Earlier this month, David and I attended the annual Q Christian Fellowship conference. It was a good opportunity to see old friends and meet some of our readers. It was fun to answer, in person, some of the questions we usually get through email. Among the people we met was a couple we really liked, J and her wife. They approached us after a talk we gave about the effects shame has on relationships and shared that, although they’ve been married a few years, J still has trouble introducing her wife as such when they meet new people.
J had tears in her eyes as her wife told us that this is a sore point in their marriage. It’s clear that J’s reluctance to recognize her wife’s role in public hurts the latter’s feelings, and understandably so. But it was also evident that J feels terrible about it. As the four of us spoke, it was J’s wife who kept comforting her, softly touching her, as if saying “I want you to get past this shame, because it hurts me, but I also see how it hurts you.”
J and her wife shared this with us because David talked about our early dating days, when he still felt shame about being gay. In fact, being in a relationship had exposed just how ashamed he was of himself. He shared a story about a time, when we had recently become “official,” that we ran into some friends who had never met me. Instead of saying “This is my boyfriend, Tino,” he had simply said “This is Tino.” He talked about how he perceived that it had hurt my feelings, and how he determined that next time he’d introduce me as his boyfriend.
What’s interesting about that story to me is that I actually don’t remember it. I have a very clear memory, however, of the first time David introduced me as his boyfriend. We were at the restaurant where he worked while writing the first book in his historical fiction series. I was sitting at the bar, and he introduced me to a coworker. He was wearing a tight, olive green henley shirt that showcased his muscles, but what stands out most in my memory is the adorable smile that spread across his face as soon as he said “my boyfriend.” Now, it’s true that I melt every time I see him smile, but I just died that evening when I saw the look in his eyes as he turned to me. It was like that of a puppy who has done a “very good boy” kind of thing and knows he’s about to get a pat on the head. He was so happy, and I was so proud of him.
In hindsight, I realize that as honored as I felt to receive the title of David’s boyfriend, bestowing it was even more meaningful to him than it was to me. The pain he perceived in me when he introduced me just as “Tino” was a projection of the pain he felt. His inability to use the word boyfriend hurt him because it came from a place of inner dissonance. I think he expected more of himself than I did at that point. I knew he was still grappling with shame, and I knew stepping into relationship felt scary. I felt grace and compassion for him. But all he felt was that division within himself.
David needed to overcome his shame, and heal, for his own sake. I’m glad our relationship was the catalyst, because it was also the beneficiary. I’ve thought of J and her wife often in the weeks since we met them, because they seemed truly in love and well-suited for each other, and I’m rooting for their marriage to thrive. While shame isn’t the exclusive province of LGBTQ couples, straight couples aren’t likely to feel ashamed of their relationship itself. They also often have stronger support networks than we do. J and her wife live in a part of the country where affirming spaces (especially churches) are still hard to find. That means they will have to work through this mostly on their own.
Despite the conflicts that a situation like this can create in a relationship, marriage can also be the most healing context for it to be resolved. The commitment and promises J and her wife have made to each other create a safe place for J to work through her shame and through the hangups she has about acknowledging the role her wife plays in her life. One of the perks of marriage and committed relationship is that you can use the intimacy and privacy of your home as a kind of testing ground or relationship laboratory. Our advice to J might sound funny, but we suggested she start calling her spouse “wife” at home, sort of as a pet name, until the word becomes comfortable—getting used to how it sounds, in private, until she doesn’t feel ashamed to use it in public.
Intimate relationships are a mirror. They help us see parts of ourselves that need work, and we sometimes see pain in our spouse that is really just a reflection of the wounds we carry ourselves. But in that mirror we can also see our own beauty. Our prayer for J and others in her predicament is that she can see, in the love she receives from her wife, the beauty of the love she feels herself. Leaning into that beauty, which also reflects the love God feels for us, she will find healing—she will see the beauty of telling the world that the woman she loves is her wife.
Constantino Khalaf is a writer living in Portland. He and his husband, David, are the authors of Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage (Westminster John Knox Press, January 2019).
Photo by Sean Molin, used with permission through Flickr Creative Commons.
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