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?