14 August 2011

Intimacy in a mixed orientation marriage

I have a good heterosexual friend who has been married for over 10 years. We have been friends for a very long time.  Although he has known about my sexuality for many years, and has a generous, accepting heart, I’ve felt that it has been difficult to convey to him exactly how I feel as a homosexual man in a heterosexual marriage. The landscape of my emotions about this topic are still changing as time passes, but some feelings include loneliness, restlessness, and guilt or frustration that I cannot better meet what appear to be the expectations of a “typical” marriage.

One day while hiking in a beautiful place, I tried to explain my perspective to my friend along these lines (with some present embellishment):

“Imagine that you are married to me. Clearly you like my personality because we are good friends.  However, because of the nature of the marriage relationship, you are going to need to be intimate with me on all levels, not just in ways that friends express closeness. Not once of course, but throughout our lives, in large and small ways, from sex to cuddling in bed in the morning to giving me occasional looks that say ‘I love you in every way I can’. Can you build a life intimately connected to me, maintain at least a good percentage of this intimacy with me for decades to come, and be internally satisfied?”
Upon hearing this hypothetical scenario, my friend quickly chuckled. It was not a wholly dismissive laugh, but it was a response that impressed on my mind just how foreign it is for a straight person in a heterosexual marriage to imagine the sort of emotional, sexual, and mental challenges that a gay person faces in mixed orientation marriages. The challenges are omni-present, from those early morning same-sex fantasies when thoughts are largely unfiltered … to social interactions with other heterosexual couples where affection and love seem to flow naturally from one spouse to another in that marriage but are often hard to muster in the mixed orientation marriage … to feeling emotionally drawn to other people on a frequent basis … to feeling some loneliness even when physically close to your spouse.

I think that there is an intimacy ceiling inherent in most mixed orientation marriages. By intimacy, I mean all the ways in which two people can be close: sexually, emotionally, physically, socially, intellectually and spiritually. As gay spouses we hit against this ceiling periodically. Work and other responsibilities generally keep us busy, but then there is an occasion for sex, or a certain emotional crisis in which we want extra support from our spouse, or times when we need to tell the straight spouse how beautiful (s)he is but we just can’t say it with more than an academic understanding and stretched conviction – these are the sorts of times when we hit the intimacy ceiling.

The straight spouses bump against the intimacy ceiling too, but sometimes in different ways. For instance, it may be hard for the straight spouse to understand why his or her expressions of love don’t have a major emotional impact on the gay spouse. It may be difficult to understand why the gay spouse withdraws or needs space or feels a level of emptiness in the relationship. Expressions of physical affection from the gay spouse may be infrequent or seem unnatural. Like the gay spouse, the straight spouse may long for deeper affection and passion in the marriage, or more outwards signs of assurance that the gay spouse is really committed emotionally to the relationship.

The exact location of such a ceiling surely varies from couple to couple (as it does I’m sure for straight or gay same-orientation partnerships). But I suspect that the limitations go deeper – the ceiling is quite a bit lower – in mixed orientation marriages. This seems evident because the capacity of the gay spouse to both give and receive expressions of intimacy in the relationship may be limited. When there are limits present in these relationships (above and beyond what the average couple experiences), extra effort, compromise and compassionate empathy are required. Couples in these relationships may feel that they sacrifice some degree of fulfillment by staying in the marriage. From what I gather, heterosexual marriage is hard enough when even some of the fundamental pieces like sexual attraction and fulfilling non-sexual physical affection are already in place!

Can the ceiling on a mixed orientation marriage be raised? I don’t know. It is a major question inherent in these relationships. Perhaps a key part of the answer lies in the ratio between capacity and expectation. If intimate capacity exceeds expectations or basic needs, then perhaps the relationship can survive and even thrive. If expectations or needs are greater than emotional, sexual or romantic capacity, then perhaps the relationship will not be healthy in the long-term. Capacity and expectations need to be evaluated for each spouse. For the gay spouse, does the capacity to give emotionally, sexually, physically, and spiritually meet the expectations and needs of the straight spouse? For the straight spouse, can he or she bring aspects of love and companionship to the marriage that are fulfilling for the gay spouse?

