Academia is like farming. From the initial design of a study to the actual publication of it in a peer-reviewed journal takes time and patience. A study we conducted on mixed orientation couples has finally been published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. It is a really interesting quantitative study, and I think it adds something to what we know about these unique relationships.
Let me say at the outset that the findings might seem somewhat obvious, but a lot of what research does is provide empirical support for what most of us might assume would be true if we gave it some thought. If you were to reflect on what you think would go into a satisfying relationship, you might think that a commitment to the relationship was a part of that. You might also think that having a disposition toward forgiving your partner was also going to be important to relationship quality. Well, that’s really what we found among people who are in a mixed orientation relationship.
So a mixed orientation couple is a relationship in which one partner is heterosexual and the other is a sexual minority. When we refer to a “sexual minority,” we are thinking of someone who experiences same-sex attraction regardless of behavior or identity label. That may seem rather broad, but we are using a definition that has been used by others within the gay community who conduct comparable research. In terms of our sample, we had 105 sexual minorities and 160 spouses participate in this study. Most of the sexual minorities were male (53%) and most of the spouses of sexual minorities were female (74%). (Note that this was not a study of the couples but of people in a mixed orientation relationship–hence the percentages.)
As a group, folks were mildly distressed (on average and in terms of their overall relationship quality/satisfaction). They reported low/moderate levels of relationship commitment. In terms of the study hypotheses, we were looking at what predicted relationship quality. Essentially, relationship commitment, partner-focused forgiveness, and contractual-versus-covenental marital values (collectively) predicted relationship quality.
Relationship commitment contributed the most to relationship quality, followed by partner-focused forgiveness. Contractual-versus-covenental marital values did not add that much. Regarding relationship commitment, we say that “commitment is a protective factor for promoting relationship quality, satisfaction, and longevity in this population.” We note that relationship commitment is not unique to mixed orientation couples, but it does seem to be connected to relationship quality. It might be promoted by thinking about and strengthening one’s long-term goals or vision for themselves as a couple, reflecting on the commitment/investment they have already made, and fostering a sense of cohesion (or a sense of US) as a couple.
Partner-focused forgiveness is also important for relationship quality. This is true in other relationships as well, but in mixed orientation couples there are issues the come up that are rather unique related to disclosure, any sense of betrayal, and whether extra-relational intimacy has occurred. This kind of forgiveness is essentially a propensity to forgive one’s partner, and this appears to be important in these relationships. To place this in context, we know from other research that forgiveness in general is a good thing to promote. It is associated with reduced stress, improved physical/emotional well-being, and enhanced relationships. Moreover, in relationships, promoting forgiveness can aid with reducing conflict, enhancing intimacy, and improving overall relationship satisfaction.
So there you have it. As I said, in some ways research confirms what you might already suspect if you were to give it some thought. But so little research has been done with people in mixed orientation relationships, and much of the research has been more qualitative in nature (based on interviews, for example), so a study based on quantitative measures does add something to the literature.
We have a couple of other papers coming on mixed orientation relationships, as we studied these same couples over a few years. Those are currently either under review or in the process of being written up and submitted. Again, from start to finish, research simply takes time. There’s a kind of slow plodding about it that is hard to appreciate unless you spend much time in this arena, and I’m grateful for students and colleagues who have stayed with these projects and helped bring them to fruition.