10 Essentials to a Thriving Marriage When One Partner Experiences Same-Gender Attraction
The topic of “mixed-orientation marriages”—marriages where one partner experiences same-sex attraction—has received quite a bit of media attention as of late. Josh Weed and his wife, Lolly, made quite a splash after a public “coming out” as a happily heterosexually-married gay Mormon. A few weeks earlier, as many people are also aware, the folks at LDS Living magazine invited my wife, Danielle, and me to share some of our story for what became the cover story of the May/June 2012 issue.
While the article was really only about our story and was published with the intent of opening up a more healthy conversation about same-gender attraction in LDS culture (see the editor’s explanation), it has invoked lots of discussion in particular about the possibilities and merits of marriage when one partner experiences homosexual attraction. Subsequently, Max Meuller in Slate Magazine, Patt Morrison at Southern California Public Radio, and Peggy Fletcher Stack in the Salt Lake Tribune have also discussed the phenomenon, profiling a number of stories, some happy and successful, some heart-breaking.
From the flood of feedback my wife and I have received following the LDS Living article (the vast majority of which has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive), there have been three major take-away lessons for me:
The first take-away is that stories like mine and Danielle’s or Josh and Lolly’s aren’t nearly so rare—or destitute—as the popular imagination would have us believe. Scores of folks in similar situations have contacted me to share a bit of their own story. Yet to me and many others, the impression is just the opposite—these stories seem to be so rare. In fact, when Josh and Lolly Weed started opening up to friends, one jokingly said, “It’s almost like we’ve encountered a real live Unicorn!” As Josh explained: “She was just saying that they were talking [about] something that not many encounter. A mythical creature. Someone who is gay, Mormon and married.” I suspect the rarity is less in our circumstances and more in the simple fact that so few who are happy have found it necessary, or been willing, to talk about their experience openly and authentically.
The fact is that there are many others who’ve chosen a similar path. For every story we hear about a marriage that ends, I have come to believe there are many more that we will never hear about that are thriving. The problem seems to be, perhaps more than anything, that those who are happily married simply blend in. If they’re doing well, they typically aren’t out talking about it, and they’re (unfortunately) not producing “It Gets Better” videos. I say “problem” because those who are coming to terms with their feelings and who are looking for happy and healthy and faithful “It Gets Better” options for their life are only getting one side of the story.
We have all heard about the more tragic stories—and I certainly wish not to minimize the reality of the pain and heartbreak of those stories. I feel deep empathy for them, and I acknowledge that tragedy is also part of the spectrum of experience around marriages in which this issue is present.
Which leads to my second take-away from this experience: many of the concerns people have expressed about heterosexual marriage for those who experience homosexual attraction are legitimate. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has said, “We are all thrilled when some who struggle with these feelings are able to marry, raise children, and achieve family happiness. But other attempts have resulted in broken hearts and broken homes” (“Helping Those Who Struggle with Same-Gender Attraction,” Ensign, October 2007). I believe we need to do all we can to reduce the risk of such broken hearts and broken homes. What I don’t believe, however, is that we must therefore discourage marriage altogether for men and women who experience same-sex attraction—or, as my wife has said, “put a Surgeon General’s Warning” on them—or qualify happy marriages as “rare,” because they’re not nearly so rare as many believe.
I hasten to add that no one wants to be pigeonholed into someone else’s experience, which leads to my third take-away. Amidst the majority of supportive responses to the LDS Living article, there were some individuals who noted they had family members who said something to the effect of, “Well, see? If they can have a happy marriage, why can’t you? What is Ty doing right that you’re doing wrong?” I want to be clear that I don’t endorse that conclusion at all, though I feel that I can empathize. I feel something very similar (as do others in my situation) when we constantly get clobbered by folks who will say, in essence, “Well, see all these marriages that have ended in divorce? If they can’t do it, neither can you. It’s only a matter of time until your marriage inevitably ends in heartbreak for your wife and kids.”
Again, there are legitimate cautions and concerns to be mindful of, and I would suggest that such a marriage should not be entered into without a certain degree of emotional and spiritual maturity. The important question to me is not whether people in these circumstances should get married—that’s a personal choice one should make in intimate communion with God. From my perspective, the important question is, once someone has determined that he or she is ready, willing, and able to enter into a gospel-centered marriage—if they desire such a marriage—what are the healthiest ways to approach it? I believe that my experience and the experiences of those in situations similar to mine can provide some clear markers and signposts for those contemplating entering into a similar marriage.
