There 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.