By Freya Blom
Editor’s Note: We’ve been studying relationships for the last four decades, but we still have so much to learn. Through the individual stories and experiences shared in Real Relationships, we aim to paint a more realistic picture of love in the world today. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author and are not necessarily based on research conducted by The Gottman Institute.
I never thought of myself as fluid in my sexuality. But I always believed, and still do, that people should “never say never.” The truth of that belief came crashing into my consciousness when, during my 16-year relationship with my now ex-husband, I realised I was falling in love with someone else and was shocked and amazed to find that that someone else was a woman.
I can remember first meeting her and thinking she was great, and that I had the beginnings of a new best friend. As I followed that intuition and we interacted more, I realised it was more like a best-friendship on steroids. Super-charged, powerful, and magical, I couldn’t believe my luck in making a friend of this calibre out of the blue and at this stage in my life. It wasn’t until some months into our connection that I realised she was present in my inner life in a much broader way than a friend would be. The night I realised I had feelings for her beyond friendship, that I wanted to be with her in every way possible with every cell of my being, was both heart-openingly ecstatic, and laced with utter devastation because I knew what it meant. The love I felt was so powerful and undeniable, I knew I it was going to profoundly change my life, my child’s life, and my ex-husband’s life. It was going to usher in a wave of enormous complexity, sadness, and joy.
Because I was in a long term relationship and had a solid family unit: one child, one dog, a forever home and garden, I hadn’t noticed how fixed my identity and my world had become over the years. I’d never really had cause to examine assumptions I had made about myself and the world. Because I had always been openly and consciously attracted to men, I assumed it was unlikely I could be attracted to women, or be in a happy relationship with a woman. I discounted feelings I can now recognise as attraction, when pointed towards women, as just me being playful, flirtatious, or fun because I had no reference point for what it was like to be intimate with a woman. There was nothing on TV or anywhere else in my life that showed two women falling in love, it was simply not on my radar as a part of reality.
In my societally programmed mind, having a relationship meant having sex, and “having sex” only meant penetration with a penis. In fact, UK law reflects this attitude: it is not deemed infidelity if a married straight woman has sex with another woman because two women can’t “have sex.”
The transition out of a long term heterosexual relationship and family unit into the unknowable future was impossible to predict. Looking back four years later, I can see that it took me at least two of those years to process what had happened—what I had chosen, and the ramifications for me and, most importantly, my child. Not only did I have to mourn the ruins of my old life structures and attempt to support my beloved child through the loss of their known family unit, but I also had to be open to meeting myself on a new plane of existence and try to lay healthy foundations in my new romantic relationship.
All this was competing with another huge raft of other unexpected things that changed and unearthed gender stereotypes in a big way. For example, booking a “girls night out” now raised the question of whether that included my partner. Songs on the radio were almost all written from a heterosexual viewpoint, even when really the actual story or meaning was completely interchangeable—cheating is cheating, love is love. I even, and this was a big shock, found myself comparing myself to my partner! Was she “prettier” than me? Did she have a “better” body? This train of thought was incredible because it led to me realise my freedom from the objectification that I had been bombarded with all my life as a heterosexual female. I wasn’t trying to appeal to society’s version of what men find attractive anymore. It blew my mind!
I Googled relentlessly, trying to find a story I could resonate or identify with in any way. I received one about how it was becoming a trend for women to fall in love with women in their mid-forties. Most others I found were about women who had always known about their sexuality, or young people grappling with their sexual identity. I felt very alone—like I was an alien. I didn’t relate to being confused, or a late-life lesbian. I still don’t.
I’m sure now that I’m not unique in my experience, but at the time I had no compass and no footing and I look back now with incredulity at what we have managed to achieve in the last four years. We have created a loving, stable, and fully integrated family unit, bought a house and renovated it, progressed in our careers, made memories, grown together in so many ways, and maintained a level of closeness and intimacy that is a real joy.
The most valuable thing I have learned throughout this process, and I have learned a lot, is how much low-level assumption and insidious prejudice we are all bombarded with on a daily, and usually lifelong, basis. Yes, times are changing, finally, although still on a smaller scale than is needed in my opinion. But in stepping out of the hetero-normative life I had been living, and considering I’d always thought of my self as super open-minded, I was really shocked to find myself confronting homophobic voices popping up inside my own head!
Just as my heart was expressing the most natural, elemental love for my partner, my brain chimed in with, “It’s not natural,” and, “If you were supposed to be together God would have created you in such a way that your bodies fit together to procreate,” and, “If relationships are made up of masculine and feminine then this can’t work because there is no balance with two women.” And plenty of throwaway statements like, “Women who dress in a more masculine way just wish they were men.” I felt sick to realise there was so much ignorance stored away inside me.