One major problem, historically, has been the presence of so much shame and taboo shrouding this topic in LDS culture that meaningful conversation has been limited, leading many to enter marriages naively, from unhealthy emotional places, or perhaps with problematic motives (such as religious, cultural, or family pressure as opposed to an inward desire). And those taboos are layered onto the pervasive heterosexual taboos about discussing sexual matters in a healthy and open way. Many LDS men and women (who do not experience same-gender attraction) have related that they were expected to shift, in the course of one wedding day, their notion of sexual expression with the opposite sex from something forbidden to something to be relished. Many find that very difficult to overcome. And I believe that these two taboos combined probably contribute to many of the tragic consequences we see in the marriages that fail. As we get better at talking about this more openly, as well as healthy and gospel-approved heterosexual sexual expression generally, we’ll be able to provide better information, and consequently, we’ll see more people doing marriage “right” and healthily—and we’ll be hearing from more and more people who have happy and successful marriages. I trust this because I’m already seeing it.
Essentials to a Successful and Thriving Marriage
Now, in light of some of the conversations that have been taking place recently, with more individuals in such marriages talking about it, and more research being done, I would like to offer some preliminary observations about common factors of healthy relationships in which one partner experiences homosexual attraction. Part of my professional research program will be to continue to explore and develop and refine the ideas explored here, so I want to place a heavy caveat that these findings must be considered preliminary. In so many ways, we are treading on insufficiently explored ground. The “essentials” listed below are a mixture of some of my own thoughts and experience and the thoughts and experiences of others I know who are in a similar situation, built loosely around the structure of some qualities of resilient marriages identified in a peer-reviewed study conducted by Jill Kays and Mark Yarhouse.
Essential One: Motivation to Marry
There are various sources of motivation for those who experience SSA to marry someone of the opposite sex—from external social, family, or religious pressures to a belief that heterosexual marriage might “fix” them to internal spiritual commitments to genuine feelings of love and desire for companionship similar to those expressed by those who do not experience SSA. Some motivations might be healthy and conducive to a resilient marriage while others might prove to be problematic for long-term maintenance of the relationship.
Sources of motivation that are going to be most conducive to a healthy, resilient marriage are those that stem from internal desire rather than internal or external pressures, whether those pressures are to conform to religious and/or family expectations, or to broader social norms. The marriage has to be something a man or woman who experiences SSA genuinely desires for himself or herself. The source of that desire could be a number of things, but it must come from within.
It’s also important to note that some people may not desire all of the blessings of the gospel, including marriage and family. Not all of our desires may be in harmony with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the fruit of a spiritually reborn heart is a change in our desires. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell often said, the journey of faith and transformation into the divine nature requires us to “educate our desires.” He taught: “Everything depends—initially and finally—on our desires. These shape our thought patterns. Our desires thus precede our deeds and lie at the very cores of our souls, tilting us toward or away from God (see D&C 4:3). God can ‘educate our desires’ (see Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p. 297). Others seek to manipulate our desires. But it is we who form the desires, the ‘thoughts and intents of [our] hearts’ (Mosiah 5:13).” (“Swallowed Up in the Will of the Father,” Ensign, November 1995)
It is certainly understandable if someone ultimately desires marriage but doesn’t currently feel ready to pursue it and is seeking to live as much of the gospel as they can, preparing themselves emotionally and spiritually until they feel ready for that blessing. Prophets have promised that all blessings promised the faithful will be ours, whether in time or eternity. It is simply important to understand that it is our innermost, spiritually-grounded desires—not our attractions or temptations or impulses—that will guide our ultimate path into the eternities, as stated in Alma 34:34. Elder Maxwell further stated: “Desire denotes a real longing or craving. Hence righteous desires are much more than passive preferences or fleeting feelings. Of course our genes, circumstances, and environments matter very much, and they shape us significantly. Yet there remains an inner zone in which we are sovereign, unless we abdicate. In this zone lies the essence of our individuality and our personal accountability. Therefore, what we insistently desire, over time, is what we will eventually become and what we will receive in eternity.” (“According to the Desire of [Our] Hearts,” Ensign, November 1996)
It must be from this inner zone that we choose to engage and nurture a celestial marriage.
