On the Ethics of Mixed-Orientation Marriages
by Laura Skaggs Dulin MS, LAMFT
Note: Laura Skaggs and John Dulin published an update to this post on August 23, 2020, titled, Our Decision to Divorce and Remain a Family. The stories shared on the Affirmation website often represent a snapshot in time along the journey of an individual, and we welcome and are grateful to all who share their stories from along their journeys, as we believe all stories are valuable in helping ourselves and the wider community better understand the realities of being at the intersections of sexual orientation, gender identity, spirituality, and relationship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We invite you to share your story.
Josh and Lolly Weed’s recent announcement of their divorce has kicked up yet another round of discussion surrounding the ethics or lack thereof of mixed-orientation marriages. Responses now include an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune and another piece in the Deseret News, both of which push back on Josh’s assertion that mixed orientation marriages are particularly problematic. Within these response pieces, pointing to the ethics of self-determination as well as nuances within individual life experiences is commendable, however, continuing to posit mixed orientation marriages as simply one potentially problematic or life-giving marriage path among many, I believe is not.
I was recently asked to write a brief essay for an upcoming book geared towards parents of LGBT+ and same-sex attracted youth; offering whatever insight or guidance I might have to inform their journey. I chose to write the following piece:
Challenges In Mixed-Orientation Marriages
In previous generations, many LGBT+ people were both directly and indirectly encouraged to pursue marriages with persons of the opposite gender — often referred to today as a mixed-orientation marriage. This encouragement came out of a zeal for biological children, misconceptions about the nature of homosexuality, and the desire for congruence with deeply held religious beliefs that prized heterosexual couplings and forbid homosexual relationships.
As a marriage and family therapist and gay person who has lived that encouraged path of marrying someone of the opposite gender for 15 years and counting, I want to offer at least a window into some of the ethical dilemmas and challenges that can repeatedly arise when persons who have a predominant attraction to the same sex go on to marry someone of the opposite gender instead.
Two important premises to understanding why so many ethical dilemmas and challenges arise in mixed-orientation marriages are 1) a person’s sexual orientation is their most innate capacity to connect deeply with another human being and 2) sexual orientation is a persistent trait and drive throughout the individual’s lifespan.
Honesty and trust in marriage are hallmarks of healthy relationships, so being honest in a mixed-orientation marriage then means an LGBT+ person repeatedly being open with a straight spouse about their longing/internal conflict/drive to also love someone of the same gender. This reality can strain heavily on not only the LGBT+ individual, but on the straight spouse as well, and take many forms.
For many LGBT+ people in mixed-orientation marriages, complete and ongoing suppression of the desire to pair-bond with someone of the same gender can be repeatedly emotionally exhausting and lead to an incredible amount of internal grief and pain. In turn, straight spouses can also often feel the weight of their partner’s organic pull in a different relational direction; experiencing a range of painful emotions from insecurity to sadness, rejection, frustration, inadequacy, and fear about the marriage’s sustainability.
In my work with individuals and couples in mixed-orientation marriages, common challenges that occur in connection to their differences in orientation include depression, emotional and physical infidelity, compulsive pornography use, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide ideation, and problems with sexual intimacy. In one study, couples in mixed-orientation marriages were at least twice as likely to divorce as their straight married peers.
For mixed-orientation couples who stay together, partners often wrestle with the ethical dilemma of how much space to allow for the LGBT+ spouse to increase closeness with those of the same gender in order to curb distress around same-sex longings and thus improve mental health. An increase in same-sex closeness may allow for the LGBT+ spouse to meet some of their same-sex emotional and physical needs, but may also increase jealousy and insecurity in straight spouses as well as increase the risk of infidelity. Some couples in mixed orientation marriages ultimately resort to an open marriage agreement, where one or both spouses have additional sexual partners to satisfy emotional and physical needs, but long-term sustainability in such arrangements is rare.
In summary, the challenges and dilemmas faced by mixed-orientation couples can be many and most who initially chose this path did not have a clear understanding at the outset of the difficulties it would likely entail. To parents and loved ones who might be inclined to encourage a mixed-orientation marriage for an LGBT+ child, I believe it would be wise to take a serious pause in doing so. End Essay.
