An Additional Thought on Mixed Orientation Marriages

Triangular-Love-TheoryI just finished a four-part series on mixed orientation marriages, but I had I was recently asked if people in mixed orientation marriages might have advantages or strengths relative to people in heterosexual marriages. It’s an interesting question. I don’t think we have any data here apart from anecdotal accounts from people I’ve known personally and professionally, so let me say that up front.

At the same time, when I was asked about the possibility of relative strengths, I first thought about Robert Sternberg’s triangle theory of love in which there are thought to be three components: intimacy, passion, and commitment. According to the theory, marriages grow and reflect different types of love, depending upon the relative strength of these three components. Intimacy refers to a couple’s connectedness or sense of “us” or emotional bond. Passion refers to romantic love. Commitment is concerned with the decision to stay together and how a couple will develop accumulated shared experiences over time.

What you get, then, with Sternberg’s triangle theory of love are different kinds of experiences of love. A romantic love is the result of strengths in romantic and intimate components, while a fatuous love combines passion and commitment (think “getting married in Vegas after meeting the person five hours ago”). A companionate love reflects relative strengths in intimacy and commitment.

So to return to the question of possible strengths in mixed orientation marriages. I don’t know, but if I were to develop a hypothesis, it would be this: that perhaps these unique marriages have an opportunity to experience a companionate love in ways that could be stronger than what is seen (on average) in heterosexual marriages, which might reflect any of these three types of love, and perhaps companionate love to a lesser degree because the other variables are more in play. So mixed orientation couples may or may not foster “more” of this kind of commitment and/or friendship than what a heterosexual couple has the capacity to develop. But perhaps these dimensions are cultivated more intentionally (and out of necessity) for some.

I have known couples who seem to have developed a strong emotional bond, a sense of “us”, a cohesion, and so on, while also honoring a commitment that they have made to one another. They may have to be more intentional about sexual intimacy, and “passion” might not be a word that they often use to describe times of sexual intimacy. But, so what? Why would others judge what that should look like for this couple? Why not respect the relative strengths that different couples would have? I think what is most important is that both know what they have together, what they are able to enjoy most readily, how to grow in areas that are not necessarily strengths (and if they want to nurture or grow in those areas), and so on.

To me, it’s a research question rather than a position I hold. It is difficult to say, but it is certainly an interesting consideration. Keep in mind, too, that whether or not it is the case on average, those averages do not speak to any specific marriage. There is a uniqueness to every marriage that also needs to be part of any discussion.

Mixed Orientation Marriages – Part 4

couples-counselingIn Part 4 of our series on mixed orientation marriages, we turn our attention to how counselors might work with these unique couples. In an article I coauthored a couple of years ago, we introduced the PARE Model for working with mixed orientation couples. PARE stands for (1) Provide Sexual Identity Therapy, (2) Address ‘interpersonal trauma’; (3) foster Resilience through marriage counseling; and (4) Enhance sexual intimacy. Let’s take a look at each of these.

The first step is to provide Sexual Identity Therapy (SIT). SIT refers to an approach to addressing sexual identity concerns in clinical practice. SIT client-centered and identity-focused. The SIT Framework can be downloaded and read here.  In my own work providing SIT, I see it as drawing on the results from a series of studies I’ve been doing on sexual identity development. In terms of the core elements of how I provide SIT, I tend to focus on the following: (1) a 3-tier distinction between same-sex attractions, homosexual orientation, and gay identity; (2) weighted aspects of identity; (3) attributional search for sexual identity; and (4) personal congruence.

So in this first step I would provide SIT to the sexual minority spouse. Some of the psychoeducational concepts would also be helpful for the straight spouse to hear. In particular, I have found it helpful to explain the 3-tier distinction and weighted aspects of identity. Both of these discussions provide options for both the sexual minority spouse and the straight spouse in terms of moving away from a pre-determined script for making sense out of same-sex sexuality. It provides them with what someone explained to me felt like “intellectual space” to make decisions about identity and behavior while not denying or minimizing same-sex attractions.

The second step in the PARE model is to address “interpersonal trauma,” which refers to the serious injury that may arise from discovery or disclosure of same-sex sexuality. Then language actually comes from the literature on affairs. It has been suggested that the disclosure or discovery of same-sex attraction in one partner is experienced by some straight partners as an interpersonal injury or a betrayal of trust, especially if there has been same-sex behavior.

In this stage it is important to work through various steps for responding to broken trust, and I have found Gordon and Baucom’s stages of exploring (1) impact (understanding the impact of the disclosure/discovery on the marriage and on each spouse); (2) a search for meaning (placing the disclosure/discovery in a broader context/explanatory framework); and (3) recovery (moving past the pain and hurt and anger, reevaluating the relationship, and making more informed, intentional decisions about one’s future), to be helpful here. I have found that depending on the severity of broken trust, it may take upwards of one year to really navigate the interpersonal injury. Even then, there may be ongoing issues associated with rebuilding trust if the couple decides to work on restoring their marriage. This work is ideally occurring parallel to (at the same time as) the SIT services provided to the sexual minority spouse.

