The Hook Up: The damage of secrets


My girlfriend was kicked out of her home by her Irish Catholic mom as a teen. Unfortunately, a death in her family three years ago forced her to move back in with her mom to take care of her. I didn’t think much of it. But then my girlfriend revealed to me through drunken sobs one night early in our relationship that her mom doesn’t need her anymore. She just desperately wants her mom to be a part of her life.

A few months later she met my family, but she still hadn’t told her mom about me. One night when we were at a party nearby, I was too drunk to drive home, so she hesitantly agreed to let me spend the night. She snuck me in and snuck me out the following morning, so her mom didn’t see me. It was awful.

I was devastated that my GF, who has a steady paycheck and resources to move out, chose to live a lie. She said she would find somewhere else to live, but months passed and she did nothing, which broke my heart. I didn’t bring it up. Since I come from an accepting family, I didn’t feel like my opinion counted. A few weeks ago she broke down about her mom again, and I snapped.

I told her I would not listen anymore. She chooses to stay with her mom, and I refused to talk about our future until she can deal with the problems in front of her. She set up a therapy appointment for herself and says she will talk to her mom, but my faith in her has diminished. I feel betrayed, like she took me and our relationship for granted. Do I just really not get how difficult it is to have a homophobic mother?—Tough Love

Dear TL,

It’s often a good practice to reflect on people’s vastly different lives and experiences, to walk in their shoes, as the saying goes—this builds empathy, understanding, and compassion, and is pretty essential for ensuring we don’t all stab each other in fits of wily rage.

But that said, empathy can only take you so far. Your girlfriend’s insecurities and fears are negatively impacting not only her own life but yours and your relationship. Loving someone fully means also holding what we love with the clarity and breadth of our whole being. On this front, your girlfriend is doing you a grave disservice. She is choosing to prioritize a toxic relationship with her mother at the expense of her relationship with you.

I’m sure this is taxing on your girlfriend—emotionally, psychically, spiritually. Though I don’t have mother-specific experience on this front, I think we all know the particular, stabbing feeling that comes with loving a person who does not love and accept us for who we are.

It’s up to each of us to decide when and if and how much to let in those people who are spiritually ravaging us and calling it “love.” In a similar way, it is also up to each of us to decide when enough is enough, to refuse to hold onto the toxicity of others when it is slowly destroying us.

We all have our breaking points, and you reached yours. You “snapped,” as you said. Living a lie and being treated like a secret that must be hidden from the world—that is no way to live, TL, and you have every right to feel upset.

Your girlfriend hasn’t even given her mother the chance to find out if she might accept her for who she is because she’s been lying to her and keeping your relationship a secret for so long. While it is entirely up to her when/if to come out, you do have a choice in whether or not to accept the particular terms your girlfriend has set forth.

I’m not sure if you’re using this juncture to take a break from her or simply refusing to talk about her mother, but I would encourage, nee urge you to do so until she starts to take steps toward living an authentic life. She’s starting therapy, which is a start. But it’s not enough. Living authentically means telling her mother about you; it means being vulnerable and brazen and believing in the beautifully uncertain. It means showing our loved ones a side of ourselves we think of as ugly or small because doing so is the only way to love. (For more advice on coming out, go here.)

There are times, of course, when staying in the closet temporarily is a valid or necessary choice, but it is never a sustainable life plan. Don’t compromise yourself and your integrity for the sake of another’s desperate leanings. It will eat away at you.  

You may never know what it’s like to have an unaccepting family, but you know that being someone’s “secret” is not working.

Choose you.