Even so, it’s important that the person who experiences SSA feel a genuine sense of attraction to their spouse. I would suggest that such an attraction need not be exclusively or even primarily sexual but a genuine attraction will open the door to deeper intimacy in the relationship, and as I’ll discuss a bit more in the next section, such emotional intimacy can be a wellspring for rich and meaningful sexual expression and bonding. In addition, it doesn’t seem to matter so much that he or she feel a sense of attraction to the opposite sex generally. People do not stop being sexual beings capable of attraction to a wide number of people simply because they choose to enter into a committed and covenant relationship with one person. A man who is exclusively attracted to women will most likely continue to experience attraction to other women even after marriage. Spiritually and emotionally mature men will resist inappropriate urges to pursue or act on those impulses and will instead focus on nurturing the intimacy and commitments they experience with their spouse, channeling that desire towards them. Again, a man or women who experiences SSA may continue to experience attraction to others than his or her spouse, but a spiritually and emotionally mature and grounded individual will bridle his or her passions—guide those attractions, channeling them appropriately—in the same way heterosexual men and women do and in doing so can nurture a rich feeling of love and intimacy in their marriage.
A friend of mine who serves in a bishopric, and who also has personally wrestled to resolve feelings of attraction to other men, said that one young man came to him, trying to decide if he was “straight enough” to get married. The young man “had the perception that, to be happy, he would need to have two sex lives—the one with his wife, which he did not foresee as all that fulfilling—and his ‘private one’ which would be accompanied by a male-centered fantasy-life. He really didn’t see any harm in that—it was sort of like an ‘everybody wins’ situation. I tried to help him see that that really wasn’t all that different than an illicit affair because it was what went on in his heart that mattered—and, as crude as it sounded, his wife would always be second fiddle to his own hand. He kind of laughed at that, but then sobered up quickly and said, ‘So, is what you’re trying to tell me that, to get married to a woman, I have to give up my relationship with guys and pornography and masturbation to make it work?’”
After pondering the question, my friend said that he offered this young man the following response: “The short answer to that question is, yes, I do. To be candid, I don’t think you’re ready to even consider marriage yet. You want the trappings of a life that you grew up thinking that you were supposed to have, but your heart just isn’t in it. If it was, you wouldn’t be so focused on what it is that you will be giving up instead of what it is that you will be getting in return. Until you have the desire to have a fundamental change of heart regarding what it means to be in an eternal marriage, yours is just going to be a really great acting job.”
And there is no question that any acting job eventually gets to be exhausting. Even the most successful Broadway shows will eventually close.
It is possible to make the opposite mistake as well. Sexual orientation is often presented in the popular media as something fixed at birth, but in fact scientists are acknowledging that sexuality can be reasonably fluid for those who experience SSA at various points in their life. I am attracted to my wife, and so are many others in the same situation. And as I wrote above, attraction to one’s spouse is necessary for a successful marriage, but by itself, it is not sufficient. It has happened that when those first feelings of attraction begin to arise in someone who has never before experienced an attraction to the opposite sex, he or she may come to believe that this is all that is needed to make a marriage successful, and so all other concerns, such as addictive behaviors or other incompatibilities are swept under the rug. The implicit (and erroneous) belief being that a sufficiently strong physical or sexual attraction will ensure a strong and lasting marriage. I work professionally with the disastrous aftereffects of this erroneous belief nearly every day with individuals and couples who do not experience homosexual attraction.
Essential Two: Spiritual Foundation of Shared Vision and Genuine Love
Helen Keller is reported to have said that “the only thing worse than being born blind is being born without vision.” The Proverbist echoed that sentiment, saying, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV). Perhaps even more appropriate to modern sensibilities, a more contemporary translation of that verse renders it, “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint” (Proverbs 29:18, English Standard Version). Having a vision of what we want in life, particularly if that vision is toward a higher good or purpose or power, can have a significant influence on guiding and shaping all of our decisions. Men and women who have not internalized a genuine sense of vision for the gospel and associated ideals, including marriage and family, will be more likely to “cast off” its guiding restraints.
John Gottman, unquestionably one of the most respected and thorough marital researchers in the world, wrote that one of the most important principles of a vibrant marriage is a deep sense of shared meaning and vision. “Marriage isn’t just about raising kids, splitting chores, and making love. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together—a culture rich with symbols and rituals, and an appreciation for roles and goals that link you, that lead you to understand what it means to be a part of the family you’ve become…. The more shared meaning you can find, the deeper, richer, and more rewarding your relationship will be” (The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, p. 243-44, 246).
For believing Latter-day Saints, the goal of nurturing a kind of celestial love and marriage that rises above the downward tug of the popular culture’s shallow portrayals of what true love entails is the most important goal we can have. The Family: A Proclamation to the World describes the values and attributes that will make any marriage successful, whether one partner experiences SSA or not: “Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.”
While sexual expression as a means of bonding and nurturing deeper emotional intimacy in the relationship is an important part of marriage, “sexual orientation” is not the central organizing principle of an authentic or joy-full life. Living in integrity with our deepest-held values is, particularly our faith in our Heavenly Father and Savior Jesus Christ and Their eternal plan of for our salvation and exaltation.
