could, which meant staying home with our kids, going through familiar motions.
There were definitely moments when the situation felt unfair, like the time when I was picking up the kids from two different locations in a snowstorm on my bike because he took our car to visit James. Or when bedtime was exceptionally challenging and there were three loads of laundry to fold. But being with our children and performing routine tasks kept me focused on why I was doing this.
Photo by Robert V. Ruggiero
On the Wednesdays when Mike would see James, I’d try to ignore him getting ready in the morning. It was painful to watch him put in more effort than he normally would. I found it easier not to have any contact with him on those days until I received a text around 9:30pm saying, “I’m on my way home.”
After a few months, James came to realise that he was gay, not bisexual. He and his wife decided to end their marriage. I held my breath as I asked my husband if this changed things for them, for him or for us. This had been my fear from the beginning. He said it didn’t; he was confident in his bisexuality and assured me that he wasn’t gay. I was the love of his life and he was still very much attracted to me. As surprising as it may sound, we were still sexually active, even more so during this time—the new level of openness and transparency actually brought us closer.
Unpredictability, however, became the norm. Shortly after James and his wife split, Mike came home in tears. James had broken things off with him because he’d fallen in love with Mike. Yet another first, and yet another challenge to navigate. If it was just a physical release for my husband, why was he so emotional? Did the fact that he was so visibly distraught mean that he was in love, too? I did what I thought was best and suggested that we find him someone new.
"My sadness and anger had no target—our situation was blameless"
Another thing I never thought I’d do with my husband? Help him write an ad for a same-sex partner. We worked on it together over a glass of wine on our front porch, smiling and waving at unknowing neighbours as they walked by. We laughed and said this wasn’t something we expected when we said our vows to each other. Humour was key as we tried to move forward and enjoy the rest of the summer as a family. But things were different, and I couldn’t shake the bad feeling I had about it.
The first week of school, I was scrolling through pictures on my phone when I came across one that made me stop. The kids were gathered around the fire at the cottage, eating s’mores, but something in the background came into focus for me: the look on my husband’s face as he sat in a chair with all of the chaos going on around him. Pain. Fear. Unhappiness. Just a few days after that came his final disclosure at the breakfast table.
I later showed him that picture and said, “If you ever doubted telling me and knowing what you had to do, look at this.” I’m sure his decision to fully come out to me was the hardest one that he has ever had to make, but it was the right one.
Photo by Connor Dugan
The business of carefully dismantling our marriage began. Everything that had felt so natural for the past 21 years suddenly felt taboo—I had to stop myself from reaching for his hand or his mouth to kiss.
It was no surprise, but painful nonetheless, when he told me that he had developed feelings for James and that they were going to pursue a relationship. It was hard enough that our marriage was ending, but to learn that he was in love with the man I had worked so hard to accept as his physical partner felt like my heart had been ripped out and stomped on.
But my sadness and anger had no target—our situation was blameless. There was nothing I could have done differently, and I couldn’t expect him to be anyone other than himself. So I made a vow to myself: this wasn’t going to destroy me or our family.
A week later, we celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary. We lit some candles on the front porch, opened a bottle of champagne and toasted to new beginnings. It was scary, and it was sad. But we’d made it so far with love and respect, and I knew our separation could be handled the same way. Even though I was only at the beginning of the acceptance process, I stepped aside and let him go.
Photo by Jordan Whitt
When it was time to begin telling people, we decided to start with close friends and family first. Not surprisingly, everyone was sad but supportive.
Telling the kids was harder—there never is a perfect time. We told the younger two first and kept it really simple. We said, “You know how Mummy and Daddy always say you love who you love, no matter who they are?” They nodded. “Well, Daddy has discovered that he likes boys and Mummy is okay with that.” And then we told them that he would be getting his own place but that we’d always be a family. You could tell that they didn’t quite get what this meant, but we both felt relieved that it had gone better than expected.
"Mike’s discovery freed us—I see that now"
When we told our older daughter, she looked thoughtful but didn’t say much in response. She admitted that she was confused—after all, we were happy and rarely fought. It wasn’t until he moved out six weeks later that it really hit her. At bedtime one night shortly afterwards, she asked, “How long will Daddy love you like a wife?” This was her way of conveying what she knew needed to be done.
We needed to fall out of love, and she was worried about that for all of us.
I grieved hard for the end of our marriage. The pain wasn’t our pain anymore; it was all mine. I don’t doubt for a second that it was difficult for him, but he had someone waiting for him. It was hard to watch him start his new life while I surveyed the damage to mine.
Photo by Ihor Malytskyi
The two years we’d spent working it out helped me let go faster, and my heart did finally catch up. Mike’s discovery freed us—I see that now. Neither one of us could have continued on the path we were on, no matter how much love there was between us. The mental acrobatics of balancing, incorporating and supporting his relationship with James meant that I didn’t have much energy to take care of myself.
When 2016 came to an end, I was ready to focus on me. I saw an opportunity for my own fresh start. It was empowering to think once again about things that make me happy. I signed up for sailing classes and filled my social calendar with amazing people, often coming home from those evenings feeling energised and full.
I am grateful for the two decades that Mike and I spent together but especially those last two years. As challenging as they were, we grew as individuals and as a family. I think of the lessons we passed on to our kids: we showed them that love sometimes means letting go when it’s the right thing to do, that being who you are is always best and that family doesn’t fit one mould. We also showed them that separating doesn’t mean less love.
Sometimes, I’m amazed at how far we’ve come. When our middle child turned six last summer, we all came together to celebrate at the house. When I say we, I mean everyone—our family circle has grown. Mike’s parents, my parents, his partner and my new partner (whom I’ve been with for a year and a half now), my sister and brother-in-law and our three wonderful kids were all there. Since then, there have been many more celebrations, dinners and school events we’ve all attended.
Redefining our family has been anything but easy, but when love is your foundation, anything is possible.
If you find yourself needing to find a new partner, then try Reader's Digest Dating for a reliable and trustworthy dating website to find your companion.
First published in Reader's Digest Canada, 2018
Loading up next...