Mixed-Orientation Marriages

Photo by Vinoth Chandar

Photo by Vinoth Chandar

When my wife came out to me as bisexual two-and-a-half years ago, I was immediately overcome with a sinking feeling that this information was a game-changer. Just like that, everything I thought I knew about her, about our marriage, about what it meant to be LGBTQ, was suddenly in question.

What followed was a few painful months of reorienting myself to this new reality, not sure who I could trust, but desperately needing some wisdom and a sense of stability. I had a lot of learning to do.

When I wrote about the experience last year right here on the blog, the response was pretty overwhelming. I was introduced to the term “mixed-orientation marriage,” and dozens of people around the world whose current or past relationships also fit into this classification. I had no idea.

Just to spell it out, a mixed-orientation marriage is one in which one spouse is straight (heterosexual) and the other is not straight, or not quite straight. They may identify as gay or lesbian. Or same-sex attracted. Or asexual. Or, like my wife, bisexual.

For many couples, this isn’t a big deal. It’s not an earth-shattering, category-defining reality to accept. Perhaps they knew all this information before getting married or it otherwise doesn’t require them to change the dynamic of their relationship. For others, though, it presents a tragic scenario of unreciprocated desires.

The following advice is for this latter group. It’s for the many couples out there who are grappling with mismatched sexualtities. I’ve provided guidance and pastoral care to many of you, and this is what I’ve learned:

  • Seek answers that are right for your marriage. There is no “one size fits all” solution to these challenges. Each marriage is unique. Only you and your spouse can determine the right course of action. For some couples, divorce is the clear and only answer. For others, it’s not. Don’t measure your relationship up to someone else’s. Don’t try to replicate what you perceive to be other marriage success stories.                                                                                                                                                                                                

  • Prioritize Empathy. This cuts both ways. On the one hand, straight spouses would do well to recognize the tremendous pressure their partner likely faced to repress their attraction to the same sex. They may have grown up in a time or place where any path in life other than a traditional marriage would have been unthinkable. Perhaps they were even told that sex within a traditional marriage would “cure” them of their “unnatural” desires. On the other hand, non-straight spouses should understand their wife or husband likely has a right to feel like a victim of this new reality. Especially if there is a significant sexual incompatibility. He or she may feel as if the promises you made to each other on your wedding day are broken or empty. Even though you’ve likely done nothing malicious, your spouse may still feel wronged. So acknowledge those feelings. It is unfair.                                                                                                                               

  • Expect dissonance between your intellectual acceptance and emotional acceptance. This is especially true for straight spouses. You may learn to accept on an intellectual level your partner is not wired the same way you are, but emotionally you may still experience depression, jealousy and inadequacy. You may know the problem is not with how you look, but the way you feel on the inside is just plain unattractive. These are tough insecurities to battle, but remind yourself; you are neither unloved nor unappreciated. Figure out healthy ways in which you can receive the affirmation you need while respecting the terms you’ve established with your partner.                                                                                                           

  • Celebrate what you do have together. While sexual compatibility is vital to the health of a marriage, it’s not the sum total. Don’t let your challenges in this area detract from your strengths in others. Perhaps you make excellent co-parents. Perhaps you’re still great friends. Recognize the joy this person has brought into your life, not just the pain. This is especially important if you have kids together. You don’t want them to feel as if they are merely the ill-considered products of a faulty marriage.                                                                           

  • Advocate for yourself. Be honest--with yourself as well as your partner--about where you’re at and what you feel you are and are not getting from the relationship. Those can be really hard conversations, especially when you need something your partner may be unable to provide. However, burying those needs deep within yourself only breeds resentment or disillusionment. Perhaps by suffering in silence you are prolonging a solution that will leave you both happier.                                                                                                                                                           

  • Find support. Get connected to support groups such as the Straight Spouse NetworkPFLAG, and the Gay Christian Network. Seek out other couples in mixed-orientation marriages. Go to marriage counseling, or individual counseling. (Try a few different therapists to find one you really trust. Think of your first session like a job interview, where you’re considering whether to hire this person.)

And know, above all, that you’re not alone.