Another friend of mine who has personally experienced SSA said that after 34 years of marriage to his wife, “We have a great life together. We have a great marriage. We have five kids and five grandkids.” He also noted that many of critical choices he had to make came at around the same time as the story of Carol Lynn and Gerald Pearson, as told in Carol Lynn’s touching memoir, Goodbye, I love you. “Because of my situation, I was intrigued by theirs. It is a very sad story. I was tempted many times to do what [Gerald] did early in my marriage. I chose not to, not even once. He was about two years older than I am. We are from the same generation. I chose a different path and it probably saved my life and my family. No one knew about AIDS back in those days. But we did know about fidelity in marriage. We did know about keeping the commandments. We did have marriage covenants. I am not judging, but I am so thankful that I chose the path I did.”
True love is grounded in the integrity of covenant and comes only from the eternal wellspring of Christ’s divine love. As the prophet Mormon implored, we must “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ” (Moroni 7:48). Hormones are not love; sexual chemistry is not love; emotional attachments are not love. Each of these things may be a natural and normal and healthy part of the human experience and can be present and even enjoyed with love, but they are not love and they must not be confused with it—because each of these things can be experienced without love as well. People don’t “fall into” love. They can “fall” into any one of these other things, but the pure love of Christ isn’t “fallen into.” It must be fasted and prayed for, nurtured and cultured—it’s organic and living, which also means it will die if not fed.
So many people I work with professionally will say that they “fell out of love”, which may or may not be accurate. If they ever understood and experienced true love in the first place, all it would take to “fall out of” it is for them to stop doing the things that actively nurture it. Perhaps just as often, though, if not more so, they never really understood love in the first place. They got caught up in a perfect storm of sexual chemistry, hormones, emotional attachments and fantasy (having more to do with an idealized image of the person, rather than the person him- or her-self) that, in the initial euphoric and infatuatory stage of most romantic relationships, they thought was love when in fact it was only just that—a perfect storm of sexual chemistry, hormones, emotional attachments and relational fantasy. It is no wonder that relationships like that often end as quickly and as intensely as they started.
A healthy, thriving relationship that will withstand the tests of time and storm must be grounded in an eternal vision of who we are, what our ultimate potential is, and who are spouse is—all sustained by a true understanding of what love is, and what it isn’t.
Essential Three: Open and Honest Communication
The principles so far apply to any couple, really. This next principle, however, as Kays and Yarhouse note in their research, “while communication is indicator of a strong and healthy quality for most relationships, it seems to be particularly important to mixed orientation couples in helping them maintain their relationships” (p. 338). They describe that it is not just communication that is important but, most importantly, “open and honest communication that…requires both spouses to be open, empathetic, and accepting of one another. These qualities foster good communication, which enhances intimacy and trust in the relationship. The issues salient to mixed orientation couples require them to have difficult discussion about how they feel about many personal issues, such as sexuality, grief, identi[t]y confusion, as well as if and how they are going to negotiate their relationship, thus making the ability to communicate effectively a significant factor in helping them overcome their challenges” (p. 337-338).
The honesty factor is especially important. Whether related to addressing sexual addiction concerns (such as to pornography), potential issues that might arise in relationships outside the marriage, or just general dynamics inside the marriage, partners need to feel that they can be honest and vulnerable with needs or concerns in the relationship and trust their feelings are safe with their partner.
For example, prior to my wife and I getting married I had heard so many women talk about faking orgasm with their partners because they didn’t want their partners to feel inadequate (this being the context of a broader social phenomenon not unique to mixed orientation relationships). Because of this, I asked her to commit to me to always be honest and open in our own sexual relationship, rather than feeling like she had to fake something, which I felt would be more insulting than encouraging. I similarly committed to her that I would never be with her sexually unless I could be fully present with her. I wanted to feel that our sexual relationship would be fully authentic, and I felt that fantasy or dishonesty of any sort would diminish the beauty of the intimate union we wanted to create through our sexual experience. I would be fully present with her emotionally, mentally, and spiritually in addition to sexually.
Most couples I know who have healthy and happy marriages have stated that the quality of communication they developed through sorting through issues associated with SSA have increased the quality of their relationship overall—that SSA had actually proved to be a blessing in their relationship because of the level of maturity such open and honest communication required of them. One friend of mine whose husband experiences SSA was previously married to someone who didn’t experience SSA and she’s said that while she deeply loved her previous husband (who passed away from cancer), her current marriage is much better and much more happy all around (including sexually, however ironic that may seem to some) because how well they’ve learned to communicate openly and honestly.