Third, the PARE models turns to fostering resilience through marriage counseling. At the end of SIT for the sexual minority spouse and exploring interpersonal trauma for the straight spouse, both the sexual minority spouse and the straight spouse are usually in a better position to make informed decisions about the future of their marriage. If they decide to work on their marriage, we would look at marriage counseling together. What we see in the literature and in our own research is that it can be helpful to foster frequent and honest communication, strengthen the emotional bond in the marriage (the sense of “us”), and explore and demonstrate more flexibility in their existing roles (exploring ways for both partners to meet emotional and physical interests and needs), learn personal and relational coping strategies, and develop social support.

The final part of the PARE Model–E–is for enhancing sexual intimacy. I usually discuss the following principles:

  • They are developing something unique together–their sexual intimacy (not bringing in comparisons);
  • There are different experiences of desire that may be helpful to discuss (for example, a kind of initiating desire that seeks sexual intimacy, which can be contrasted with a more responsive or receptive desire that is present when a person experiences proper (to them) emotional and/or physical stimulation;
  • Explore lifestyle and daily/weekly routine in terms of giving sexual intimacy the time and attention it may need;
  • Learn enhancement exercises, communication in general (and about sexual intimacy in particular), and mindfulness.

These are just a few basic principles that have at times guided my discussions with couples. None of this is direct advice for how any particular couple should move forward. These principles would need to be applied to the unique experiences of any specific couple that is navigating this terrain.

Mixed Orientation Marriages – Part 3

intimacyIn Part 3 of our series on mixed orientation marriages, we turn to the question of sexual intimacy. What do people in mixed orientation marriages say about intimacy with their partner?

People are often interested in frequency, so we can start there. Sexual minorities reported 4.88 times per month of any type of sexual relations, whereas straight spouses reported an average of 2.83 times per month. We tried to get at something similar with a different question about sexual intercourse. Sexual minorities most often indicated having sex with their spouses 1-3 times per week, which was by 41% of the sample. Others did report Never, Less than once a month, and About once a month, just to give you a sense for the variety here.

When we asked straight spouses about frequency of sexual intercourse, the highest percentage was actually Never (at 44.5% of the sample), followed by 1-3 times per week, Less than once a month, About once a month, and Greater than 4x per week. That is tremendous range when you think about it. Keep in mind that these straight spouses were not necessarily married to the sexual minorities who participated in the study.

Also, keep in mind that in this larger study, we had people who were currently in mixed orientation marriages, as well as people who had previously been in mixed orientation marriages. When someone had been in a mixed orientation marriage (but were not currently), we asked them to provide information on the last year or two of their marriage, so I suspect that accounts for such variability. You essentially have people who are currently in a mixed orientation marriage in which they are likely sexually intimate, as well as people who are no longer in those marriages and may have had poor or no sexual relations in the year or two before the marriage ended.

We may run into the same challenges when we look at satisfaction with sexual intimacy. On a scale of 1 (Terrible) to 9 (Great), sexual minorities were, on average, indicating a 6 (somewhere between “not pleasant, not unpleasant” and “more pleasant than unpleasant”), whereas straight spouses indicated a 4.6 (“not pleasant, not unpleasant”).

Given the importance of disclosure of same-sex sexuality in many mixed orientation marriages, we also asked about how their sex lives changed at that point. For sexual minorities, the main themes were “negative change”, although fewer did report “improvement” (in that it may have broadened in activities or focused more on emotional connections).

Straight spouses tended to report “no change” or “negative change”, followed by some who reported “improvement”.

I would note that a few of the sexual minorities spoke of a “honeymoon” period after disclosure in which sex with their straight spouse dramatically increased in frequency (then later fell off or ended). The folks who shared this with us attributed it (in hindsight) to an effort on the part of the straight spouse to compensate for what they perceived as a “sexual problem” represented by the fact that their spouse was gay or to help the sexual minority spouse become attracted to them. The sexual minorities who shared about this did not see this dramatic upswing in sex as a sustainable or helpful practice over time.

In a separate set of analyses one of our students did for her dissertation (with this same sample), we found that relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction were highly related to one another. We don’t know the direction, however. It may be that folks who report higher relationship satisfaction do so because of higher sexual satisfaction; the opposite could also be true–those who report higher sexual satisfaction do so because of greater relationship satisfaction. In any case, there does appear to be a relationship.

So I would say that this is an important area to attend to. However, different couples feel differently about talking about their sex life with anyone outside of their marriage. That is understandable. With mixed orientation couples, there is also the potential for concern that a counselor/therapist will not understand some of the unique issues that may be present, may make their own judgments about what the couple should do, and so on.

In my own clinical practice I have worked with several mixed orientation couples. We often at some point discuss sexual intimacy, just as you would discuss it with couple in which both partners are straight. When I meet with mixed orientation couples, I provide a lot of education about what others have shared about similar marriages, while I am also listening to them tell me about the unique aspects of their marriage. I also draw on basic principles for improving sexual intimacy if that is what they identify as a goal. These can be sensitively tailored to the needs and experiences of mixed orientation couples.

In our next segment (Part 4 of this series), we can draw on what we’ve covered so far to discuss how counselors might actually work with mixed orientation couples in clinical practice.