Actresses Cynthia Nixon and Meredith Baxter have been talking about a pivotal change that came later in their lives, and we’re not talking about menopause.
After longtime relationships with men, these women are now in committed romantic relationships with other women.
This isn’t just a Hollywood trend. Shayna Goldstein, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in LGBT (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender) issues at the Family Institute of Northwestern University, often sees these situations in her practice.
According to Goldstein, these women tend to follow two paths. The first group knew they were attracted to women, but never allowed themselves to act on their feelings. Instead, they got married and had children, suppressing their desire to be with other women. As they grew older and became more self-aware, they developed the confidence to act on their true feelings.
The second group had no idea they’d be attracted to a woman — until they were drawn to a specific woman. Goldstein says this group may not identify themselves as lesbians; they see it as falling in love with a wonderful person who also happens to be female.
Either way, a woman who makes this change faces a complicated set of circumstances, which can be both thrilling and painful, especially when children are involved.
“Divorce is a time of loss and tremendous transition for both the couple and their children. The dimension of sexual orientation introduces more complexity and can create an additional layer of loss for the family,” Goldstein says.
She advises women to “move slowly through the process. It needs time and reflection to unfold. It’s a period of both endings and beginnings and the overlap can add complexity, heartache and stress.” Goldstein says it’s crucial to have a strong support system outside the new relationship through friends, family or a therapist.
Even when children aren’t involved, adjusting to a new sexual identity isn’t always easy. Maureen Watson, 62, now lives in Florida and is devoted to her female partner of eight years, but she didn’t realize she preferred women until she was 48.
When her first marriage crumbled after ten years, Maureen had a series of affairs — mostly with men, but for the first time, with a woman. The fling was “fun and exciting — an adventure,” she recalls. “But I never thought of myself as a lesbian.”
Still primarily interested in men, she married again. But when she joined a personal growth group in her forties, Maureen recognized something was missing from her life.
“I realized I was unfulfilled. I liked my husband but we didn’t have a lot in common,” she says.
After 15 years together, their marriage ended. Then, Maureen fell in love with a woman and began a long-term relationship so serious she decided to share the news with her family.
“I thought, I’m older now, so who the hell cares what people say? Society had changed,” she says. Maureen’s parents were accepting, but she hasn’t come out to everyone in her life; it has been a continuing process, and she sees sharing her story for this article as a step forward.
“There’s so much stigma; it’s hard to label yourself,” she says. “I don’t define myself as a lesbian but … that’s a cop out. I know I want to be with a woman. So, yes, I am!”