It is difficult to know where to start this dialogue. My wife and I agree on a simple principal that is unconsciously agreed upon by most folk, yet seems strange and unique when brought to consciousness - couples should not be forced to divorce. What follows is not a treaty upon this insight but rather an opening up of one couple’s love in face of the question, “Why haven’t you divorced?”
I also acknowledge that to open up such personal areas of my life is difficult. Typically I do not inquire of other couples concerning intimate matters which are normally considered off-limits. In the reflections that follow I feel we come perilously close to crossing the boundary between what is useful public knowledge and what is voyeuristic. Yet, in the spirit of faithful dialogue and trust I believe it good to share the relationship my wife and I enjoy. Hopefully along the way you will come to appreciate the bond we share.
My wife and I have a beautiful family and a deeply loving relationship. Yet our relationship is different because my wife is straight and I am gay. Our relationship confuses other people since we did not follow the norm - 85% of such relationships end in divorce. Kerrie and I find ourselves in the remaining 15%, an estimated 2 million couples in the United States, which are termed Mixed-Orientation-Marriages, or MOMs. It is naïve to suggest that all 2 million couples remain together for love. It is equally inaccurate in general to cast MOMs as unhealthy relationships. Healthy MOMs are not about one spouse having mental, emotional, or self-esteem issues, or the gay spouse trying to pass as straight. Healthy MOMs are about couples who find themselves after an average of 13 years of marriage, and sometimes dealing with a pregnancy, seeking to honor the integrity of the relationship while coming to terms with the homosexuality, bisexuality, or transgender identity of one of the spouses (Amity Pierce Buxton, The Other Side of the Closet).
In many ways my wife and I comprise a typical MOM couple. We were married for 12 years and pregnant with our second child when these dynamics were discerned. Like other successful MOMs, we have integrated our differences into the family. Our children know us openly and are aware of the devoted relationship we share.
The Relationship Loop
It is difficult to understand how MOM couples are able to stay healthy and whole without a model articulating relationship building. Imagine a circle called the Relationship Loop (Ernest White, The Art of Human Relations). It begins when we meet, we date, we fall in love, and we plan for a future together. During all this “us” time we are working out the conscious agreements by which we measure the success of our relationship. I agree to take out the garbage and you agree to feed the cats. These agreements are the formal contracts of expectations we are willing to live by. Most agreements are fantastic. We commit ourselves to the relationship and the union becomes “productive” for both involved. Until...
Halfway around the loop we run into a pinch caused by a breach of an expectation not consciously negotiated, in effect a hidden agreement. For example, “I’m straight, and you’re straight too.” Phrases like “I didn’t know you felt that way,” or “I thought I knew you better” signals this phase of the loop. We assimilate the new information and seek to forgive our spouse for not living up to these informal expectations. However, if this forgiveness is surface only, it cuts our circle in half. Immediately we return to the original commitment without addressing the hidden expectations. People will walk this path over and over, tightly clutching their formal agreements and finally divorce.
When a pinch occurs what is needed is not surface forgiveness, which only reinforces the original hidden expectations. Rather deep forgiveness is needed. Deep forgiveness says and hears, “We are not the same couple of so many years ago. We are different. We need new agreements.” Negotiating these new agreements, conscious of the hidden expectations, becomes the task of relationship building which brings us back to a fresh point of commitment. This is not to say that divorce is never warranted: among other dynamics, when acceptable agreements and expectations cannot be negotiated the couple should separate.
Traveling this particular road, my wife and I agree that had my homosexuality been discerned when we met we would not be together. We wouldn’t have even dated. But having developed a nurturing relationship and a loving family, we cannot imagine life apart. Since we shared and continue to share a profound love, we chose to renegotiate the expectations of our marriage. We continue to work through our hopes and ideas, building upon the enduring relationship we started over 30 years ago. At the time of discernment we could be described as nervously standing at the crossroads with no desire to run. Now, we are no longer nervous and we are no longer at the crossroads.
