Mixed Orientation Marriages

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Mixed Orientation Marriages--
Issues and Possibilities for Gay/Straight Marriages

J. Benjamin Roe
Ministry in Human Sexuality
Lincoln, Nebraska


The young man in his early 30's walked into my office and sat down uneasily. "I'm gay and I want some help," he said. I was a young pastor in my first parish in Southeast Nebraska. This was my invitation to become more knowledgeable about homosexuality and mixed orientation relationships in general and the gay community in Nebraska in particular.

He was married, and had been for about eight years.  He eventually got divorced, but not before he and his wife received ridicule from family and a few in the community.

Since then, I have worked with a number of mixed orientation marriages and relationships and see this as an area in which knowledgeable and compassionate counselors and therapists can help to build the strengths of these families.

Marriage and homosexually-oriented persons are not mutually exclusive. Gay and Lesbian persons, like heterosexual persons, get married for a variety of reasons, and almost without exception, love for their spouse is at the top of the list. Other reasons include desire for a family and all the advantages of family life in this culture, as well as society and family expectations (Coleman, 1982a).

Sexual Orientation and Marriage

To understand better why this might be the case, one needs to understand something about sexual orientation. This is an area only recently being studied in its own right (De Cecco, 1981). Much study and theorizing has centered on the "causes" of homosexuality, while now it is clear that we need to understand what "causes" heterosexuality as well; or in other words, the origins of orientation in general as well as any orientation-related characteristics.

Sexual orientation is sometimes conceived as the outer layer of a three-layer gender identity "onion." The center is the sense of being male or famale: core gender identity. The second layer is the way this is expressed in physical and psychological ways, gestures, speech, dress, etc.: gender role behavior. Sexual orientation is the "object of one's affections," the attractions, fantasies, physical (usually genital) sexual behavior with persons of the opposite and/or same sex (Laybourne, 1977).

Kinsey and his researchers in the 1940's had to develop a continuum to describe the results of their studies. They discovered that not only were there persons who were exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual, but there were persons whose behavior and "psychologic reactions" fit all combinations of same and opposite sex components. The continuum ran from 0 to 6, 0 being exclusively heterosexual and 6 being exclusively homosexual (Kinsey, 1948).

It is entirely possible for a person to get married based on their opposite sex attractions, fantasies, and behavior, and discover (or rediscover) later in life their same-sex attractions and fantasies, which may be incidental or they may be equally as strong or stronger.

The nature of the coming out process lends understanding to this. Coleman (1982b) has described the five stages as pre-coming out, coming out, exploration, first relationships, and identity integration. In the pre-coming out stage, individuals are "not consciously aware of same-sex feelings" (Coleman, 1982b, p.33). The time between this stage and the next, coming out--recognition and acknowledgment of homosexual feelings--can be years. In one study, the average span of time for males was four and for females two years, but recognition and coming out can happen well after adolescence (Coleman, 1982b).

Thus, in addition to love for the spouse and the other reasons stated above, a lack of awareness also can be a reason for a bisexual or predominately homosexual person to marry. But there are also homosexual or bisexual persons who marry out of the hope or expectation that they will grow out of their same-sex feelings or that they just need a good marriage and good sex life and the feelings will go away. In other words, some marry in hopes that marriage will be in some sense a "cure."

Another reason for marriage is as a "cover" for a career in a sensitive profession. Put differently, one is dedicated to one's chosen profession of teaching, ministry, politics, for example, and chooses to marry and not to act on same-sex desires or to do so in occasional and anonymous ways.

In most of what follows, the homosexual component of a spouse will have become known after marriage. However, there are marriages and relationships in which the homosexuality or bisexuality of a partner was known, acknowledged, and affirmed by both partners before marriage. Some of the issues are experienced differently because of this knowledge and affirmation, but there are surprises along the way, too. Nahas and Turley (1979) discuss this kind of relationship, as does Maddox (1982).

Therapist Needs

Before talking about the specific issues a mixed orientation couple might face, I think it is important to talk about what a counselor or therapist needs in order to work with these situations.

Therapist Jean Gochros (1985) has named what I think are important prerequisites. The first is the conviction that homosexual feelings can be compatible with heterosexual marriage, and that extramarital sexual expression "can be compatible with a good marital relationship."

Another prerequisite is recognition of the sexism and homophobia in almost all persons in our culture today, including counselors and therapists. We as therapists and counselors must be willing to examine and deal with our own attitudes "as well as helping clients to examine theirs."

Third, Gochros writes, "perhaps in this situation even more than others, therapists need the willingness to engage clients as intelligent and equal partners in shared problem solving, and to be honest about one's own errors or lack of knowledge without abdicating the leadership role in providing help."

