You’re a happily married wife and mother when suddenly you find yourself attracted to … another woman? It happens more often than you think, which is why one Chestnut Hill therapist is busier than ever
By Robyn Post
AS SHE HEADED east on the Schuylkill, Dana* couldn’t stop her hands from shaking on the wheel. I can’t afford a setback, she thought. Every step forward had been such a huge undertaking. She flipped on the car radio to calm herself. George Michael’s baritone was crooning: “I gotta have faith, faith, faith…” Thanks, God, you’re really having fun with me here. Dana hadn’t told a soul where she was going, and navigating the Expressway on a dark Friday night made it feel like a secret mission.
The journey had begun five years earlier, after Dana turned 40. She found herself feeling strangely attracted to a female co-worker at the store she managed. The way they laughed so easily together, the way the woman affectionately touched Dana as she talked, flooded her with strange sensations. What is wrong with me? she thought. Am I crazy? I love my husband. I love my kids. I love my life. What is this? She’d never looked at a woman that way. She’d married a man she was madly in love with – a law-enforcement officer who had brought her breakfast in bed every day of their 15-year marriage. They’d had kids, bought the house of their dreams – a three-bedroom colonial on a peaceful tree-lined street in Yardley – joined a Catholic church, attended PTA meetings, and fallen neatly into the framework of their small community.
Dana never told her husband about her Sapphic attraction. Instead, she quit her job and made an appointment with him for marriage counseling, convinced she was just missing their earlier intimacy and passion. He worked for the city by day; she sometimes logged 70 hours a week working nights to cover private-school tuition for their two boys, who were then eight and 10. After some joint counseling, she suppressed her feelings for her co-worker and went on with her life.
Two years later, Dana met another woman at work whose presence hit her so powerfully that she could no longer deny something was happening. The two talked in the car for hours after long shifts. One day the woman – a lesbian, it turned out – stole a long, sensuous kiss in the bathroom. “I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak,” Dana says, her blue eyes widening. The electricity consumed her. “We started meeting in broad daylight in parking lots, getting half-naked in the car in the community where we both lived and worked. We were willing to risk everything for those stolen moments.”
The affair infused her with new life. Being with a woman, this woman, felt more right than anything she’d ever experienced. But it was also killing her. For a year, she hid the affair from everyone. Her girlfriend came over often, but it appeared the two were just friends. Finally, wracked with shame and guilt, Dana left her husband and moved in with a friend. A month later, on a cold February day, she sat her husband down and told him the truth: She was in love with a woman.
Fast-forward to last spring. The path hadn’t eased with time; instead, Dana felt the ground crumbling beneath her. Where to turn? No one in her straight world would understand, and she didn’t fit into the lesbian world, either. Late one night in May, surfing the Internet for any shred of help, she found a 2006 Oprah show called “Wives Confess They Are Gay.” Oprah’s expert was a Philadelphia therapist named Joanne Fleisher. Dana anxiously tapped off an e-mail, and received a phone call the next day. Fleisher suggested she come to a weekend workshop in Center City for married women who love women.
Now, as Dana watched the Philly skyline looming larger, she wondered if she was doing the right thing.
FLEISHER, A LICENSED therapist in Chestnut Hill and author of Living Two Lives: Married to a Man and in Love With a Woman, knows the pain of women like Dana who’ve tied the knot, procreated, built lives with their families, then awakened to a same-sex attraction they can’t ignore. It happens more than most people realize, for reasons both cultural and biological (more on that in a minute). But it’s a subculture so secretive, and often – solitary – these are mothers, the nurturers and protectors of families, after all – that you likely wouldn’t know about it unless it happened to you.
It happened to Fleisher in 1978, after 11 years of marriage and two children. She was “extremely straight,” she says, when out of the blue, she fell for a woman at work. After leaving her husband and digging herself out of the confusion and depression (“There was nowhere to turn in the ’70s”), Fleisher got licensed in social work and vowed to help women like herself. Ten years ago, she was invited to run a website message board called “Ask Joanne,” for married women coming out of the closet. From the posted questions and answers, her book was born. Then, in October of 2006, the Oprah show found Fleisher online and invited her to be an expert on a show about gay wives. Since her appearance, which aired three times, Fleisher – a pretty, soft-spoken 64-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair and kind eyes – has been so inundated with calls, she’s had to farm out work. She’s taken on clients from as far away as Egypt, Iceland and China, and as off the beaten path as Arkansas backcountry. The registered users on her “Ask Joanne” message board number about 3,500. And her support groups and weekend workshops are consistently full.
