In 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.