For 13 years, Linda Selig felt the lack of intimacy slowly snuffing out her marriage, but whenever she brought it up, her husband insisted that everything was fine, that he was happy. "The whole time I felt there was something wrong with me: I wasn't pretty enough or smart enough," Selig said.
Three weeks after she finally moved out, her husband, John R. Selig, told her and their 12-year-old son that he was gay. Far from at last explaining her marital troubles, the revelation plunged her deeper into depression."All the assumptions I'd made about men, women, family had just gotten blown to hell," Selig said. She spent days unable to get out of bed, crying 15 hours at a stretch.
The Seligs' predicament is one shared by uncounted thousands of American couples, an unexpected consequence of the modern era of openly gay life: gay men and lesbians who once felt pressured into marrying are now emboldened to claim their true identity.
But as they flee difficult, often sexless and chilly marriages, the impact on their nongay spouses and children is only just beginning to be examined. Experts say abandoned partners typically undergo their own sexual crisis, collapse of faith in their judgment and sense of embarrassed isolation.
Five years ago when Selig's husband told his wife that he was gay, "there were all these wonderful coming-out groups for him," said Selig, 42.
"This whole big community opened their arms to him," she added. "I said, `What about me?' I started making phone calls and found there was nothing."
Last year, securely past "the crazies" she said she had felt, she helped start You Are Not Alone, a support group in Dallas for straight spouses. To her surprise, 30 men and women came to the first meeting.
Amity Pierce Buxton, the author of a newly revised book on the subject, "The Other Side of the Closet" (John Wiley & Sons, 1994), refers abandoned spouses who call her to a growing movement, the Straight Spouse Support Network, which has some 20 self-help groups nationwide, each with 6 to 30 members.
Buxton, whose husband announced that he was gay after a 25-year marriage, estimates there are 1.7 million gay men and lesbians who were once married or remain so.
The figure, one of the few available, is based on estimates of homosexuals in the adult population and the percentage of homosexuals who marry, although such statistics are uncertain because of the stigma that keeps many gay people from identifying themselves.
Nonetheless, homosexuals abandoning marriages have gained increased visibility.
"There's a lot of us out there," said David Bucchiere, president of Gay Fathers of Greater Boston, a support group with about 125 members.