When we think of a "mixed marriage," we typically imagine two individuals of different races or religions. But the mixed-orientation marriage -- with one straight spouse and one who's gay or lesbian -- is just as real, though far more likely to operate underground.
When I work with these couples, I find them to be some of the most painful experiences in my work because of the deep love and affection they still have for one another both sexually and emotionally. They don't want to end their marriages. Each couple is completely different from another. While the current research shows that most of these couples break up immediately or within the first two years, that does not mean that the couple in my office will do that. Many choose to stay together in a variety of ways.
Recently there was an article in the New York Times, "When One Person Lives A Lie." James Guay, a marriage and family counselor in West Hollywood, Calif., was quoted as saying, "We need to have compassion. ... There are many ways to live and we don't know what it was like to be inside other people's relationships." I could not agree with him more.
Most people judge the gay spouses of mixed-orientation couples, asking why they married in the first place. They judge the straight spouse for wanting to stay. Others judge the couple if they choose to remain together and make a go of it.
Many well-intended therapists don't approve of a gay husband and straight wife staying together. They might label the man as gay or bisexual and urge him to come out and identify himself that way. Feeling that the gay man needs to fully come out of the closet, they might pressure the couple to consider divorce and separation so as to move on with their lives.
Still other therapists might advise the gay husband to remain as the partner he promised to be -- in short, rewriting history, ignoring society's heterosexism and holding him accountable as the only responsible party.
Stages of Coming Out As a Couple
When a gay spouse comes out to his or her straight spouse, the couple is likely to embark on a rollercoaster ride of emotional stages that often encompass humiliation, revenge, renewed hope, rage, and, finally, resolution. While each couple is unique, these stages can serve as a rough road map to help mixed-orientation couples make sense of their feelings, communicate honestly, and, ultimately, make informed, healthy decisions about their future.
Mixed-marriage couples come out in several typical ways. Oprah Winfrey's O magazine for December 2004 carried Aimee Lee Ball's article, "When Gay Men Happen to Straight Women." She interviewed William Wedin, Ph.D., director of Bisexual Psychological Services in New York City, who has identified four stages of the coming-out process for couples: 1) Humiliation, 2) Honeymoon, 3) Rage, and 4) Resolution.
I've used Wedin's stages as guidelines and adapted his theories to my own work with mixed-orientation couples, adding my own observations, but do suggest that his stages are guidelines, not a linear, progression. There's no linear, cookie-cutter format for mixed-orientation couples to progress through the stages of coming out together. A couple might pass from humiliation to anger to honeymoon to resolution, or go through any other variation of that sequence.
Humiliation: The Shame of Gay
When the gay spouse comes out of the closet, the straight spouse goes immediately into one bearing the secret that they are in a mixed-orientation marriage. The humiliation stage occurs when the gay husband finally comes out to his wife -- and both begin to agonize. Spouses blame themselves for not being "woman enough" or "man enough" to keep their mate interested. They may question whether they ever really enjoyed anything in terms of a partner and marriage.
At this stage, both spouses feel humiliated. Straight spouses often blame themselves for not keeping their gay spouse interested in them. Some even think there was something they did that caused their spouse to have gay sex. Straight spouses also question whether or not they ever really had anything in terms of a partner and marriage.
My goal is to help straight spouses understand that there was nothing they did or said, or didn't do or say, that made their spouse gay. Their spouse entered the marriage with a gay, lesbian or bisexual orientation from the start.
Heterosexually married gay men and women do love their spouses. The gay spouse does marry voluntarily, usually a person of the opposite sex with whom they are already good friends and often sexually attracted to with whom they are having satisfying and gratifying sex.
Heterosexually married gay men and women who come to me feel enormous responsibility and guilt. It takes them years to get through feeling that they've ruined everyone's lives, including their own. "How could I've done this to my spouse? They didn't know. This isn't fair to them. It's my entire fault, and I should suffer!" is the mantra they chant, humiliating themselves by taking on 110 percent of the accountability.
Yes, they need to take responsibility for not having come out sooner and avoided heterosexual marriage. Yes, the straight spouse may not have consciously known. But again, when I talk with the spouses of gay men and women, usually there are personal issues on their side as well. It's often no accident that they married a spouse who couldn't commit completely or be intimate and available, the way a straight spouse could.
The Honeymoon: Bringing Back the Initial Romance
This new pledge of staying together is initiated in the next stage of the coming-out process of being a mixed-orientation marriage. Both spouse wants to stay in the marriage for good reasons and really love each other. They go back to what originally drew them to one another and a sort of re-romanticizing starts happening. Wedin states, "...And almost every gay spouse is blown away by the straight spouse [wanting] to stay with them; they feels tremendous acceptance and love." Both feel loved unconditionally, and they renew their marriage vows to each other on an emotional level.
Rage: Protesting the Loss of the Marriage
This, as Wedin explains, is "When they both come to the limits of what's possible." The straight spouse is usually satisfied with the way things were before they learned about having an overtly gay spouse: getting back the person they married. But the gay spouse starts to realize that they can't retreat back into the closet. This means different things for different couples, and they tend to feel the same loss that began to weigh heavily on them before the disclosure.
The straight spouse may feel satisfied with having back the spouse they married. But the loss the gay spouse feels starts to weigh heavily, as they begin to realize that they couldn't go back into the closet.
The straight spouse understandably becomes angry at the gay spouse for not being able or willing to go back into the closet. The gay spouse becomes angry because they feel pressured to do something they know they can no longer do.
If a gay spouse were only or primarily sexually attracted to men, they might have had a chance at staying with their straight spouse. Men like this whom I've worked with use pornography and the Internet to satisfy their needs, without needing to act on them. Their wives know, and they make it work. But some men want to connect with men in emotional and relational ways, more than just sexually. This is true of lesbian spouses, too.
Resolution: A Family Affair
This stage is affected by various factors such as children, social considerations, age of the couple, belief systems and personalities, as well as levels of sexual openness between the couples. Whether or not the couples have children, this is very truly a family affair, since in-laws must be told, and reactions from both spouses' families will be part of the process.
As the therapist for couples like this, I seek to bring them back into integrity with themselves and each other. I try to help these couples keep in mind responsibility, accountability, informed consent and their own desires of how they want to move forward.
Should they stay together, or should they separate? This is a question each partner should ask -- and answer jointly: What type of marriage do they want? Will they be monogamous? Will they have an open marriage sexually? What have they invested so far, and if they do break up, what's at risk?
Whatever these couples decide should be between the two of them and not the pressure from our culture, therapists, religious leaders, family or friends. Sadly many couples who stay together end up living in a closet together to avoid the judgment coming from others.
For more information, contact the straight spouse network http://www.straightspouse.org