When Jeff Smokler first began questioning his sexuality two years into his marriage, “the first person I told was my wife,” he tells PEOPLE. For Jill Smokler, founder of the popular parenting site, Scary Mommy, leaving her husband — her soulmate — wasn’t even an option.
“I signed on for this,” she tells PEOPLE. “I could have opted out, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the feeling that Jeff was my person and now I have to walk away? It’s not a secret that he kept from me. It was our secret, and we were in it together. I didn’t want to walk away.”
But the inevitable strain it put on their marriage didn’t go away either. And on March 4, after 17 years together, Jill announced that she and her husband had agreed to divorce — because Jeff is gay.
“Jill and I viewed it as a piece of me that we had to deal with,” says Jeff. “But we both knew over time that it was becoming a bigger piece of me.”
And while they’re settling into their new lives – with Jeff living just three miles from the family home — they both admit that their journey took a toll.
“It has not been an easy road,” Jeff says. “Jill and I had painful, deep conversations about this. It was not something we swept under the rug.”
During one of those difficult conversations, Jeff says he apologized to Jill.
“I didn’t apologize for being gay, I didn’t apologize for marrying Jill or duping her because as she said, that wasn’t the case. But I still feel that I owe Jill an apology because whether or not it was intentional, I took away moments of happiness,” he says.
“My sexuality and Jill’s willingness to stick it out with me definitely changed who she is, and many times, not for the better,” he adds. “So I am very deeply sorry for that.”
Adds Jill, “It has been so hard to keep this all in and so isolating. I knew the impact that keeping this for the past 15 years was having on me. I think it impacted my physical and mental health, and I think it impacted my relationships with friends and family.
“I could only be so open and so invested in relationships. When you’re talking to your girlfriends about details of your marriage, there was so much that I couldn’t and didn’t talk about it. So I’m looking forward to deepening and strengthening relationships of my own.”
Jill admits she was also concerned about sharing her secret with her Scary Mommy readers.
“I was nervous,” she says. “When I started the website, the feedback was that people felt empowered and glad to have a place to talk and be honest. And as someone who is known to write honestly, it’s been so hard to have this big elephant that I could never address.
“I couldn’t wait to be able to talk about it. And the response has really blown me away. It has been nothing but positive.”
Now, they hope to inspire others by sharing their truth.
“The only good thing about going through any pain is you learn about yourself and you may be able to help other people,” says Jeff.
“We want to show folks that you can do divorce in a way that not just puts your children first, but can come from a place of love,” he adds. “And in our case, there has never been a shortage of love.”