Essential Four: Emotional Bonding and Commitment
Most successful couples in the Kays and Yarhouse study chose to stay together because of the love and commitment they had for each other, particularly the emotional bond they felt for each other. Similar to communication, they state that “while this may be seen as a positive quality for most relationships, it is especially important for these couples. Multiple studies have found that couples who maintain their relationship choose to do so because of the love and commitment they have to their spouse and to their family. Furthermore, focus on [the emotional bonding] of their relationship rather than on their challenges has reportedly helped maintain their relationship and enhance their satisfaction” (p. 339).
In any relationship, the stronger and more secure the emotional bond, the more difficulties the relationship can withstand. The reverse is also true. One potential positive of relationships in which one partner experiences SSA is that one of the initial draws of the relationship is the friendship and the emotional bonding that develops prior to the relationship turning romantic—or to sexual feelings that arise out of the depth of that emotional intimacy.
In my judgment, an important tangential note concerns the broader phenomenon that deep emotional connection and intimacy can give rise to sexual energy that needs to be channeled appropriately. In marriage, obviously, the sexual energy that can emerge from this deep emotional bond is welcome but this phenomenon is not unique to marriage. It is not uncommon for this to hold true in same-sex friendships among even heterosexual men and women. I’ll discuss this a bit more in the next section as an area of the relationship that may require negotiation and flexibility, but I’ll offer a couple of thoughts here because while the sexual energy that can arise in deep emotional bond in marriage is welcome, it can be difficult when it arises in friendships–but it is critical that men and women who experience SSA are able to meet important needs for emotional intimacy with others of the same sex, and yet this requires a great level of emotional and spiritual maturity and boundaries for it to be engaged healthily.
Sam Keen, a psychologist and former editor of Psychology Today, wrote in his book, Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man:
“’Normal’ American men are homophobic, afraid of close friendships with other men. The moment we begin to feel warmly toward another man, the ‘homosexual’ panic button gets pressed. It makes us nervous to see French or Italian men strolling down the street arm in arm… From a cross-cultural perspective it is we who are odd; close male friendship is the norm in most societies and is usually considered a more important source of intimacy than romantic relationships.”
And yet, in the “warmness” of feelings in same-sex friendships, if sexual feelings ever do arise it is important not to be afraid of them but rather to simply channel them “within the bounds the Lord has set.” One Buddhist psychotherapist remarked,
“We have such rich and deep connections with people, with one another, truly deep loving intimacy. So how to keep that door open, how to keep that heartfelt life there, but not be seduced by the power and attraction of that intimacy? Because it is in that deep intimacy, of course, that sexual attraction and energy can arise and emerge. So how to maintain an integrity in that intimacy, and be to our feelings of love for one another, and not fall into that well of sexual misconduct? . . . I have many boundaries and ethics that I apply in those situations, particularly through my psychotherapy training” (as quoted in M. Catherine Thomas, “A Gift of Love: Perspectives for Parents,” in Voices of Hope: Latter-day Saint Perspectives on Same-Gender Attraction, p. 107)
As humans we are neurobiologically wired to need human connection. In a marriage, this emotional bond is a great blessing and serves as an important foundation to the relationship. In additional, part of the richness of the human experience is in developing these emotional bonds with a number of men and women. The important thing to remember is that we must also have the boundaries and commitments and maturity that will help us to appropriately channel all potentially associated feelings and energies that may arise.
Essential Five: Negotiation and Flexibility
Kays and Yarhouse identify “the ability to be flexible and renegotiate relationship rules” as another important protective factor related to relationship success in mixed-orientation couples. “This involves such things as redefining the meaning of their relationship, shifting the focus of their relationship, or negotiating rules for how the relationship will work.” They liken this to the general family quality of “flexibility,” or the ability to negotiate relationship roles and expectations. Too much rigidity in any family dynamic can be problematic and lead to dissatisfaction in relationships.
One area that may require flexibility may include the sexual relationship. While an active and healthy sexual relationship is important to any marriage, and should be a long-term goal of the relationship, there may be circumstances that necessitate flexibility in the short term. For example, if there’s been infidelity, there may need to be a period of healing and rebuilding of trust in which the sexual relationship is put on hiatus. For a couple I worked with professionally, there were sexual difficulties that arose as a result of childhood sexual abuse on the part of the wife and sexual addiction on the part of the husband that led them to negotiate a period of sexual abstinence in the relationship while they both pursued sexual healing before trying to rebuild their sexual relationship.
