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My weight plummeted and my clothes hung sloppily over my body. I could not have cared less, but at the insistence of my family I found myself at Macy's. I had been instructed to buy some things that fit. Indifferently I pulled a blouse over my head. Suddenly I found myself sliding to the floor of the dressing room, choking back loud, anguished sobs. I sat with my back hunched over and my knees drawn to my chin, rocking back and forth, trying to muffle the cries I could not control.
These involuntary outbursts were coming more frequently. I had to find help. I had to find someone to tell. Where could I turn? Whom could I trust with this horrible secret?
In the space of six months my mind had become completely disordered. My value system had failed me. Suddenly I, who had been so sure about everything, knew nothing.
I had fallen in love with another woman!
My sister used to call me Pollyanna. I lived in a secure world protected by an invisible white picket fence. Mine was the "perfect" family.
My husband and I were married in 1964 after we had dated for three years. I was nineteen and he was twenty-one. We felt certain enough of our maturity to take on the responsibilities of raising a family. Our babies came as we had planned. Two and a half years after our wedding, our son arrived, and then two years after him, our daughter. We moved to our house in the suburbs.
Our door was open, and friends and neighbors dropped in all the time. I was great at stretching meals to accommodate unexpected guests. I was the one called when last-minute brownies were needed for the Girl Scout sale, or when a chairperson was needed for a charity drive. While my kids were growing up, I was active in the parent-teacher association, the Junior Women's Club, and Hadassah.
I was so preoccupied with my husband and children and their needs that I was oblivious to my own, or to what was happening in the larger world. Eventually, our children grew up and we moved to the city.
And then I met Toby.
With my new friend came the beginnings of my awareness of women's liberation. Toby had been divorced and raised two sons while putting herself through college and graduate school. She was a published author working on her second novel while supporting herself and her family. I was impressed by her accomplishments. I had always taken my own talents for granted, thinking that if I could paint and do craftwork, so could everyone else. But Toby was impressed with my abilities; she called me "the Renaissance woman."
We became fast friends and soon I couldn't imagine Toby not being a part of my life. We might phone each other five times a day to share some silly story or go for a week without talking. It didn't matter; each of us knew we were there for the other. We shared long walks and heavy conversations about intimate parts of our lives. We felt free in each other's kitchens and comfortable with each other's families.
One evening, while we were sitting and talking, I found myself looking, really looking, at Toby. She smiled at me from across the room and a strange and powerful feeling rushed through my body. My heart began to race. I realized I was in love with my best friend.
I didn't say anything at first, but my feelings grew daily. Each time I saw her, my stomach fluttered. Just being in her company, colors became brighter, sounds clearer. I had never felt like that before.
Toby and I had always hugged each other hello and good-bye, but now these hugs took on new meaning. I couldn't wait to see her, and then I couldn't wait for her to leave for those brief moments when we would be in each other's arms.
Our friendship had always been based on honesty, and now, given the intensity of my new feelings, I felt compelled to share them with her. It felt so natural and so wonderful to love her as I did that it had to be all right. We arranged to meet for dinner and I picked her up at the station. Toby chatted animatedly about her week as we drove toward the shore. Her voice was comforting and it felt so good to be with her. Still, the pounding in my chest was growing louder. I swallowed several times and took a deep breath. Without taking my eyes from the road, I said, "Toby, I'm in love with you."
"I love you too, Carren," she said.
"No. You don't understand. I've fallen in love with you."
An uncomfortably long pause replaced Toby's laughter of minutes before. "Carren, you're in love with the idea of sisterhood, of feminism, I've opened your eyes to --"
"Toby," I cut her off. "I'm in love with you."
We drove on to the bay in silence and parked the car. I turned toward the dock where we usually walked before eating.
"I'd rather go right to the restaurant," she said. "I'm cold." The weather was mild and her coat was open, so I knew it was a different kind of cold she was feeling. Suddenly I was terrified. What had I done? I was filled with turmoil. What if my confession made her mad or she thought I was sick and never wanted to speak to me again? Could my being in love with Toby destroy our friendship? Then I thought no. That's absurd. We'll work it out. I ordered wine with my dinner, something I rarely did, then left my meal untouched, another thing I rarely did. I felt an awkwardness growing between us. I had never seen Toby at a loss for words, yet now she seemed to consider each one carefully before it left her mouth. Why had I been so insensitive? How could I have been such a fool? Why had I never anticipated her rejecting me?
Maybe it was the wine, I'm not sure, but by the end of dinner our customary way of bantering seemed to have returned. I drove her home, put the car in park, and we hugged as usual. After a brief second, however, I pulled away, suddenly shy.
For a while we continued to speak several times a week. Only now I found myself fumbling over words and having trouble keeping my voice steady. Toby was guarded and spoke only in generalities. Each time I lifted the receiver to call her, my hands trembled and I began to hyperventilate. Our conversations lost their fun and spontaneity. Their main theme became my obsession with her. I could talk of little else. Out of fairness to Toby, I must say that she did try to remain my friend. She listened kindly, but over the following months the frequency of her phone calls dwindled until she stopped calling altogether. She didn't feel toward me as I did toward her, and she had had enough of the crazed woman I had become. Our friendship ended.