Over time, I realised that even my close friends and family were affected. No intentional malice was involved, thankfully. That’s a whole other challenge for many people. But their unwitting assumptions and judgments still hurt, however unintended. Their curiosity (“So who’s the man in the bedroom?”) showed me the huge gaps in their questioning of gender norms. Then there were the painful moments. One person made the point that I would have to get used to ridicule, that nobody was above harsh humour. As a human being, I don’t expect to be above ridicule, but I’d never heard anyone use derogatory and unpleasant language about me for being straight.
Friends and family aside, taking a step outside of my “norm” has opened my life up to a level of potential judgment, scrutiny, and danger of persecution that feels almost unreal. That anyone would care who I love or find attractive, that anyone would be willing to harm me in any way, whether through words, physicality, or by denying me a voice, rights, space, or care—all things that I have always taken for granted—that any of that would suddenly not apply to me because of who I love is unthinkable. And yet it happens all the time. I recognise that I am someone who has been incredibly privileged thus far in life. I haven’t had to fight for my rights, or overcome prejudice, or face familial rejection. I was old enough when I fell in love again to have already chosen and built solid friendships with people I respect, grow my own business, buy my own home, and do my own inner work to get to a place of healthy self-esteem. Even so, the transition into a new life including unexpected risks and judgments took some navigating.
Luckily, my partner has lived all her life as an openly gay woman and knows how to intelligently argue with prejudice, inside and out. She has taught me, in the most immediate way, that nothing is real except for love. As a newcomer to being a “minority,” I leaned on her to help me make sense of how it was possible to live a happy and fulfilled life knowing that some people might, or want, to do me harm, or judge me as disgusting or unnatural for what seems, to me, no credible reason.
It’s set me on a lifelong path of exploring how we can all be more loving and accepting toward each other on a daily basis. As a parent, it has caused me to question my assumptions about my child’s’ preferences and expression on every level. Rather than asking those classically narrow questions (“What do you want to be when you grow up?” etc.) I choose to model critical thinking and compassion by openly questioning the societal values and prejudices placed before them every day via their peers, their school, the press, social media, etc. My aim is to love my child for who they are, not what they like, and keep their mind and heart as open as possible. Outside of that, all I can do is observe and love my child as they blossom.
Questioning the messages around me for both myself and my child, and shifting to a place of non-conformity has given me such a huge insight into the injustice of getting judged for nonsensical reasons like skin colour, place of birth, a way of speaking, or who you love. I was forced to question my own, at times invisible, beliefs and found it the most freeing, educative and expansive experience. It has opened me up to being so much more truly loving and accepting towards myself and others. I’ve learned that acceptance is not a theory, it needs to be practiced. I’m passionately clear about that now.
Being loved by a woman is amazing. We understand each other’s bodies and hormones. She has supported me out of the social conditioning around what it is supposed to be like, look like, and mean to be a woman. Being with her has given me the space to explore all of me. I get to enjoy my so-called “masculine” and “feminine” traits—I prefer yin and yang—and roles in a free and fluid way. I get to decide what I like because I actually like it rather than because that’s what society thinks I should like or feels comfortable with me liking. Being me and loving her feels so natural and beautiful that I can’t fathom how I ever entertained the notion that sexuality or gender expression could be static.
I see sexuality and gender on a spectrum now, rather than as a set of boxes. I’ve spoken to some women who say that identifying as “lesbian” is more like a shorthand for their overall preference, rather than a fixed identity. For me, I understand how labels can help sometimes, and also how narrow they can be. If I had to be labeled, I’d say I was “pansexual” because I have real evidence now that love is love, and that I fall in love with people, not body parts.
I have learned so much from falling in love with a woman. I learned I had everything to gain from stepping outside of the “norm.” That to think I knew everything about myself was ridiculous, and that to think I could escape societal conditioning and be truly open-minded without tasting life outside of the norm was naive. Judgments dehumanise and minimise the beautiful greyness of being human. I learned that I am not okay with people attempting to minimise any part of my human experience, especially something as important as love. I learned that I cannot be a mother who puts everyone else first at all costs, but I can be a very good role model for love and acceptance.
At the very beginning when I was falling in love and really scared of the size of the change, I can remember thinking that if I couldn’t be with my partner then, because we were both married and I had a child, I would just wait until it was okay for us both. That I would be prepared to wait until I was sixty if I had to, as long as we got to be together in the end. I’m more scared now of that kind of thinking than I am of making big changes in my life. The pain and sadness, the complexity and simplicity, the love and joy, are, for me, the truth. And they are all rolled up in this magnificent jewel of a life I am living. Though in some ways it has been an incredibly hard journey, I really couldn’t be happier to be alive.
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