He had swirled for months, arguing with himself. Parts of him wanted to stay in his heterosexual marriage to preserve life with his family and children, and other parts wanted to experience love and sex with another man. He came to my office frazzled because he had been teetering on the thin line between cheating with a man from Grindr and honoring his wedding vows. He was desperate to know which direction in life was right for him.
Desperately torn between two fantasies—one featuring his heterosexual life of stability and comfort and another starring a handsome, gay coworker—he wanted to know which life would leave him deeply satisfied.
In all of his angst, that 40-something family-man wanted to come out to his wife, but he didn’t know what he’d say or if it would be the beginning of a tragic end.
To confound the situation even more, a cloud of unending questions swirled around him: Was he truly gay or bi? Would he tear his family apart only to ‘hope’ to find a mature, loving man? And what if he found great sex, but nothing else to replace the love he shared with his wife? His questions left him paralyzed and powerless.
Each mixed orientation marriage (when the sexual orientations’ of the partners do not match) finds a variety of resolutions for the challenges they encounter. For some, it means accepting that the differences between them are too great, requiring that they grieve their relationships and separate amicably. Others, however, make peace with the differences between their sexual orientations, find workable solutions, and move forward as a married unit.
I’ve had the great fortune of watching mixed orientation couples navigate marital red tape, romantic high and lows, as well as coming outs and being left out. While each couple’s circumstances are unique, I have come to recognize common key areas that I encourage every couple to consider.
If you find yourself in a mixed orientation marriage, I recommend that you first take a careful inventory of your internal desires, gage the emotional climate of your marriage, as well as the mechanics of your sexual orientation.
Know your desires…both of you.
There are more queer people in straight-looking marriages than one would think. And although that is the case, only a small percentage of these couples stay together. Some find great comfort in what they and their bodies want, and a heterosexual relationship works for them, while others want and need a queer relationship to feel whole.
No matter what path is right for you, I highly recommend both partners take an inventory of their sexual and emotional desires. What do you crave romantically, sexually, and emotionally?
Taking an inventory might mean observing your emotional and sexual desires and itemizing them so you have robust awareness surrounding what you and your body desire.
Over time, couples who neither talk of their cravings nor their passions slowly find a rut that brings boredom and complacency, which in turn may stoke curiosity for another lover and. Reconnecting to your desires, however, will either help the relationship find a new stride or a new wave of thrill, passion, and mutual discovery that can reinvigorate the marriage or it will give the relationship much needed clarity that romance and sex withing the marriage is not possible. It brings a lot of comfort and peace of mind to make your decision based on self-knowing and grace rather than fear and self-compromise.
Take Temperature of your Relational Climate
There are many couples who foreclose on the marriage, giving no hope to the potential of reigniting love and thrilling sex. I get it. But I wouldn’t necessarily only blame difference in sexual orientation.
Many mixed orientation spouses, like spouses of any other type of marriage, report feeling relationally dead for years, sometimes decades. Not experiencing any type of intimacy the five domains of intimacy––emotional, sexual, spiritual, intellectual, social––leaves may partners wanting to exit their marriage. Faltering or nonexistent intimacy will provoke partners of all sexual orientations to dream of finding more elsewhere.
Living in a sexually and an emotionally dead marriage will often times provoke momentous cravings, palpitating desperation, and a major need for relief. In such en emotional position, many spouses are eager to leave their marriage, not because it makes more sense for their sexual orientation, but because they have been too lonely within their marriage. They often leave their relationship to soothe their pain, rather than making authentic relational decisions.
So before you jump the gun and assume that you have to leave because you’re starved for emotional connection or because of a difference in sexual orientation, be the thermometer of your relational climate. Recreating intimacy within all five domains may bring back your passion, friendship, and closeness. It will either help fortify your marriage or it will make separating as close friends a lot smoother.
All this to say, when considering the end of a marriage, don’t blame your sexual orientation right out the gate and don’t forget about emotional intimacy, either.
Get Clear on Your Sexual Orientation
Although sexual orientation is largely experienced when visual stimulation and personality compatibility is present, emotional intimacy is a major component that rarely gets recognition it deserves. The safety of emotional vulnerability is a major—I mean MAJOR—green light for the autonomic nervous system, where sexual orientation and sexual arousal live. So although it may feel like sexual activity or erotica is the only indication of sexual orientation, emotional intimacy is usually a strong indicator of what will initiate sexual arousal. And if you discover that you are either bisexual, demisexual, or pansexual, you’ll have a lot more to consider as you consider which direction is right for you.
For coming out partners, learning about their sexual orientation and finding the courage to talk about their desires and romantic yearnings is a phenomenal practice. Doing so destigmatizes: 1) alternative forms of sex, 2) sexuality’s diversity and 3) romantic and sexual cravings. If you take the time to clarify your sexual orientation, both you and your partner will have more information to make well-informed, educated decisions.
Identify the Unknown
Many people coming out of the closet are guided by fantasies, attractions, and unexplored desires. They haven’t had a sexual encounter with a person of the same gender and their curiosities run painfully wild. The lack of sure-fire experiences can create a lot of tension and helplessness.
For coming out spouses in this situation, the first and most helpful step is to talk openly about your desires. Alongside your partner, you can create boundaries that sustain self-discovery and respect the safety of all involved. Some couples agree that gay or lesbian friendships are okay, giving the coming out spouse a chance to integrate into the LGBTQIA+ community. Others determine that a short-term open relationship helps both partners solidify decisions. And still, others choose monogamy until both feel safe in taking any potential next step. Regardless of your value system and ethics, boundaries will help facilitate the coming out process and the camaraderie of the couple as they evolve.
Have I seen mixed orientation marriages work? Of course. Have I seen couples try their hardest only to see their marriage eventually end? Yes.
All this to say, let your truth be true. Don’t put pressure to be someone you cannot, but also gather the courage to acknowledge your full capacity—for love, romance, intimacy and sex. Honor yourself and your spouse by making decisions out of courage, not fear. It’s hard, for sure. But in a moment when life as you know it seems to be ending, remember that many other people have walked this path before you. You are not alone.
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