Another area that may require flexibility concerns implementation of resources for personal growth. This will also be addressed below when addressing the potential need for outside support, but it’s important to note here that if a husband or wife feels it important or helpful to attend a support group, individual or marital counseling, or, as is becoming increasingly common, experiential healing retreats—such as Journey Into Manhood, Adventure in Manhood, A Wife’s Healing Journey, or others—it will likely affect the dynamics of the relationship. The time or energy these experiences may require, or the relational changes or other emotional dynamics they may invoke, may require some flexibility.
One final area I’ll touch on here, and which relates to some of my final comments in the previous section, concerns important emotional and relational needs we have that cannot be met in the marital relationship. While our marriages and our emotional and spiritual commitments to our spouse should always be first in our list of priorities, it’s also important to nurture meaningful friendships and relationships outside the marriage. Many of our modern cultural trends make this difficult, however, including in LDS culture. Several social researchers have discussed the general decline in close, meaningful friendships people have even as our social networks explode via social media technologies. In the family studies world, it’s been oft noted that because of this decline of meaningful relationships, people tend to invest all their emotional resources into their marriage, expecting the marital relationship to fill all their emotional or social needs, which isn’t healthy or realistic.
Speaking of this experience with men, the previously-noted author, Sam Keen, has said that because of some of these cultural trends, including the common male anxiety around close relationships with other men,
“men become overdependent on women to fulfill their need for intimacy, or swallow the romantic myth hook, line, and sinker. We grow up expecting that some magic day it will happen. We will find the one special woman who will take away our loneliness and heal our alienation. The two of us will fall in love and be all things to each other; lovers, companions, helpmates, and best friends. And then we are disappointed and feel betrayed when it doesn’t happen. But any single relationship that is expected to fulfill every need will become claustrophobic, cloying, and swampy. We need same-sex friends because there are types of validation and acceptance that we receive only from our gender-mates. There is much about our experience as men that can only be shared with, and understood by, other men. There are stories we can tell only to those who have wrestled in the dark with the same demons and been wounded by the same angels. Only men understand the secret fears that go with the territory of masculinity.”
If either the male or female spouse, or both, has neglected building and nurturing healthy and appropriate relationships outside of the marriage that can meet important social and emotional needs we have, it may require some flexibility in the relationship to see that both partners are doing so even as they continue to make their relationship with each a priority and nurture the spiritual, emotional, and sexual bonds unique to the marriage relationship.
Essential Six: Unpack Your Bag[gage]
It’s critical to understand that every fallen, mortal being is going to enter marriage with a package of challenges or temptations or problems or tendencies–or, as a friend of mine likes to put it, “their own bag of crazies.” This is normal. It is expected. We each have problematic beliefs (“It’s easier to avoid problems than to face them,” “My unhappiness is someone else’s fault,” “My worth is determined by my performance,” etc), wounds and shame and insecurities, addictive tendencies, mental health issues, or other concerns that will affect the relationship. What can happen, though, if both partners are not conscious of their own “stuff,” is for either or both spouses to make SSA a scapegoat if/when concerns arise in the relationship–such that other, potentially more critical issues get left unacknowledged or unaddressed. Often the man or woman who experiences SSA may be in a good and healthy place, but it’s their spouse who is dealing with personal insecurities that become a problem.
One gentleman, who ended up getting a divorce, said that his wife, with whom he had talked about SSA before their marriage, was so personally insecure that whenever he was with a male friend–whether it was someone from church, work, a sports team, etc–she feared he was going to leave her for him. She would continually check up on him, inspecting his computer, his Facebook account, etc., to see if there was something inappropriate going on. Finally, after several years of having to deal with the insecurity and the distrust, her issues and insecurities so suffocated the life out of the relationship, they elected to divorce. It would be easy for someone to make this about “SSA” when it was really about something very different and more fundamental.
One spouse noted that when her husband was actively taking care of other mental health concerns (bi-polar disorder, OCD, social anxiety, shame), they did quite well in their relationship. But he couldn’t healthily address important issues related to managing SSA without being mentally and emotionally stable first. As soon as his mental health wavered, she said, his coping skills tanked. She noted that a major factor in the failure of their marriage was taking quality mental health care seriously. “Realizing that without [medication and quality mental health care], SSA can disguise itself as the primary problem when really its secondary to an all-consuming depression, OCD, social anxiety etc.”