Each couple in these marriages is different. I strongly suspect that the ability to enhance intimacy in these marriages depends on the personalities of each member of the couple, the degree of homo/bisexuality in the one spouse and the degree of flexibility of the individuals. When the intimacy ceiling can be actually raised to enable greater fulfillment by the partners, great! When individual expectations are lowered too much or needs for intimacy are downplayed to meet a ceiling that cannot be raised, this seems like a less desirable outcome. I think lasting intimacy requires that both spouses can be close to each other in authentic ways.

I hope that as others try to understand mixed orientation marriages, they will be careful to not apply a heterosexual framework in their evaluation of what these marriages should be. If you are straight, go ahead and try a mental experiment. Imagine marriage to your same-sex best friend. Can you make it work? How would you go about it? What aspects would be especially difficult for you? What extra effort, compromise or sacrifice might be needed above and beyond your current romantic relationship or marriage?


  1. Your mental experiment was very helpful for me to think through and gave me a much better insight into your life and experience. What is the corollary thought experiment from your wife's perspective?

  2. Thank you Chris! You articulated so well what I have been thinking and feeling for years.

  3. I think your discussion of capacity and expectation, while limited, is interesting and could be (somewhat) insightful into why many couples of any orientation fail to hold it together. Orientation misalignment isn't the only kind of friction that can cause these kinds of problems.

  4. @kiwibattisti. Interesting question. I suppose that the corrolary thought experiment for a straight spouse would entail putting onesself in the position of the gay spouse in a same-sex mixed orientation relationship. In other words, the gay person in such a partnership would be physically attracted to the same-sex partner, but the partner (who is heterosexual) would feel much like a gay person in a relationship such as the one I describe in the original post. But, the thought experiment in this case is really improbable. Are there any cases where a same sex couple voluntarily forms where one partner is heterosexual? I would imagine that such a situation could only arise in a society in which homosexuality is the dominant form of sexual expression and where there was some social incentive to form such a relationship despite orientation. Such a society itself probably has never existed. Confusing enough??

    1. Political lesbians? They're a category of radical feminists who decide to live as 'lesbians' despite actually being straight. If a political lesbian got involved with an actual lesbian, that would be a same-sex couple with a heterosexual partner.

  5. Although I am not in a marriage I am in a relationship with a guy whom I feel I could spend the rest of my life with. I am only 21 years old and have recently come out as a lesbian to both my boyfriend and friends. We originally broke up but have been trying to make it work ever since. I feel that he fulfills me in every way apart from the obvious. However, I feel like I need to find out more about who I am. It's not that I feel the need to express myself sexually. It's just that I need to accept that being lesbian is part of who I am and I cannot just block it off completely and ignore it. I guess why I'm writing this is to share my side of the story.. I found this article so helpful. The truth is, nothing is ever straightforward. There are so many other factors involved in a relationship. But it doesn't seem possible to me to ignore sexuality. I agree with making an extra effort and I think that openness and communication will be the most helpful tool for my boyfriend and I in the coming months/years. Thanks so much for your insight!

  6. would someone help me on this ? can a gay person be romantically in love with an individual of a different sex while being sexually attracted to those of same sex

  7. Hi Chris, I'm gay in a mixed-orientation marriage and I have turned to this post of yours frequently as my wife and I struggle. It doesn't so much comfort me as give a thoroughly comprehensive articulation of exactly how I feel. Someday I may share it with my wife, because I have such a hard time expressing my words as well as you do here. Thank you for operating this blog.


  8. Dear Chris, et al, I can't tell you how much this post and comments meant to me. I am a 29 year old female homosexual married to my hetero BFF (we got married in the LDS temple when I was 21). Coming out has been extremely emotional and difficult for me, particularly since I have been married for 8 years, and it is difficult for me to explain to myself what this means, let alone other people. I have been lucky to have such a supportive and understanding partner, but it is nice to hear from other people who understand the confusion and hurt and desire for desire that I have been experiencing. Thank you for this post, it's nice to feel a little less alone.