Fourth, clients and therapists are exploring new territory, largely uncharted. Therefore preparation needs to be made by all for the unanticipated, errors, confusion, unexpected feelings and prejudice.

Finally, counselors and therapists who expect to do adequate work with mixed orientation marriages and relationships need the ability to accept and work with complexity without rigidity.

Sometimes therapists assume that "gay/straight marriage is no different from any other marriage and that the only issue in counseling is whether the straight partner can accept the homosexuality."

Other times the assumption is that "gayness and marriage are so incompatible that the only therapeutic task is to help the couple accept divorce" (Gochros, 1985). Both assumptions do a disservice to the complexity of the possible issues and the variety of potential resolutions.


Mixed orientation relationships highlight the crucial components and skills of any good marriage: self awareness, self esteem, trust, open communication and conflict resolution skills, independence and individuality, genuine liking and intimacy are among some of the needs these marriages have in common with others. Herb Goldberg has named these components of intimate, playful relationships: "intrinsic attraction..." not function; "mutual knowing..."; "stream-of-consciousness relating..." and spontaneous conversation; "transcendence of gender defensiveness..."; "authentic attraction and interaction based on want rather than need..."; "maintenance of separate identities..."; "mutual acceptance..."; "objective love and admiration for one's partner" as a friend (Goldberg, 1983, p. 187-189).

One recent study of long-term marriages (over 15 years) gave these as top reasons for their longevity in relationship:

  • my spouse is my best friend;
  • I like my spouse as a person;
  • marriage is a long-term commitment;
  • marriage is sacred;
  • we agree on aims and goals;
  • my spouse has grown more interesting;
  • I want the relationship to succeed (Lauer & Lauer, 1985, p. 24).

Sex was 12th or 14th on the list.

The marriage partners will likely need to strengthen or deepen their self awareness and self esteem. The homosexual or bisexual partner will likely need to continue increasing awareness of the whole range of feelings which were likely suppressed or repressed along with the homosexual ones early in adolescence (Clark, 1977). Not only awareness of same sex attractions but also feelings such as sadness, happiness, anger, and fear will also need to be allowed into consciousness. Likely the counselor will need to coach the appropriate processing and expression of these feelings. The heterosexual partner may also need this kind of permission and coaching for the feelings that are likely to be experienced.

Self esteem and ownership of the unique gifts that each partner brings to life and relationship are common agenda: the non-heterosexual partner will need to deal with internalized homophobia, that set of strongly negative feelings, ideas, values, and myths about homosexuality that the society holds and which the gay, Lesbian, or bisexual person internalizes about him or herself (Malyon, 1982). This can be seen in behaviors such as the highly stereotypical, the overt self-hatred of chemical abuse, and/or one's sabotaging one's own success. The heterosexual partner may need to deal with challenges to self esteem which can come from disclosure.

The disclosure of the "mix" in a mixed orientation relationship can provide couples the opportunity to develop communication, conflict resolution, and intimacy skills at a new and potentially profoundly rewarding level. With the high emotion of sexual orientation issues, the development of "fair fighting" or effective conflict resolution strategies is especially crucial (e.g., Goldberg, 1983). The rewards of personal growth and deep and broad intimacy could help motivate the learning of these skills.

The development or enhancement of individuality and individuation of the partners is also highlighted as a particularly important growth issue. This means especially self responsibility for one's own feelings and sexual needs in a caring context.

Clarifying what sexuality means to the partners and how it functions in their relationship can be a helpful issue, particularly if awareness can be increased of the potential richness of expression.

Likewise, clarifying and consideration of a broadening of the meanings of fidelity, faithfulness and commitment usually is an important issue.

Spirituality, considered as a broader and more inclusive term than religion, as the values and meanings which motivate us and give us hope, can be an important resource for the difficult issues in most of these relationships.

The disclosure issue is a very important one, with significant consequences, especially in light of the stigma and isolation faced by couples. The stigma attached to homosexuality is obvious, a function of the wide-ranging misinformation, misunderstanding and fear not only in our time, but historically. There is also the stigma in the gay/Lesbian subculture of marriage, of the straight partner, and of bisexuality (many myths abound here: "it doesn't exist," "bisexuals can't commit themselves," etc.).

Especially important is the therapist's not assuming "that anyone who would love and marry a person who so departs from society's norms must be doing so out of some neurotic need." There are other fears that can emerge, such as the straight wife having chosen her husband out of stupidity, or "latent lesbianism," or that they somehow caused their partner to "turn to homosexuality." These fears and results of stigma will need to be expressed and dealt with in ways that reduce them and the effects of stigma (Gochros, 1985).