The Mixed-Orientation Experience
MOM couples are notoriously closeted. Hiding the dynamics of our marriages assures acceptance. Being honest runs the risk of rejection. Often for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer persons honesty leads to punishment, while dishonesty is rewarded: an odd dynamic when authenticity in relationships is prized. This duplicity has not been resolved with any satisfaction. As a minister, honesty is a part of my vocation, yet, due to our candidness my wife and I are charged with having a dishonest marriage. This dynamic is the devil’s snare for all involved in this dialogue.
I am a husband. I am gay. I am other things as well. Yet my honesty around these two areas gives pause to friends and strangers. The straight-gay divide does not allow for those outside the accepted and defined norms, such as my wife and I. Being a husband to a female spouse and gay is not an honored category.
There are those who have trouble understanding how passion blossoms in my wife and mine’s relationship. People whom we have never met upon hearing of our nuanced marriage express contempt that we choose to celebrate the love which resides between us. Am I a poor husband as a result of honesty concerning my orientation? Is my wife overly naïve or a simpleton because she also honors the truth of our marriage?
Accusations and assumptions made about MOMs place pressure on us to misrepresent who we are as a couple. Our honesty calls into question people’s deepest unexpressed ideas about couplehood. The simple truth is that Kerrie and I prefer to live with a tinged hue to our relationship rather than divorcing.
Orthodoxy and Heresy in Sexual Expression
With God’s grace flowing in and around our marriage, my wife and I celebrate the multifaceted mysteries of a love that drew us together and keeps us in a bond of meaningful relations.
Here is the pinch of our problem: what does meaningful relations look like? The prevailing sexual outlook assumes uniformed-orientation as what is right, and by extension, what is honest. An uniformed-orientated relationship is one in which both partners share the same orientation. So unconscious is this view that it has become the “orthodox” understanding of correct relationships. Within this orthodoxy our very presence as gay, transgender, bisexual, and queer spouses of straight people is construed as a boundary transgression and hence, the deviant or “heretical” position.
Our society has spent turbulent years coming to terms with the fearsome ugliness of heterosexism and the biological impulse toward other sexual expressions. While these debates still rage, in some areas there appears to be the emerging consensus of “You keep to yours. We’ll keep to ours. Maybe we’ll learn to live together.”
This you-keep-to-yours-and-we’ll-keep-to-ours, or straight-gay divide, is the boundary and sexual orthodoxy that MOMs transgress. Those participating in relationships that include a mixture of orientations present an imprecise deviation. A component of this orthodoxy is the presumed “factness” of the straight-gay division and an embracing of the idea of two parallel but unrelated sexual expressions. What has been devised under the heading of “sexual certainty” is a disjointing design of equal-but-separate. However, the mixed-orientation heterodoxy, along with bisexual and transgender orientations, unmasks this assumed certainty as an unsatisfactory settlement of the debate concerning multiple sexual expressions.
Unable to classify MOM couples as either a straight or a gay relationship we are judged to be offensive. We are seen from the outside as hollow and convenient shells “for the kids” and for “emotionally and psychologically deficient” persons. When MOMs stay together for love, we are blatantly told this cannot be. It is assumed that MOM couples cannot relate at the level of those couples who are strictly straight or strictly gay.
At one time I thought that love could not be used to describe our bond as sex was perceived the stronger impulse over love. But in light of the above analysis, I have come to understand that love is denied us due to our heterodoxy. As with any heretical group, MOMs are deemed insufficient in relationship to God. Consequently we have no genuine source of love. Like all unorthodox persons we are censored from the presence of the Divine. Respectfully I reject this stance and unapologetically celebrate my family’s presence before a loving and redeeming God.
But how do we in heterodox relationships gain presence to God, especially when marriage is understood, if merely surreptitiously, as a sacramental gift?
As we have witnessed, the prevailing sexual outlook encourages an unexamined attitude best called the basic-assumption (an idea presented to me by my good friend Glen Brown). It assumes queers must be in romantic relationships with queers and straights with straights if the relationship is to be substantive for both partners. Even individuals who feel extreme animosity toward queer persons accept this as a basic assumption. Of importance is that in this model uniformed-oriented relationships are automatically defined as being meaningful.