At home, with great difficulty I functioned as though nothing had happened. After all, I was the nurturer and the caregiver -- others depended on me. I had to be strong. If my husband or children saw any changes in my behavior, they never acknowledged them. Privately in great pain, I mourned the loss of my best friend. There was no one to offer comfort, no one with whom to share my sorrow. I lay awake night after night, replaying all that had happened, thinking of Toby. I began walking for hours at a time, needing to force myself into exhausted sleep.
I remember Toby asking me during one of our last visits if it was sex with her that I wanted. I had been shocked at her question. I realize now that I had no frame of reference for such an idea. I'd never thought of having sex with her, only about being with her, holding her, having her hold me. Sex was something I had with my husband. It had nothing to do with this passion I was feeling for her.
While I mourned, the question she had put into my head kept repeating itself. Was it sex with her that I wanted? Did I want to have sex with a woman? Did that make me a lesbian? I could hardly even say the word at first, but the more I thought about it, the less absurd it seemed. I began to wonder. Although my husband was always considerate about satisfying me, I had never had a strong sex drive with him.
Now I had to contend not only with the loss of my best friend, but the shock of discovering my possible new sexuality. I searched but found no reading material, no affirmation that I wasn't insane or that other women had had the same experience; the more alone I felt, the more terrified I became.
Eventually, without telling my family, secretly skimming money off the food budget to pay for it, I went into therapy. I had no idea of how it could help me, but I knew that I desperately needed to find someone I could talk to. I would not understand for several years that I had been going through a process of discovery. It is only now, looking back, that I can appreciate the strength it took as well as the courage to move forward, accept myself, and, eventually, come out to my family. Along the way I have also come to learn that my story is not unique.
Through the self-help groups I sought out during my transition period, I met numerous other married women who hadalso discovered their previously hidden sexuality, or were tryingto come to terms with long-denied feelings of being different.They were trying to make sense of their lives, to preserve theirmarriages and families and, in some cases, their very sanity.Finally, I had connected with women who were like me. We talkedon and on until everything began to make sense.
According to The Hite Report, 87 percent of all married women have their deepest emotional attachments with other women, usually their best friends. While it doesn't happen to every woman, sometimes these friendships unexpectedly burst into passionate romantic and physical love.
Due to the clandestine way in which married women who love women often live, few people have been aware that we even exist. Consequently, it is understandable that researchers might conclude that these women tend to divorce immediately upon learning about their sexuality. And who would contradict them? Nonetheless, I knew that not all married women who love women leave their marriages, and I set out to explore all the ways in which women who love women lead their lives.
Having accepted their culturally sanctioned roles as caregivers and nurturers, some women believe they have no choice other than to remain in their marriages and keep their feelings and needs repressed. Fear of repercussions -- having their children taken from them, being shunned by family and friends, even becoming destitute -- makes other women decide to stay married. All these women silently endure the guilt and anguish brought on by the frightening discovery of their new sexuality. At the same time, many have affairs outside marriage to discover who they are and what they crave. For the first time in their lives, they do what they need to do for themselves.
Married Women Who Love Women is the result of open and truthful dialogues with more than one hundred women who have had the courage to acknowledge their same-sex preferences. It addresses issues that have never been freely discussed before: Why do women turn to other women for emotional fulfillment? What would make a married woman cross that invisible line that turns her best friend into her lover? Why do some women struggle with identity while others easily embrace their sexuality? What do married women do when they realize that a large part of themselves has been missing? Why might they choose to remain in a marriage after having discovered their sexual preference? What kind of men are they married to? Why would men remain with wives who love women? How are these women and their husbands redefining their marriages? How are children, parents, and friends affected? And finally, where do straight women fit into the picture?
It will also answer intimate questions that have crossed the minds of all women, although few have had the courage to say so. What is it like for a woman who has believed herself heterosexual to come together physically with a woman for the first time? How is making love with a woman different from making love with a man? How does a woman know whether she is a lesbian or bisexual? What are the distinctions and why do they matter?
I have compiled my evidence from the courageous women who have stepped forward to speak with me. Their stories present an eye-opening picture of a growing population that has been silent too long.
In my search, I found married women who love women (MWLW) at women's groups and gathering places. Sharing my story made others comfortable enough to share their own. Consequently, while many women had never told even their therapists about their sexual preference, for me, finding MWLW to interview was relatively easy. The women I spoke to referred me to their friends. Others identified friends but, because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, were hesitant to give me their phone numbers. I gave them fliers to pass along instead.
Although the fliers specifically requested married women for the book, divorced women -- who had discovered their lesbianism either before or after their divorces -- also came forward to share their stories. In addition, I placed ads in lesbian publications and in newsletters that served lesbian communities. And, knowing that not all MWLW have access to those papers or are even aware of their existence, I placed an ad in National NOW, the newspaper of the National Organization for Women. In the NOW ad I revealed my same-sex feelings. This brought a response from women who lived in rural areas and had felt especially cut off.