Stigma and isolation go together, and often feed each other. Support groups may be helpful as couples who face similar problems can be a part of the networking that lessens the isolation, helps persons validate feelings and check reality. (It has been an important part of the picture for couples I have worked with. Group members identify as gay, bisexual, and, of course, heterosexual. At one time early in the group, there were 2 women who identified as bisexual. At the present time, the non-heterosexual members are male.)

Disclosure is an issue that needs careful consideration so that the risks are realistically assessed. Care needs to be taken that coming out is done for specific reasons, not to harm or rebel or serve the destructive needs of internalized homophobia. Disclosing to children needs to be done carefully, too, and in a natural way, with coaching about where the information can be shared, if at all.

Dealing with loss is also an important issue. In addition to the loss of divorce, there are losses of faith in one's perceptual skills, and self-trust (Gochros, 1985). There are losses of dreams: the dream of a "normal" marriage and family life, the dream of a gay/lesbian/bi partner being "cured" by marriage. Sometimes there are losses of professional futures (if disclosure is made too early or in anger, or an angry spouse or friend discloses to professional leadership--or the press!). There can be loss of friends as a couple pulls away from friends that were once trustworthy about the "normal" everyday worries, but are not likely to be able to handle an issue like this. These losses can be the opportunity for one to "go deeper" into one's own resources and/or spirituality.


The possibilities for these relationships are many, since each couple ideally will use their own creativity in resolving the issues in ways that are growth-enhancing.

There are three primary types of resolutions which may be growth-enhancing for both partners. These are: (a) monogamous marriage, (b) open marriage, or (c) divorce. (Other resolutions such as group marriage or swinging will not be considered in this paper.) These are somewhat different from the resolutions Collins and Zimmerman (1983) list.

They list three resolutions of the disclosure or discovery of a mixed orientation marriage: (a) accommodation, (b) encapsulation, or (c) expulsion.

Accommodation includes the incorporation of a same-sex partner into the marriage (menage a trois), an open marriage contract which allows same sex relationships with a primary commitment to the spouse, or inclusion of the (at least initially) heterosexual partner into bisexual experimentation and/or relationships.

Encapsulation means the denial of the orientation or the non-heterosexual partner's decision to curtail or exclude expression of same-sex activity.

Expulsion means a hurtful, angry, and perhaps self-righteous divorce by the spouse, or perhaps a kind of emotional isolation of the offending partner from support (Collins & Zimmerman, 1983).

It is possible, at least theoretically, for the monogamous marriage resolution to be a satisfying alternative, and one that would not necessarily be "encapsulating." In order for this option to be growth-enhancing for both partners, it seems to me the following would be necessary (in addition to well-developed intimacy skills):

(1) affirmation of same-sex attractions by both,
(2) open discussion of the attractions and fantasies and channeling them into the marital sexual relationship,
(3) ease and comfort with masturbation as a valid sexual expression,
(4) maintaining a lively, playful, and mutually satisfying sexual relationship,
(5) maintaining meaningful and satisfying non-genital same-sex friendships, and
(6) a Kinsey scale rating on attractions and fantasies below three.

There are ways in which this option is not that different from heterosexual couples discovering and managing attractions and fantasies about persons outside the marriage.

Models for maintaining mixed orientation marriages are virtually non-existent in the literature. Coleman (1982a) listed nine factors from clinical experience that seem to be important ingredients of successful adjustment:

1. Both people love one another.
2. Both people want to make the relationship work.
3. There is a high degree of communication in the relationship.
4. Both people have resolved feelings of guilt, blame, and resentment.
5. Physical contact is necessary. The husband has to touch, and desire to touch, his wife. [And I would add, vice versa, for the relationship with a non-heterosexual wife.]
6. The wife has a sense of worth outside the marriage. [Again, for the non-heterosexual wife, the husband would need a secure sense of self-identity.]
7. If there is outside sexual contact, the wife [or husband] does not know about it, or the husband and wife have worked out an open-marriage contract.
8. The wife [or husband] is willing to work on understanding and accepting her husband's [his wife's] same-sex feelings.
9. The husband [wife] continues to work on his own acceptance of same-sex feelings (Coleman, 1982a, p. 101-102).

The option of a sexually open marriage requires, once again, highly developed intimacy skills, especially emotional awareness and expression, as well as conflict resolution. Again, a high degree of independence and strong self-esteem are important.

In order for this option to be growth-enhancing, a mutually satisfactory contract or covenant would need to be worked out, covering expectations, agreements, and ground rules. Issues of jealousy and ground rules are closely related, since ground rules "give control over a situation and the greater the perceived control over the environment the greater the predictability of the environment, the less an individual feels anxiety or helplessness" (Seligman, 1975).

Put another way, ground rules reduce jealousy by reducing ambiguity and help protect the marital relationship while allowing or supporting other relationships (Buunk, 1980).

