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.

New Study Published on MOCs

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.

commitment1Let 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.

Give-ForgivenessPartner-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.

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.

Mixed Orientation Marriages – Part 2

marriage.pAs we continue with our series on Mixed Orientation Marriages, let me just offer a quick review: They are difficult to define, there is relatively little well-designed research to show us what is “typical”, and we are assuming a posture of humility in light of the complexities.

Good. Now we can look at Part 2. We already looked at motivation to enter or stay in a mixed orientation marriage. For those we have surveyed who ended their marriage, why did they tend to do that? We didn’t have many who shared that they ended their marriage, but those sexual minorities who did tended to cite being unhappy in the marriage, wanting something more, not wanting to lie/cheat anymore, and coming to a realization that they were not going to change as reasons to leave.

For spouses who shared why they left a mixed orientation marriage, we heard about their partner leaving, infidelity (on the part of their partner), lack of trust (and lies/deception), and no intimacy.

When we turn our attention to those who stay in a mixed orientation marriage, we can look at what has helped them cope. For sexual minorities, common coping behaviors included communication, social support, boundaries, denial/avoidance, and redefining the relationship. So we are looking at a lot of different ways to cope. You can imagine that some seem really healthy – communication with one another and developing a strong social support network would seem like really good coping behaviors for nearly anyone in a stressful situation. Other strategies, such as avoidance, are likely not going to be particularly helpful or healthy in the long-term.

Among straight spouses who shared how they cope, we heard about communication, denial (avoidance), social support, boundaries and redefining the relationship, among others. Again, a wide range of possibilities here.

Perhaps I should say a little more here about “redefining the relationship.” Several sexual minorities and straight spouses indicated this one. We did not define this in our study, but in the broader literature this can mean several things and may range from drawing more on the friendship relationship in their marriage and lowering expectations for sexual performance/satisfaction to opening up the relationship for one spouse (or both) to have sexual relationships outside of the marriage. Redefining the relationship does not mean one thing and there is a lot of opportunity to explore how couples demonstrate flexibility in this regard.

We also asked people in mixed orientation marriages about the quality of the relationship, including satisfaction with the relationship. Sexual minorities we surveyed tended to feel extremely positive or positive about their marriage, with others feeling less so or negative. Straight spouses tended to feel positive with more of a range of experiences both more positive than that and more negative (and sometimes much more negative).

On a scale of happiness, the average report by sexual minorities was “happy” which was in the middle. Straight spouses averaged a little lower, closer to feeling a little unhappy. Taken together, these scores might suggest a little more relationship satisfaction among sexual minorities than straight spouses, at least on average.

People also share what were some of the best things about their marriage. Sexual minorities and straight spouses tended to highlight similar things, including friendship, companionship, affection for each other, and support. They also shared some of the struggles, and these included for the sexual minority spouse same-sex attractions, finances, intimacy, sex, and lack of time. Straight spouses offered that the most difficult things were sex, intimacy, lack of trust, lack of affection, and finances.

These findings are pretty similar to what I would say I have seen in my counseling practice. I am impressed by the diversity of experiences among those in mixed orientation marriages. Not all are happy; not all are unhappy. Some deal with challenges tied to the same-sex attraction, while others deal with more commonly-experienced stressors, such as paying the bills.

I’ve also been impressed by the range of experiences of what people like in their marriage. There is often a genuine friendship or companionship, along with affection and mutual respect. These things are threatened, of course, when there is a history of infidelity, and so it is important to look at how honest a couple is with one another. But it does remind me that people marry for a lot of different reasons. Our current cultural climate emphasizes romantic love, and many today would say that romantic love is important. But historically people have married for a variety of reasons, and we might be cautious in how strictly we judge reasons for getting married or staying married, particularly if there are experiences here with which we are largely unfamiliar.

In the next post on mixed orientation marriages, we will look at how sexual minorities and straight spouses discussed their experience with sexual intimacy. Stay tuned.

Mixed Orientation Marriages – Part 1

Divorce conceptThere 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.