  9. My wife came out to herself and me in May after 33 years of marriage. Honestly my first reaction was one of compassion for the immense suffering that has been hers, since when she was young, and first felt same sex attractions, that was unthinkable. Completely outside the realms of possibility. So she's struggled with these feelings, endured several tormented friendships, and one very brief affair (sex but little love). I was and am shattered, but supportive. We've talked more than ever before. I think we were both in denial. A low-sex marriage has become a no-sex marriage. There's no new close friend in sight for her, and she's not looking, though I've told her that at least part of me wants her to know the joy of a totally giving sexual relationship. We are in therapy, together and separately.
    I would like to believe that young people today are freer to explore their sexuality; that they are less likely to repress their true orientations; and so that they are less likely to find themselves in the uncomfortable place that we are in!
    I’ve found VERY little help, support or advice for straight men married to lesbian wives trying to make a go of their marriage. My low sex-drive wife seems to have struggled against ‘wrong desires’ for so long that she’s succeeded in killing ALL desire. So I’m struggling with how to make love to a low/no desire lesbian wife. Or do we have to part, or only stay together with opening up our marriage to other partners (on one side or both)?
    We are both in a process of mourning. She is mourning the lesbian love that she never had (and never plans to have), and I’m mourning the loving exchange of desire that is the normal part of most marriages.

  10. Chris, I am puzzled. You talk about MOM as though the only possible MOM is a gay person married to a straight person. Yet bisexuals are the largest group in the LGBT rainbow:


    Fortunately, there is a lot of support now for people in MOM. including straight men married to Lesbians:


  11. @Estraven,

    Sure, bisexuals married to a straight person would have a mixed orientation marriage too. I'm only speaking from my own experience (I'm more gay than bisexual), so I wouldn't be in a position to understand how a mixed orientation marriage may or may not work for a bisexual person. However, since bisexuals are by definition also attracted to the opposite sex, I'd imagine that they could find more satisfaction in a mixed orientation marriage on average than those of us farther towards the gay end of the Kinsey scale.

  12. Chris,

    I stumbled on your blog a few days ago and have read this post several times. You make great points. My question is, what do you and your wife get out of your marriage now? How satisfied at you both, and what kind of intimacy level do you have?

    I came out to my girlfriend of 6 years, and to myself, late last year. She still wants to stay with me. We both love each other and we want to start a family, but I have serious doubts that love is enough to keep us going when I am just not attracted to her. She is a wonderful person and I harbor deep guilt for the situation I got her into, but I couldn't hold it in any longer. Still, I am seriously considering making a go of it and seeing where we end up.

  13. Brassyhub, check out the Straight Spouse Network. There is likely to be a chapter near you. There are also blog posts for MOMs.

  14. You brought up the heterosexual framework that your straight friend was operating from. I think too many gay people also operate from a similar heterosxual framework; especially deeply closeted folks. But it is getting better. I remember a time when the gay male community rarely talked about same sex love; love for many gay men back then was something only between a man and a woman. Now gay people are fighting for marriage equality. I think in time more and more gay people will stop making the same mistake so many straight people still are making and stop narrowly defining homosexuality to be just about sex but expand it to be about all the same things that heterosexuals see their relationships to be. Then gay people from this gay perspective will see that marriage to your opposite-sex best friend as totally problematic instead of an option to consider.

  15. Too much emphasis on sex. My husband and I have been married 30 years with children and grandchildren. The older we get the wiser. Sex is not intimacy. Intimacy is sharing lives, goals, and rejoicing in the achievements of children and grandchildren. I've been celibate for many years. Not ideal but I'd give up sex before my family anyday. Not the answer for all but these articles put WAY to much emphasis on sex. Narrow minded to insist sex is a requirement to a successful marriage. Be open to other lines of thinking.