Mixed Orientation Marriages – Part 2

marriage.pAs 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.

Mixed Orientation Marriages – Part 1

Divorce conceptThere has been recent interest in the experience of people in mixed orientation marriages. I thought I’d take a few blog posts to talk about these relationships in a way that is a little more accessible. So, let’s call this a series.

Mixed orientation marriages can be difficult to define. Most of us in the field tend to this of them as marriages in which one partner is a sexual minority by virtue of a homosexual orientation or strong/sustained sexual and emotional attraction to the same sex, while the other partner is heterosexual/straight. In popular language, a gay and straight person are married to one another. (As we will see, this is not always exactly right, as one or both may be bisexual, if we mean by that same-sex attracted but also attracted to the opposite sex in some meaningful capacity.)

What do we know about these marriages? Let me first say that “what we know” is always an interesting discussion. Sources of knowledge about these unique marriages range from personal anecdotes and testimonials, survey research (which is typically drawn from convenience samples – or samples of people that researchers can find conveniently – that are not necessarily an accurate representation of the “typical” mixed orientation marriage, if there is “typical”).

Ok, back to what we know. Let’s start by acknowledging that most experts in this area believe that most of these marriages do not stay together. Amity Buxton, who started the Straight Spouse Network, estimates that only one-third of couples in these marriages attempt to stay together after disclosure (of one partner being a sexual minority – keep in mind that there is a lot that is potentially involved in disclosure, so we will come back to this). Buxton estimates that of the one-third that try to stay together, only about half are together at about 3 years (in terms of follow-up with the couple).

So as we begin this discussion, we recognize that while a sizeable minority of people may find themselves in a mixed orientation marriage (Buxton estimates that some 2 million people in the U.S. are or have been in mixed orientation marriages), most do not stay in this kind of marriage. We will look at why that is, as well as why some people purposefully enter into mixed orientation marriages, having knowledge that their partner is a sexual minority before they married.

Before we turn to our research, let me say that in my experience counseling couples in mixed orientation marriages for nearly 15 years, I would say that motivations to marry vary considerably. I’ve known couples who knew before they married about their partner’s experiences of same-sex attractions; however, for some, it was framed as “in the past” and not thought to be current. For others, it was understood to be current but “under control”. It is also possible for people to be drawn to one another because there is something safe in not having expectations for much sexual behavior due to one’s own unresolved sexual issues that have more to do with intimacy, vulnerability, or other concerns. In any case, this raises questions about how people think about their same-sex sexuality, whether they see and experience it as a stable reality in their lives, as central to their sense of self (or more peripheral), and so on. It also raises questions about self-understanding, trust, and transparency with those one loves.

Also, as a clinician, I don’t take a position “for” or “against” a couple entering into (or staying in) a mixed orientation marriage. I try to help them see themselves, their partner, and a range of other issues more clearly so that they can make an informed decision about their relationship and their future.

There is a lot more I could say about my own experiences counseling couples, but I’d like to turn to larger samples (which is why we conduct research in the first place). In the largest study we conducted so far on mixed orientation marriages, we found a range of motivations for marrying. When we asked the sexual minority spouse about motivations, we found that the most common motivations were to have children and a family, it seemed like the natural or right thing to do, being in love, and wanting a companion. These seems like fairly typical motivations, by which I mean the kinds of motivations you might hear from folks entering in to a traditional marriage.

What the sexual minority spouses tended to reject as reasons for marrying were family pressure or pressure from one’s future spouse, advice from another person, and wanting to hide attractions.

Then we asked the straight spouses about their motivations. They, too, shared pretty standard motivations for marrying: that they wanted children and a family, seemed like it was the natural/right thing to do, being in love, and wanted a companion.

Straight spouses in our research tended to say they did not marry out of a desire to avoid loneliness or because of family pressure or pressure from their future spouse. Nor did they say they married because “everyone else was doing it” or because of advice from someone else.

But why would someone stay in a mixed orientation marriage after disclosure? When we asked sexual minorities about this, they tended to highlight love for their spouse, to be there for their children/family life, and because they felt they had a good marriage. Of course, there are possibly many other motivations as well.

Common reasons cited by straight spouses included for their children/family life and love, followed by things like having a good marriage, finances, and for companionship (friendship).

If you are interested in the topic of mixed orientation marriages, you might find it helpful to visit the Straight Spouse Network (forums) to read some of the first-hand accounts of people who are or have been in these marriages. I can’t say that these are representative accounts (the organization may draw more people who have been hurt by these relationships), but it is important that the topic is not too academic; that we not lose sight of the actual people who are in these marriages. So these voices can be powerful, if anecdotal.

As we look at these marriages again in Part 2, let’s be open to hearing from those who are (or have been in) these unique relationships.

Recent MercatorNet Article by Melinda Selmys

Melinda Selmys is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism. It is a particularly thoughtful reflection on the complexities surrounding sexual and religious identity conflicts. She recently wrote an article on the Mercator website that deals with the CA ban on sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) for minors.

What I appreciate about the article is that it attempts to lay out the issues in terms of difficulties. The first difficulty is what change means, followed by misrepresentations of the likelihood of success by some proponents of SOCE. In particular, I appreciated this line: “Clients must, however, have the right to receive accurate information about treatment in order to form realistic expectations and goals.”

In the mental health field, we refer to this as informed consent. It is essentially what the average person needs to know to make an informed, self-consciously chosen decision about participating in an approach to therapy. In my previous writing (tracing back to 1998), I argued that those who provide SOCE obtain advanced or expanded informed consent given the complexities and controversies surrounding change efforts.

In my own clinical practice, I do not provide SOCE; rather, I address sexual identity in a model of therapy referred to as Sexual Identity Therapy (SIT). This is an approach to therapy that is client-centered and identify-focused. It was noted in the 2009 APA Task Force Report on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation as a “third way” approach to addressing sexual identity among those who are religious and experience a conflict between their sexual and religious identities.

In the Sexual Identity Therapy Framework (SITF), we also advocate advanced informed consent to SIT, even though this model is about identity formation and personal congruence (not change of sexual orientation).

Selmys address another issue that I think is important: services to minors. Here is what she shares:

Even if young people are theoretically seeking treatment under their own power, many feel intense pressure to overcome homosexual desires in order to please their parents, and some fear punishment or recrimination if they fail. Unscrupulous therapists often market their services primarily to parents and guardians, preying on the hopes and fears of those who have the ability to place adolescents in treatment.

As I’ve shared in previous posts, I do not see that many minors seeking reorientation therapy. Perhaps they do not come to my office because that is not the therapy I provide; but I think it is more likely the case that most minors who present for therapy do so because of the distress their parents feel (as opposed to personal distress). There have been exceptions, but that is generally what I have seen.

That does not mean I am in support of the CA ban. In fact, I am against it for several reasons I’ve outlined here and here.

But interested readers will find in the article by Melinda Selmys a thoughtful reflection on the issues that are raised by those who provide SOCE. Her own story of being in a mixed orientation marriage adds another dimension to her reflections that I hope are elaborated upon in future articles, as the study of people in mixed orientation marriages has been an interest of mine.