Carl Marshall, the first facilitator of the Married Men’s Group, talks about the group and its history.
How did the group come about?
Well, in 2002, I left my marriage of 20 years as I realised that I was gay. I was very distressed, disoriented, and in need of support, and a friend directed me towards ‘Healthy Gay Life’, the (then) local health provider for the gay community. HGL was helpful to me as a married man. It was clear though that, as a group, some very specific support was needed. The manager who led the unit at that time recognised that I had group management skills and asked me to set up a group for men who were in relationships with women who were also attracted to men.
Why was there a need for a specific group for men in relationships with women?
Acknowledging your ‘gay’ side can be very difficult. Married and cohabiting men who are also attracted to guys have very specific issues. Firstly, in admitting to themselves that they have male attractions. Secondly, the guilt of feeling that they have lied or made a mistake in getting into a relationship with a woman. The next problem is the reaction of people around them, in their family and friendship groups. On top of all that, there is the feeling that they have let down their partners and ruined their futures together, with fears about how it will affect their relationships with their children. All of this adds up to huge psychological pressure and, very often, mental health problems.
How does the group help men?
The group helps men by providing a safe space where guys can share what they are experiencing. Very often, men in this position have had no one in whom they can confide and it’s the first time that they have been able to open up about what they are feeling. The group is non-judgmental and doesn’t offer advice. What it does do is enable men to meet other men who are in the same circumstances, and know that they are not alone. People who come to the group can share what they are experiencing and learn how others have coped with the same situation. Everyone’s circumstances are different and there’s no right or wrong way to deal with male attraction within a heterosexual relationship. Some people come out to their partners, some don’t. What the group does is to share experiences about what has worked – and what hasn’t worked – between the members.
Is there a ‘typical’ person who would come to the group?
Absolutely not! During the years that I facilitated the group, we had attendees who had very basic jobs, to people who were very highly paid business professionals and also senior army officers. We supported a whole range of people from the meek to the macho!
The one thing that I did notice is that a number of men attending were in their forties, and had been married for about twenty years. Reaching forty seemed to be a catalyst – as it was in my case.
What happened to the group?
I and many of the men who attended the group acquired the skills to ‘manage’ their situations or to move on in life. I left the group as I felt that I was becoming stale in the role and that a new broom was needed to give some impetus. The group grew and waned, as groups do, but now it’s functioning with a real impetus.
What would your advice be to men who are in heterosexual relationships who realise that they are attracted to men?
My first words would be ‘you’re not alone’. There are thousands of men in a similar position in the community. Try not to hide your feelings: acknowledge them, and seek some help with how to deal with them. Acknowledge your feelings. Don’t feel ashamed of them. They are part of who you are. The group will help you to do that in a way that is right for you. My key advice is ‘compartmentalise’.
Address both your heterosexual and your gay feelings. They aren’t mutually exclusive and you need to deal with them both to feel strong and whole.
What did the group do for you?
Although I facilitated the group, I also gained a lot from it. Listening to other men’s experiences reassured me that my experiences were not unique and sharing them helped other people too. Most of all, I learned the confidence to move on to function as an openly gay man. Although I left the group a few years ago, I still maintain some good friendships with some of the guys who attended the group.
One couple at the group has been together for ten years, and although that’s not what the group is about, it’s nice to see.
Every best with the newly reinvigorated group! It’s still very much needed as there are still many guys out there facing the same confusion that I was all those years ago.