Fall out over teen coming out

My 16-year-old daughter recently "came out." It didn't come as a surprise to me, but my husband was shocked and is having a difficult time accepting the fact that his daughter is a lesbian. He states his religious beliefs as being the reason for his lack of acceptance. My daughter had always been very close to her father, but since coming out, they hardly speak unless they are arguing. She has always been a straight A student with a happy-go-lucky personality. She's a warm, thoughtful, open and honest person, and a wonderful daughter. But lately she seems depressed. She's not eating well, her grades are slipping and she seems distant. I have made an appointment with a family counselor, but my husband refuses to go because he feels that the therapist will try to convince him that this is normal. Needless to say, this issue has not only affected the relationship between my daughter and her father, but it is driving a wedge between my husband and myself. What might be causing my husband to react in this very negative way and what can I do?

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Your daughter is clearly grieving the loss of her father. Yet, she may be also feeling great pain from the sudden and deep disturbance in your marriage which has served as the very foundation of her family life. Her "news" has precipitated a crisis which has shaken the family to its foundations. It is up to you and your husband to refuse to allow your daughter's sexuality to destroy the core bonds of your marital or family relationships. You and your husband are becoming quickly polarized during a period of crisis when you need each other the most!

It is likely that your husband is expressing all of the rejection to her news and your are expressing all of the acceptance. It is very possible that you are specializing in having only "positive" feelings to balance what you perceive as extreme "negativity" in your partner. Consider that you, too may be feeling some disappointment at your daughter's news, but have not shared it with your husband for fear it would only fuel his rejection of her. But continuing this unrealistic polarization distorts each of you and is highly destructive to your marriage. You need to have a partner who you can express disappointment to about your daughter, and he needs to be able to express his feelings of affection for her which cannot have evaporated overnight!

Perhaps you could reach into yourself to identify some sadness that may be a part of letting go of your daughter's heterosexuality. Surely, you must have some sorrow for the potential prejudice she will face in the world. Sharing some of this with your spouse may be the beginning of a return to a healthier middle ground in your marriage. It will at least allow him to see that it isn't just so very okay with you. Sharing disappointments in life is a task of the marriage. Instead of battling with your husband about what is "right" or "normal", rivet his attention on the fact that his daughter needs him desperately now.

Whether he agrees with her belief in her sexual orientation or not, her father is failing her as a parent. Let him know that you are willing to hear his pain. Open yourself to listening to your husband's disappointments in his daughter. Be willing to express your share of the sorrow. But do not stop there. Insist that he step up to the plate to deal with his daughter's depression and falling grades. Tell him that you are in this together, and that he is abandoning not only his responsibility to her, but to you as a parenting partner.

Again, invite him to couples' therapy with you. But this time, be clear that you will be willing to discuss how to handle this situation and not whether or not "homosexuality is normal". Consider having an agreement to disagree, and create a shared goal of what is in the best interest of your daughter, who is now suffering depression over threatened family relationships. If he is open to it, he may want to join a parents' support group (now or in the future) where he can share his experience with other fathers who are undergoing the process of dealing with their children's homosexuality. Eventually, it is in a group like this that many fathers are able to share their humiliation and pain, separating this from their relationships with their sons and daughters.

Your husband is not ready to give up his view of what he believes his daughter should be, and one of his requirements is heterosexuality. Allow him to believe that she is "wrong", "sinful" or even that she may "change her mind" in the future. He, too, is a family member and has every right to his feelings and views. But continue to require that he find a way to come back to the marriage and his role as a parent, which includes supporting his daughter through her adolescence. Teenage depression can become serious and potentially deteriorate towards suicidality if not addressed.

Ask him how he would like his daughter to look back on this experience. What does he want to teach his children about crisis and the way a family responds? Do the two of you want your children to look back on this with the realization that you pulled together as a family, despite great difficulties? Or split apart under pressure? It is up to the two of you to work through what kind of family the two of you want to have together. Accept your husband's feelings. But ask him for positive suggestions to this dilemma, rather than only negative reactions.

Adolescence is never easy on a family. Our children's emerging identity thrusts the family system towards inevitable change. Accommodating the changes inherent in adolescence requires nothing short of transformation. Your daughter's quest to identify herself has been particularly poignant to the observation by many family therapists that this stage in the family life cycle requires a metamorphosis of the family system.

Martin Luther King's famous words also ring with authenticity at this time ... "The true measure of a man is not when things are going well, but when they are difficult".... Ask your husband to remember his marital vows to be with you in better times, and in worse times. Invite him to come back to the marriage and take his place again by your side.

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