So what about me then?
Like Josh Weed, I am part of what might be referred to as “the never once club” — a small subset of gay people who got married to someone of the opposite sex having never explored a same-sex relationship. I have never been on a date with a woman, I have never kissed a woman — let alone anything sexual — and I’ve never engaged in the kinds of same-sex cuddling and holding groups or physical activities that many LDS people in mixed-orientation marriage life paths have ultimately gravitated to in order to somehow nourish their same-sex physical and emotional longings in some way. Nope, that is not my story. What I have done is live a fairly stereotypical heterosexual path in keeping with church teachings and experienced emotional and psychological grappling with the loss of never having a same-sex partner; confronting it like a death.
About 10 years into my marriage, I followed spiritual impressions to come out publicly, and within a year, I also had deeply spiritual experiences in which I felt God’s tender love and sense of value towards me specifically as a gay person; that this characteristic was a strength and something positive about me, with meaningful relationship capacity, as opposed to a weakness or something intrinsically wicked. You can imagine the paradox I felt in my life path… And as time went on, I found myself entering into a period of immense internal tension and relentless emotional grief; confronting more consciously the overwhelming pain of never having experienced romantic reciprocal love with a woman.
The loss of romantic love in general triggers the parts of the brain responsible for devastation and despair as well as physiological pain. I was confronting what that loss meant to me for an entire lifetime and it felt like eating an elephant, one agonizing and bitter spoonful at a time.
Within the first two years of this grieving period, which lasted a total of about 4 years, there was not a day that went by that my eyes did not flood over at some point with tears, and I struggled to show up as a wife and a mom, and in many facets of my life. There had long been something inside of me that had felt dead by not pursuing a same-sex partner and, though at times that feeling and tension around it had made me want to die, I had always pushed past it. Now, however, I was finally acknowledging it more fully, and instead of shoving it away in response to a zillion messages from well-meaning people that same-sex love and relationships were valueless and didn’t truly matter, I was letting myself feel how very deeply it mattered to me, and always had.
Eventually, there came a day where I happened to be running a grief group for some of my youth clients at work who had lost loved ones. In our curriculum, the youth were invited to end the session by writing a message about their lost loved one on a piece paper and then together we’d send them off into the sky with helium balloons, so as to honor their losses and attempt to let go of at least some of the pain. At the close of the group, there was one purple balloon left over. I began to consider what it might be like to engage in this activity for myself, but in my case, in an attempt to honor and let go of more of the pain of never having a wife.
After work, I called up my husband, John, and explained to him what I was thinking and let him know that I was headed up to the Nashville Temple. He compassionately and supportively agreed to hold down the fort with the kids and I began my hour-long drive up to the temple; contemplating what I might write.
How to capture this loss in words I pondered? There was no person to say goodbye to… no tender memories to recall. Just repeated chapters of painful life experiences filled with unrealized longings, in contrast with a hopeful possibility of a connection that again I would never know. My mind and body were made to associate having a wife with life’s greatest joy of connection. I struggled to put some part of that into words.
The following is what I ultimately wrote down and tore out my journal; sending it off that evening on a purple balloon above the temple, and offering a deeply sober and unspoken prayer in my heart that one day people like me in the church wouldn’t have to go through this kind of pain:
“A lifetime of happy, pleasurable, meaningful, warm connective moments with a woman I love and who loves me. A synergy of relational drives meant for happiness and connection.” 6/21/16
I stayed on the temple grounds that night until just after the sun went down and watched as fireflies danced around the temple gardens. Though the act of what I wrote and did that day was richly meaningful to me, it would still be another year plus after that until I felt like I had a better handle on my grief overall.
I still feel the pang of that loss from time to time to this day and imagine I may very well do so for the rest of my life. When I do feel it, I let myself cry and remember. It serves as a repeated reminder to me of why I continue to give voice and time and effort towards better days for LGBT+ people within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.