Ground rules tend to stress the primacy of the marriage relationship, honesty in sharing information between all parties, and limitation in some way of the intensity of secondary relationships (Watson, 1981; Buunk, 1980).

In one study, for example, the top 4 ground rules ranked by participants were:

(1) complete honesty with spouse;
(2) consideration of feelings of all involved;
(3) no secret relationship;
(4) devote enough time and attention to spouse (Buunk, 1980).

A third resolution is divorce or dissolution of the relationship. In this case, in order to be maximally growth enhancing, both partners need a respect for the growth needs of each other and a realistic self-knowledge and self-appraisal in order to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of staying or leaving. As one article put it, "there may be pain in terminating a marriage which has been meaningful--the pain of saying good-bye--but the pain reflects precisely what has been good in the relationship rather than what has been injurious. It is the pain of letting go of a bond that once was mutually rewarding and no longer is" (Blood & Blood, 1979).

Part of this resolution will be the processing of feelings honestly and with the emphasis always on growth and the future, and taking from the past what has been gift and letting go of the rest. It is the grief process worked through together.


Mixed orientation marriages and relationships can be yet another arena where family strengths can be built. There is often a crisis at the point of discovery or disclosure, and there are crises that happen along the way, and as crises, there is always "danger" and "opportunity." The danger is that stereotypes, stigma, isolation, and homophobia will rule and that a significant growth opportunity will be lost. The opportunity and challenge is that couples will be able to reach new levels of self-understanding, self-esteem, intimacy, and growth, by reducing stereotypes, stigma, isolation, and homophobia. The potential for mixed orientation relationships, even if divorce is the chosen resolution, is for increased honesty, better communication, better understanding, and stronger relationships.


Blood, R. O., Jr., & Blood, M. C. (1979). Amicable divorce. Alternative Lifestyles, 2, 483-498, p. 483-498.

Buunk, B. (1980). Sexually open marriages; Ground rules for countering potential threats to marriage. Alternative Lifestyles, 3, 312-328.

Clark, D. (1977). Loving someone gay. Millbrae, CA: Celestial Arts

Coleman, E. (1982a) Bisexual and gay men in heterosexual marriage: Conflicts and resolutions in therapy. In J. C. Gonsiorek, ed., Homosexuality and psychotherapy; a Practitioner's handbook of affirmative models (pp. 93-103). (Research on Homosexuality Series, No. 4) New York: Haworth Press.

Coleman, E. (1982b). Developmental stages of the coming out process. In J. C. Gonsiorek, ed., Homosexuality and psychotherapy; a Practitioner's handbook of affirmative models (pp.31-44). (Research on Homosexuality Series, No. 4) New York: Haworth Press.

Collins, L. E. & Zimmerman, N. (1983). Homosexual and bisexual issues. Family Therapy Collections, 5, 82-100.

De Cecco, J. P.(1981). Definition and meaning of sexual orientation. Journal of Homosexuality, 6(4), 51-67.

Gochros, J. B. (1985). Helping couples cope with homosexuality in their heterosexual marriage. Manuscript submitted for publication. (Available for $5 from 1901 Halekoa Dr., Honolulu, HI 96821)

Goldberg, H. (1983). The new male-female relationship. New York: Morrow.

Kinsey, A., et al, (1948). Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.

Lauer, J. & Lauer, R. (1985). Marriage made to last. Psychology Today, 19(6), 22-26.

Laybourne, P. C. (1977, October). The origins of sexual identity. Lecture presented at Medicine and Religion: Sex--Status and Role conference, University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, KS.

Maddox, B. (1982). Married and gay: An intimate look at a different relationship. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Malyon, A. K. (1982). Psychotherapeutic implications of internalized homophobia in gay men. In J. C. Gonsiorek, ed., Homosexuality and psychotherapy; a Practitioner's handbook of affirmative models (p. 60-61). (Research on Homosexuality Series, No. 4) New York: Haworth Press.

Nahas, R. & Turley, M. (1979). The new couple: women and gay men. New York: Seaview Books.

Seligman, M. E. (1975). Helplessness. San Francisco: Freeman.

Watson, M. A. (1981). Sexually open marriages; Three perspectives. Alternative Lifestyles, 4, 3-21.

Author notes
This paper was presented to the Eighth Annual Building Family Strengths Symposium at Lincoln, Nebraska, May 16, 1985. J. Benjamin Roe is an ordained United Methodist minister, founder and Executive Director of Ministry In Human Sexuality, Inc., an agency providing counseling and education in a variety of human sexuality areas.

©1985 J. Benjamin Roe. Permission is hereby granted to reprint for non-commercial use (including education) provided this notice is included. You may also cite this work with attribution, of course. I would love to hear how this paper is used: please send me an e-mail (ben at tde.com) and let me know.

Note that Ministry in Human Sexuality closed in February, 1988.