Forgiveness in Mixed Orientation Relationships

The following post is cross-posted at Spiritual Friendship.

The Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity has a new study available online on people in mixed orientation relationships. Recall the mixed orientation couples (MOCs) are relationships in which one partner is straight and the other partner is a sexual minority. By “sexual minority” we mean that the person experiences same-sex attraction independent of identity (that is, they may not self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual). That is a definition used by other researchers in this area and it is not unique to us.

Back to the new study. We’ve been conducting a longitudinal study (a study in which data is gathered over time) of MOCs. This most recent publication examined the experience of disclosure on the part of the sexual minority and the impact of that disclosure on the straight spouse.

Spouses often progress through stages following disclosure and obviously have a lot to navigate. Amity Buxton discusses stages spouses go through following disclosure: 1) Initial shock, denial and relief, 2) Facing, acknowledging, and accepting reality; 3) Letting go, 4) Healing, and 5) Transformation. What we have seen elsewhere is that the impact of disclosure is comparable to what Gordon and Baucom have described in the affair literature. That is, disclosure of same-sex sexuality (which can include disclosure of infidelity) is often experienced as “interpersonal trauma” as it can be a significant betrayal to the offended spouse.

We were looking at the experience and impact of forgiveness on these post-disclosure experiences. Don Baucom and his colleagues say the goal of forgiveness is “to regain a more balanced and compassionate view of the offender and event, decrease negative affect towards and avoidance of the offender and giving up the right to seek revenge or lash out towards the offender.” New understanding, new meaning–these are thought to be important. Also important: forgiveness is not reconciliation. Forgiveness sets a stage upon which decisions about whether to reconcile can be made.

What we found was that forgiveness was shown to play a role in how spouses progress through the post-disclosure stages–particularly moving toward the stages of Letting Go, Healing and Transformation. We also saw movement in both forgiveness and post-disclosure stages over the course of a year. Spouses tended to report less cognitive, emotional, and behavioral disruption over time in response to the offense.

What are the practical implications for people who are providing services or ministry to MOCs? MOCs may process disclosure in ways that are similar to how heterosexual couples process affairs. It may be helpful to create space to talk through how disclosure took place, and how each partner processed disclosure, including relational conflicts, rejection, and emotional distancing before and after disclosure.

Processing disclosure and other experiences allows everyone an opportunity to consider if forgiveness is a potential option, as forgiveness provides a healthy way to address the consequences of offenses by allowing for closure to what has been painful; forgiveness, which is itself a process, can also help prepare the couple for reconciliation. If the MOC has chosen to divorce, then forgiveness would not have marital reconciliation as its goal.

If you are interested in past posts on mixed orientation relationships, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and a post with Additional Thoughts on MOCs.

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