To have a “whole” marriage, you have to have two reasonably “whole,” healthy individuals who are conscious of and consistently working on addressing their own insecurities, wounds, biases, beliefs, etc., and taking ownership of them and how they affect the whole of the relationship–rather than looking for a scapegoat they can blame for their unwillingness to take responsibility for their own/other problems. I’ve worked with enough gay and lesbian couples professionally, looking into their respective emotional baggage and exploring how it shows up in their relationship, to know that “being true to oneself” with regard to sexuality, as the popular mantra goes, is not an end-all be-all solution to happiness and relational satisfaction, because many of the issues people struggle with can serve to sabotage or interfere with any relationship they’re in, whether that relationship is with the same or opposite sex.
Essential Seven: Disclosure
Kays and Yarhouse found that both when and how SSA is disclosed can have a significant impact on the ability of the couple to build or maintain a healthy relationship. Whether the experience of SSA was disclosed before marriage or later into the marriage, or whether it was disclosed voluntarily or unintentionally “discovered” (perhaps through the discovery of pornography or an illicit affair), can have a significant impact on how it is received and how it can be healthily addressed within the relationship.
Kays and Yarhouse note that those who were aware of the SSA prior to marriage or early on in the relationship had an easier time maintaining the marriage than those who were told later or who discovered it unintentionally. If a potential spouse knows before marriage about the SSA and makes a personal decision to marry, the relationship is empowered by that conscious choice. If a spouse finds out later into the marriage, particularly if there has been unintentional discovery of illicit behavior, it has greater potential to leave him or her with feelings of betrayal and resentment.
In disclosing feelings of SSA, another element of “how” that can be critical is to reaffirm that these are feelings you experience but that they do not detract from the feelings of love and affection and attraction that you have for your spouse. It’s one thing to say, “I experience same-sex attraction and it’s something I’ve learned to healthily manage and it doesn’t change how I feel about you and my desire to build a life with you,” and an entirely different thing to say, “I’m gay (or lesbian) and I’m not sure I’m in love with you or attracted to you but I think I still want to try to make this work.” Needless to say, the latter is likely to invoke an entirely different response than the former.
Essential Eight: Differentiating Sexual Attraction and Identity
There is some variability in how individuals understand and identify themselves in light of their sexuality.
Identity is a factor that is often highly underestimated in understanding sexuality and it is often not differentiated from intermittent attractions or even more persistent attractions we might categorize as a general orientation. Many lay persons and professionals alike are not careful to differentiate sexual attraction from a predominantly sexual orientation from subjective psycho-emotional and socio-cultural identity constructs.
To experience feelings and attractions is one thing; to form a subjective identity around them is another. Homo-erotic desires or homo-emotional attachments have been around since the beginning of humankind—the “gay” personality or an “LGBT”-oriented cultural identity providing the framing lens through which those feelings and desires are interpreted and integrated has been around for a mere few decades. Church leaders have wisely cautioned us about adopting narrow socio-cultural identity constructs—particularly identity constructs that are predominately associated with lifestyle choices inconsistent with gospel teachings.
Popular culture’s reductionist attempts to create narrow categories around sexuality for the purpose of judgment and meaning-making are something neurobiologists and narrative theorists would refer to as a “hardening of the categories.” Without an adequate appreciation for the complexity of human experience, society has created the hard and fast sexuality categories of “lesbian,” “gay,” and “bisexual” and then they rubber-stamp them on anyone who reports experiencing attractions toward the same sex (and most dangerously, youth and adolescents, who are in fragile and impressionable stages of identity development, something irresponsibly approached in the Family Acceptance Project’s recent “LGBT” guide for LDS families). While to be referred to as “gay” doesn’t bother or offend me, it is not at all how I see or experience my own sense of identity, sexual or otherwise. My identity is merely that I’m a man who is a sexual being and I accept and own my sexuality—as opposed to being owned by it—in such a way that I’m empowered to live the kind of life I desire to live, not the way now-occasional attractions to other men might dictate. It has served to broaden my possibilities and potential for growth rather than restrict them. Some years ago I wrote about what this process was like for me in an essay called “Beyond Gay. Beyond Straight. Beyond Mormon.”
One friend of mine who has experienced homosexual attractions but who has been happily married for 25 years, stated,
“I don’t want to be pigeonholed into the slot of ‘gay,’ which society says has no attraction whatsoever to women; ‘bi,’ which has equal attraction to men and women; and ‘straight,’ which has no attraction whatsoever to men—because I don’t feel that I fit into any of those three categories… Do I think at all about guys I meet now in any kind of sexual way at all? Honestly, I don’t. If you put me in a room full of a bunch of naked guys, would there be a noticeable reaction? Probably. I don’t really know what that makes me anymore… because it’s not something I think about at this point in my life. The ‘labels’ I connect with are ‘husband,’ ‘father,’ ‘grandfather’ because it is those—not my sex drive—that steer every decision I make.”
