The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: Divorce is imminent. I’m agonized by where to even start.

In the wake of an affair, I can’t bear to come clean to my family.

(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My spouse told me earlier this week that they want a divorce. I had a gay affair. I was pushing for us to work past this. We both love each other, but I guess emotional love isn’t enough.

The thing is — I don’t even know where to start. I can’t tell my family. I don’t want to come out. I feel like a failure. No one in my family is divorced.

We have no kids and agreed to split everything 50/50, so this will be painful but not spiteful. Is there a step-by-step guide to this? Where do I live? What do I tell people? How do I navigate?

(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)


●“I can’t tell my family”: Yes, you can. Your current agony began with this truth: You are one person trying to live as another. Until you resolve this fundamental dissonance, you will always struggle to navigate. “Where to start” is accepting who you are, then deciding how you want to live. If you choose again to be one thing but live as another — which I certainly don’t advise — then let this experience with your spouse teach you at least to be honest with any co-stars in your act.

●“I don’t want to come out”: See above.

●“I feel like a failure”: You are not a failure; your marriage has failed. Big difference. Please resist the urge to see cosmic meaning in earthly things. When it all feels overwhelming, take each piece and deal with it as pragmatically as you can. 1. Find place to live. 2. Schedule the move. 3. Notify people on need-to-know basis. Etc.

●“No one in my family is divorced”: Hey, somebody had to be first! Flippant, yes, but you know what? You go with it. It’ll keep you from going nuts.

●“Is there a step-by-step guide to this?”: There’s a step-by-step guide to everything. Google away.

But you seem to be more in need of a safe place to sort out your feelings. A good, reputable therapist is an investment in your future. Try PFLAG, too, for coming-out support: .

●“Where do I live?”: If the choice overwhelms you, find something short-term while you regroup.

●“What do I tell people?”: “[Spouse] and I are separating. I’d rather not get into details now, thanks.”

●“How do I navigate?”: With confidence that you will be okay. Such seismic shifts are scary but also necessary and, for that reason, ultimately to your benefit. Hang in there.

Re: Divorcing:

I was the “first” in my family to get divorced, when a seemingly picture-perfect marriage fell apart. I didn’t have the gay affair complication, but I felt all the things you feel. I was pleasantly surprised at the support I got from my (fairly conservative) family. My friends were a bedrock. But I never could have made it through without my amazing therapist.

It’s an overused phrase now, but it does get better. I am happy and healthy today in a way that I didn’t think possible in the awful first moments you find yourself in right now.


Thank you. I’ll defend “It gets better,” though. Heavy use makes it easy to remember, and therefore a lifeline. Remember how it started ( . . . and hi, Dan).

Tomorrow: Breaking the news.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at

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