For the thousands of women Fleisher has encountered, it happens one of four ways. For some, like Dana, it’s “Whoa, what the hell am I feeling for Amy?” Some were always attracted to women, but felt coming out wasn’t an option. Others ignored fleeting feelings until something awakened them. Still others are shocked, but in thinking back to when they were younger, they realize there were clues.
Culturally, this makes sense. For millennia, women have fallen in line with social expectations; they’re trained from birth to get a man to the altar, reproduce, live happily ever after. The problem is, this isn’t entirely in sync with a woman’s biology. “While men know their sexuality early on, women are late bloomers,” says Eli Coleman, head of the human sexuality program at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “A woman awakens to her own needs and her sexuality around her 30s or 40s” – smack in the middle of building her life. At first blush, the timing may appear hormonal, but no studies point to that.
As if women weren’t complicated enough, there’s another perplexing element: A woman’s libido can shift back and forth between genders, based on emotions and situations, says Lisa Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of Utah and the author of Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire. This confirms Kinsey’s research 60 years ago that showed orientation isn’t black-and-white, either/or. Human sexuality, he said, forms a continuum, and the sooner we learn that, the better we’ll understand ourselves. This reality is only recently coming to light, however; for decades, subsequent researchers threw out responses that didn’t fall at either end of the Kinsey scale (0 being straight, 6 being gay), which defeated Kinsey’s point in creating in.
“It doesn’t mean women are bisexual,” Diamond cautions. Rather, it means they can respond to emotions over gender. A woman can be attracted to another woman without being hot for females in general. One potential reason – based on animal studies – is that certain brain circuits that mediate emotional bonding alsoinfluence arousal, and women may have more of these love-sexuality circuits than men. Diamond has known die-hard lesbians to jump to the other team in the right circumstances, too – think Anne Heche. None of this is to say one’s sexuality is a choice. Ample scientific evidence proves it’s something we have no control over.
Going back to Dana: While she felt as if her sexuality changed mid-life, it’s a variable that exists within a woman from the beginning, “but is irrelevant to your day-to-day life until a really influential relationship with one particular woman triggers it,” says Diamond.
So, then, are women who find themselves married and attracted to women actually lesbians? Most women have an inherent preference, Fleisher insists, though it may not be clear immediately. “It’s not like ‘Aha, now I’m a lesbian,'” she says. “I didn’t know what I was for a while. If I went to a lesbian event, I felt like a closeted heterosexual. If I went to a PTA meeting, I felt like a closeted something else.” The only thing Fleisher knew was that she’d “experienced something so dramatically better, I could never be with a man again.” This sentiment is echoed repeatedly on Fleisher’s message board.
In researching this story, I interviewed eight local, suburban mothers- who responded to a posting on Fleisher’s message board. Of the five who have come out of the closet, four are struggling; one is happy with her situation. One came out to her husband and is staying with him for now. One is remaining in the closet; her husband agreed to let her have a girlfriend. (She continues to have sex with him, too.) One is hiding behind her soccer-mom life, dating a woman secretly. The experiences varied greatly, but all the women said this: The sex is off the charts, like nothing you can experience with a man. “It’s mind-blowing,” said a soccer mom from West Chester.
The reason, according to Fleisher, is the depth of intimacy women are capable of sharing. “It can be as powerful as an addictive drug,” she says. “Women tend to be more intuitive, nurturing, in tune with and willing to share feelings. Imagine these qualities free-flowing back and forth. Now add to that someone who can navigate your body almost as well as you can.” It’s a heady combo, she says.
