BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I’m a 65-year-old man. I am gay but have never admitted this to anyone. I have gone through life pretending. My friends probably suspect I am gay, but we have never discussed it. I always joke about never meeting the right girl, and how I love traveling so I could never settle down.

I have secretly fallen in love with male friends over the years, but never told them, as they are heterosexual and usually in a relationship. Eventually I get over these crushes, and we remain good friends without my ever saying anything.

Now I am again infatuated, this time with my male boss. I love his intelligence, wit, and interest in life. He is separated from his female partner. I think about him constantly, even when I try to keep myself busy with hobbies and friends.

I don’t want to discuss my feelings with him, because I don’t want to put him in a difficult position or jeopardize our friendship. If I say nothing, this feeling will eventually subside and he will never know and we will remain friends. I will probably take the secret of my sexuality to the grave and everyone will just think I was a nice guy. But my heart aches. I’ve pretended for so long.

Then again, what benefit would it be to my boss, my elderly mother, or my friends to know the truth?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

I can only imagine the depth of your pain after more than six decades of pretending to be someone you’re not. After all, it’s a basic human need to be who we really are—and for others to know us as we really are—and the ache you’re experiencing is the ache of an incarcerated self, a self that’s been held in solitary confinement.

Now, at age 65, you’re asking how sharing the truth might affect your boss, your mother, and your friends, but I want to suggest that we look at your question from another angle: how it might affect you. Because that, it seems, is what you’re essentially asking.

Let me put it like this. When people sit on my couch during a first therapy session, I want to know not just why they’ve come in, but why now. Why, on this particular week, did they pick up the phone and call me, when their problem may have been going on for months or years or decades? I ask because generally when people take the step of reaching out, it means they’re ready—consciously or not—for change.

That’s what I hear in your letter. On the one hand, you want to do what you’ve always done—keep things to yourself. On the other, the emotional toll of keeping this secret is so agonizing that you feel like you might burst—to the point where you’re finally coming out and sharing your secret with me.

This is a significant departure from how you managed your dilemma in the past. Some people deal with an inconvenient truth about who they are by forming a second self to protect their original self, and then distinguishing between the two becomes difficult. Other people do what you’ve done, which is to deny the true self by creating conditions in which it would be impossible for it to flourish.

For instance, your crushes have always been on heterosexual men, which means that even if you were to share your romantic interest, it wouldn’t be reciprocated. And just to make sure that it can’t be reciprocated—that your true self stays in check—you often choose men who aren’t only heterosexual, but also in a relationship and therefore unavailable. Conveniently, the likelihood of any real-life relationship under these circumstances is almost nil. (And in your boss’s case, sharing your romantic interest at work, regardless of sexual orientation, is always fraught in all kinds of ways.)

I think you wrote to me because what’s worked in the past—stifling your desires—is no longer working. As you approach old age, maybe you’re realizing that instead of keeping you safe, your self-imposed solitary confinement might be causing more harm than coming out would.

So how would living your truth benefit you? Well, once you step out of your jail, you’ll be free to pursue relationships with available men. Your friends, who might already suspect that you’re gay, will get to know you on a deeper level and likely feel much closer to you. (It’s hard to have meaningful friendships when an important aspect of your identity remains hidden.) Your mom, who, like you, grew up in an era rife with intolerance, might have complicated feelings about this but might also feel great relief and satisfaction from knowing that she’ll leave you on this planet as a whole, happy human being. And you will develop networks of friends and—hopefully—fall in love with available partners who embrace you, and not the facade you’ve been hiding behind.

In other words, the benefit of sharing the truth is simple: You won’t be so excruciatingly lonely. So many people hide the truth of who they are out of fear that it will turn people away, but with the people who matter, the exact opposite happens. If you let people see the truth of who you are, people will be drawn to you.

Another benefit is that you’ll quickly discover who matters in your life, who is worth your time. The people who care about you will want to know you, not an edited version of you. Those who care about you will want you to be happy. You can learn who these people are by telling the person you trust the most, and then using the confidence gained from that experience to slowly branch out to others. Or you can tell a number of people at once.

Either way, I think you’ll find that it doesn’t really matter what any closed-minded people do with the information. You’ve endured worse in jail, in your decades-long state of extreme deprivation. The good news is that this letter is the key you’ve been holding. Use it to set yourself free.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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