As we continue with our series on Mixed Orientation Marriages, let me just offer a quick review: They are difficult to define, there is relatively little well-designed research to show us what is “typical”, and we are assuming a posture of humility in light of the complexities.
Good. Now we can look at Part 2. We already looked at motivation to enter or stay in a mixed orientation marriage. For those we have surveyed who ended their marriage, why did they tend to do that? We didn’t have many who shared that they ended their marriage, but those sexual minorities who did tended to cite being unhappy in the marriage, wanting something more, not wanting to lie/cheat anymore, and coming to a realization that they were not going to change as reasons to leave.
For spouses who shared why they left a mixed orientation marriage, we heard about their partner leaving, infidelity (on the part of their partner), lack of trust (and lies/deception), and no intimacy.
When we turn our attention to those who stay in a mixed orientation marriage, we can look at what has helped them cope. For sexual minorities, common coping behaviors included communication, social support, boundaries, denial/avoidance, and redefining the relationship. So we are looking at a lot of different ways to cope. You can imagine that some seem really healthy – communication with one another and developing a strong social support network would seem like really good coping behaviors for nearly anyone in a stressful situation. Other strategies, such as avoidance, are likely not going to be particularly helpful or healthy in the long-term.
Among straight spouses who shared how they cope, we heard about communication, denial (avoidance), social support, boundaries and redefining the relationship, among others. Again, a wide range of possibilities here.
Perhaps I should say a little more here about “redefining the relationship.” Several sexual minorities and straight spouses indicated this one. We did not define this in our study, but in the broader literature this can mean several things and may range from drawing more on the friendship relationship in their marriage and lowering expectations for sexual performance/satisfaction to opening up the relationship for one spouse (or both) to have sexual relationships outside of the marriage. Redefining the relationship does not mean one thing and there is a lot of opportunity to explore how couples demonstrate flexibility in this regard.
We also asked people in mixed orientation marriages about the quality of the relationship, including satisfaction with the relationship. Sexual minorities we surveyed tended to feel extremely positive or positive about their marriage, with others feeling less so or negative. Straight spouses tended to feel positive with more of a range of experiences both more positive than that and more negative (and sometimes much more negative).
On a scale of happiness, the average report by sexual minorities was “happy” which was in the middle. Straight spouses averaged a little lower, closer to feeling a little unhappy. Taken together, these scores might suggest a little more relationship satisfaction among sexual minorities than straight spouses, at least on average.
People also share what were some of the best things about their marriage. Sexual minorities and straight spouses tended to highlight similar things, including friendship, companionship, affection for each other, and support. They also shared some of the struggles, and these included for the sexual minority spouse same-sex attractions, finances, intimacy, sex, and lack of time. Straight spouses offered that the most difficult things were sex, intimacy, lack of trust, lack of affection, and finances.
These findings are pretty similar to what I would say I have seen in my counseling practice. I am impressed by the diversity of experiences among those in mixed orientation marriages. Not all are happy; not all are unhappy. Some deal with challenges tied to the same-sex attraction, while others deal with more commonly-experienced stressors, such as paying the bills.
I’ve also been impressed by the range of experiences of what people like in their marriage. There is often a genuine friendship or companionship, along with affection and mutual respect. These things are threatened, of course, when there is a history of infidelity, and so it is important to look at how honest a couple is with one another. But it does remind me that people marry for a lot of different reasons. Our current cultural climate emphasizes romantic love, and many today would say that romantic love is important. But historically people have married for a variety of reasons, and we might be cautious in how strictly we judge reasons for getting married or staying married, particularly if there are experiences here with which we are largely unfamiliar.
In the next post on mixed orientation marriages, we will look at how sexual minorities and straight spouses discussed their experience with sexual intimacy. Stay tuned.