I mailed fliers to feminist bookstores across the country and to women's centers at colleges and universities. I posted fliers on supermarket bulletin boards and left them in the ladies' rooms of restaurants and theaters.
I have received calls from women who said they had picked up my fliers in places I was unfamiliar with and later learned that other women had taken it upon themselves to make additional copies and further circulate the fliers.
Women told me things they said they had never been able to tell anyone else before. They expressed relief at being able to share their feelings openly and honestly. Long-pent-up frustrations spilled out along with angry or sad feelings about their husbands, marriages, families, and lives in general. At times it was difficult for me to hear about their pain and isolation without reliving my own. Many of the women I interviewed thanked me, saying that for the first time they didn't feel alone. One woman echoed the feelings of many when she said, "Your ad jumped off the page for me. Until now no one had seemed to care about married women who must live with their secret."
Through the course of my research, which grew to include both husbands and children of MWLW, the majority of people, both men and women, responded to the subject matter with a mixture of relief and gratitude.
The married women who love women interviewed ranged in age from twenty-one to seventy. Thirty percent were thirty-five or younger, 60 percent were between the ages of thirty-six and fifty-five, and 10 percent were over fifty-five.
Because the subject of lesbianism is no longer as taboo as it once was, and the average age at which women marry has risen from 20.3 in 1950 to twenty-four by 1990, younger women in general are growing up with an increased awareness and, having more time to explore, a better understanding of their own sexuality and available life choices. Yet some young women, aware of their preference for women, still elect to marry men. Their reasons may be as basic as medical coverage, or fear of rejection by family and friends, since societal pressures still restrict many young women, especially those outside of urban areas.
The majority of women interviewed, however, were in their mid-thirties through mid-fifties when their same-sex feelings became apparent. For the most part, middle-aged women grew up knowing that they were supposed to marry a nice man who would be a good provider and a good father. The unspoken message was: "A woman cannot take care of herself." Furthermore, sex outside marriage was considered taboo, and so nice girls married. The single career woman was still an anomaly.
Only 23 percent of the MWLW interviewed knew or had a feeling about their same-sex orientation before they were married. Twelve percent realized in hindsight that they had same-sex orientation, and 6 percent couldn't recall exactly when they made the discovery. However, the majority, 59 percent, had no idea of their same-sex orientation before they were married.
Married women discovering or reawakening their dormant sexual awareness generally fall into four categories. The first consists of women who, as young girls, sensed a difference between themselves and their peers but didn't have the words to describe their differences. They had no knowledge that there was any such thing as lesbianism. The second consists of women who knew positively, early in life, that they had lesbian tendencies. However, because they had been indoctrinated by society's teachings into believing that lesbianism was a sickness or evil, or because they simply wanted to fit into mainstream society, they tried to conform. The third is women who knew what lesbianism was, did not deny their feelings, and had even been involved with other women, but thought they were different. They were in such strong states of denial that they never characterized themselves as lesbians. And the fourth consists of women who totally believed they were heterosexual...until they fell in love with another woman.
Apparently, not all married women are happy. According to Carol Botwin's book, Tempted Women, "twenty-one million women in America -- forty percent of the married population -- are having affairs." Other current books such as The Erotic Silence of the American Wife by Dalma Heyn, and Secret Loves by Sonya Friedman, also discuss the extramarital affairs women have, though all three mainly focus on heterosexual affairs, thereby missing a very large slice of the issue.
This book fills that gap. And in so doing, I hope, sheds both light and understanding for MWLW, their families, and friends.
Posted March 24, 2004
Carren's book tells a story rarely told--of married women who discover an attraction to other women. Told with rare insight from the unique insiders perspective, this book chronicles the true stories of many women who have undergone this earthshaking transition in their own lives, and have found a wide variety of coping mechanisms. I recommend this book not only to women questioning their own sexuality but also for anyone wanting to understand both the coming out process and the intricate mechanisms of hetereosexual privilege at work in everyday lives. This book is a rare achievement; a beautifully constructed and deeply moving work.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 26, 2004
What a perfect title! This book is everything you'd expect with such a title. I couldn't imagine there were other 'married women who love women out there' until I found this title on the B&N site. I now believe there are more women like me than I could ever guess. It was SO comorting to read these stories and, at long last, I no longer feel something is 'wrong' with me. I've underlined huge sections of nearly every page and was sorry to finish the book. It was truly a lifeline out of crisis and doubt. I'm grateful to have found it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 13, 2002
I actually just ordered the book, I didn't even receive it yet. But far as I know it's the only one of it's kind. I'm a 23yr. old wife and mother of two, and I struggle nearly everyday, not because of who or what I am, but with trying to stay faithful to my husband. Sometimes the feelings of being deprived and not true to myself are so overwhelming! My only outlet, my only 'therapy', the only sense that someone understands, comes from reading The coming out stories of other women. I'm really looking foward to reading this book, I think that it will be the first that I can Truly relate to.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.