WHEN DANA TOLD her husband, he was devastated. Had everything been a lie? He wanted to know. No, she explained – she still loved him, the kids, and their old life, but she could never go back. Her boys took it surprisingly well, though the youngest is angry with her for leaving his father. For months, Dana vacillated between returning home to her family (she and her husband agreed not to uproot the boys) and trying to live an honest life. She chose the latter, but hasn’t filed for divorce. “The most excruciating part is feeling like I’m a terrible mom,” she says. “A divorce is hard enough. Then you add this element. How much damage am I going to do?”
It’s an issue Fleisher sees repeatedly. Women tend to put their families’ needs first, and feel selfish if they don’t. But she tells her clients: “When you’re being your true self, when you’re feeling fulfilled, everyone benefits. You’re a better parent, partner, friend.”
Considering the complex issues and the number of gay, married women out there, the conspicuous lack of support for them – outside of Fleisher – is a mystery. Ample support groups exist for married gay men, and unlike women, men avoid support groups like the plague. It may be that in the interest of protecting their families, mothers don’t go looking – except late at night, on a secure computer, when everyone’s asleep.
If they’re lucky, they find Fleisher’s site, LavenderVisions.com, or her Internet message board, featuring links to the day’s discussions: “How do you know?” “When to tell H [husband]?” “Married and scared to lose my children” – a sad reality in some places. “Are you staying in a marriage because of financial security?” One can pore over the personal stories and find solace, advice, camaraderie. Those who are “stuck” speak of spiraling depression. Those who’ve left mourn the loss of former lives and dreams. They discuss relationships, the logistics of female orgasm, and not being readily accepted into the lesbian community, where they’re seen as married women out for a fling. Fleisher’s name pops up frequently: “Thank God for Joanne.” “Check with Joanne.” “Joanne’s book says…”
ON THE SECOND floor of a building on Walnut Street, the women eyed each other nervously. No familiar faces, at least. Dana, a petite blonde with straight, shoulder-length hair, was relieved to see that the women looked just like her. Like women you’d see at the PTA. With nice clothes, jewelry, makeup. Not like lesbians. Fleisher had had them sign confidentiality agreements when they walked in. She made them feel safe. The 26 women sat in a circle, and took turns introducing themselves. A 35-year-old sailing instructor stood up. “I’m married with two kids, and I had no idea it could happen. I fell in love with a friend. Then, years later, it happened again.” In her tight-knit bedroom community, this would never fly. Her eyes welled up. “It’s the first time I’ve said it out loud.”
The rest of the women were teachers, medical professionals, hospitality managers, a prosecutor, and three therapists, from all over the country, ranging from their late 20s to late 50s. Their stories differed a little: One couldn’t leave her husband for economic reasons; one was separated but hadn’t come out; several had just come out; some were in the early stages of discovery; some couldn’t imagine ever leaving their husbands; some had been dumped after leaving their husbands. All knew the same pain. A half-hour into the weekend workshop, they’d bonded through tears and hugs. “We were all carrying this alone, thinking something was wrong with us. It was so freeing,” Dana says.
By the end of the first day, which they spent thinking, writing, meditating, and listening to the advice given by Fleisher and two other counselors, the women were drained. They had dinner and talked some more. Then they stopped at Sisters, marking Dana’s first visit to a lesbian club.
The final exercise of the weekend was to write a letter from your future self. The articulate, well-dressed California prosecutor stood up first.
“Please get me out of this. Please make it end,” she cried, initiating a sobfest. “We know what you’re feeling,” one woman offered. “Like it’s way too much to bear.”
Driving home on Sunday afternoon, Dana realized she’d come pretty far. Before the workshop, she’d sunk to her lowest place, from feeling too much to feeling nothing. Numb. The workshop changed her life. She’d made 25 new friends. (They’re all still in touch.) And she could face herself again. She wasn’t a bad mom. And Fleisher inspired her. She’s decided to go back to school for a master’s in social work and sink the rest of her time into being the best mom she can. She doesn’t know much else. “It’s like you’ve planned and planned for Italy, and you were taken to China,” she says, “and you realize it’s a beautiful place, but you don’t know how to dress, or speak the language, or where to go once you get there.”
Originally published in Philadelphia magazine, December 2009