In response to Josh Weed’s post opening up about his sexual orientation, his marriage, and his unconditional commitment to his Mormon faith, one observer noted that his choice “seems like justification for not living an authentic life.” To that I ask, just what is the measure of an authentic life? As I noted earlier in this article, I would suggest that sexual orientation should certainly not be the central organizing principle of authenticity. In fact, that seems like a particularly impoverished and (ironically) sterile idea around which to construct an identity. From my perspective, choosing to honestly live in integrity with one’s deepest values and desires—and to do so candidly, honestly, and without shame or apology—is what constitutes the best measure of an authentically-lived life. That is the heart of what I believe to be the abundant life, because it doesn’t just bless the individual, but all those around him or her, onward through the generations.
In an insightful op-ed in the New York Times, “In Search of the True Self,” Joshua Knobe, an associate professor with appointments in both Cognitive Science and in Philosophy at Yale, explored the idea of “true self” and notes that it is largely a social construction tied to individuals’ core values. He stated that “People’s ordinary understanding of the true self appears to involve a kind of value judgment, a judgment about what sorts of lives are really worth living. So people will tend to arrive at different judgments regarding the nature of [a homosexually attracted person’s] self depending on whether they think that a homosexual lifestyle truly is a valuable one.”
Essential Nine: Religious Supports
Kays and Yarhouse note that in all the studies they evaluated, many couples in resilient marriages report their religious faith as a significant source of support and strength in their marriage. They reported that “couples cited their commitment to God and desire to be obedient to God, as well as their shared religious values as motivators for maintaining their relationships. Religious activities such as prayer, corporate worship, and social support from church members can also be found as helpful coping resources” (p. 341).
In the opening of this article, I noted that having a spiritual foundation of shared vision and genuine love—an eternal perspective on life and marriage and love—is a key starting place in approaching a marriage. The idea of “religious supports” takes a different angle and concerns the importance of religious ritual and cultural supports in addition to existential embrace. Culture and ritual matters in that they help keep us grounded and focused and growing in gospel understanding. The structural and ritual supports of activity in the Church help maintain an atmosphere that nurtures gospel understanding and promotes choices that can strengthen the marriage. I would also suggest that it important to distinguish this healthy place of religion and ritual from the need to outwardly conform to the strictures of an oppressive belief structure.
Essential Ten: Outside Support
As the saying goes, no man is an island. The same could be said of couples as well—no couple, no relationship is unaffected by outside influences, whether for good or ill. Kays and Yarhouse stated that external support was identified as an important factor in fostering resilient marriages, including the couple’s ability to deal with difficulties that may arise in the marriage. External supports can take many forms, including family and friends, as well as therapeutic efforts such as support groups, individual or marital counseling, workshops, conferences, and/or retreats. More specifically, they stated, “couples found support from other individuals and couples who were in similar circumstances to be of most support and help, so there is an important role for self-help and mutual aid support groups” (p.341).
A friend of mine who experiences SSA recently attended a marriage retreat focused on marriages like the ones I’ve been discussing here. He also invited his brother and the brother’s wife to attend, even though neither of them experiences SSA. The brother attended a breakout session just for the men, and his brother said at the end of the session how in awe he was of all the men. Through their trials and adversities, they had learned a wealth of skills. He told the group he couldn’t believe how effectively they were able to support and strengthen each other, and expressed gratitude for being able to benefit from those skills in his own marriage
In closing, one might read the list of “essentials” I’ve given and conclude that a marriage under these circumstances is just too difficult and not worth the effort. That is certainly one option. But I would just point out that the divorce rate demonstrates that even “regular” marriages aren’t especially free of difficulty either. In reality, these are tools and skills that benefit every marriage, and I know that for myself and the many other couples I have talked to in the same situation, while we acknowledge the effort required, we also attest that there no doubt it’s worth the effort. These skills haven’t just made our marriages last, they’ve made them better, more fulfilling, more nourishing for both parties, than they otherwise would be. What others might consider a challenge (even a potentially fatal one), we consider (thanks to the power of faith in Jesus Christ and His atonement) to be a beautiful blessing.
I would love to hear your feedback about any of the thoughts explored here! I’d also love to hear how any of these principles–or others–have been important in your own marriage. Please submit your comments/stories below. See also the following books that can be helpful in strengthening your marriage.
Books to Help you Nurture a Thriving Marriage
The following books are a few of the “best of…” that can help you nurture a thriving marriage. For a more comprehensive list of additional books and articles to help you with a variety of issues, see the Spouses’ Get Healthy section and the Married Men and Women’s Get Healthy and Get Educated sections.