The basic-assumption offers no chance of meaningful relations for those who do not fit the norm as defined by this unexamined perception. As a result, apprehension and distrust is shown toward straight and queer spouses who are looked upon as being unable to claim self-authenticity. MOMs are feared for violating this assumption and endangering the etiquette of sexual expression. We are deemed lesser couples and our marriages lesser relationships. Have we in our loving endangered the sacramental nature of partnering and by extension threatened the propriety of both the straight and queer communities?
By embracing the biblical understanding of sexuality as a good gift of God we begin to understand the wisdom that all sexual expressions are related to the condition of being human. Since all orientations are human no one orientation is threatened by the other. Arising from this appreciation are experiences emphasizing meaningful relations of mutuality and respect where “Love is a voluntary act, based on complex, often mysterious factors” (Rita Nakashima Brock in Body and Soul: Rethinking Sexuality and Justice-Love).
To this emerging picture of meaningful relationships MOM couples add the dimension of intentionality. Due to the nature of our sharing a romantic bond and seeking to honor the mysteries of love in our midst, MOMs must make explicit the expectations and purpose of our loving.
Integrity in MOM Relations
In what sense though, can we talk about integrity in a relationship where there is a miss-pairing of orientations? As noted it is naïve to suggest that all MOMs remain together for love. Yet, it is just as inaccurate to cast MOMs as unhealthy relationships in general. Benchmarks of integrity for MOM couples includes:
- an awareness of the mixed paring and mutual agreement as to what this means for the marriage
- a respect for the feelings of each spouse in honoring the relationship parameters that are agreed to
- an agreement that one spouse does not seek to make the other spouse either “straight” or “gay” for the mixed-orientation is integrated into the identity of the couple as a whole. (We are not a bisexual relationship and neither are we a straight couple, rather we are mixed-oriented and we celebrate this mixture as part of our identity as a couple - similar to how bi-racial couples celebrate their identity as neither one ethnic nor the other but a mixture of both.)
- an understanding that the relationship is not a place for the queer spouse to pass as straight or to continue suppressing homosexual, bisexual, or transgender impulses
- an emphasis on intentionality, for it cannot be presumed the relationship will “just work out “
While decorum around uniformed-oriented relations would never allow us to inquire of the couple’s bedroom habits, it appears impossible to address mixed-orientation-marriages without raising the question of sex and sexual expression. Here again is an attitude I respectfully reject and unapologetically celebrate the union between my wife and me without feeling any compulsion to invite you to peer past our bedroom curtains.
The basic-assumption takes for granted that love in marriage is impossible without sex. It also assumes that sex can be expressed only as straight or gay sexual love. It is almost inconceivable by those outside a MOM relationship that many MOMs engage in sexual pleasure with each other.
The prevailing sexual outlook defines the erotic narrowly in terms of libidinal urges and drives. It is true that sexual orientation is rightfully understood as an affective and biological impulse. This orientation is located well within the libidinal drive and self-identification markers. Among other dynamics, a denial of these acutely felt energies and impulses have led many into ruined lives in terms of chemical dependence, forced relationships, self-hatred and depression, a breaking with the Sacred, and suicide. I affirm those mixed-orientation spouses who divorce in order to retain self-authenticity.
But what of those couples who, aware of the miss-pairing of libidinal drives, remain in supportive and devoted relationships? What of MOMs who stay together due to the complex, often mysterious factors of love? In these relationships erotic location is given a broader definition, allowing for a fuller development in the life of the individual and the couple. For many MOMs, erotic energies – the ardent desire for intimate contact - express themselves in creative passions. These passions link the individuals to each other as a couple, and as a couple to the world beyond their immediate relationship.
Evocatively, this understanding is also found in uniformed-oriented couples for whom sex is no longer an option due to physical limitations, health issues, or the waning of sex drives. Love is not limited to the bedroom and is instead woven into the daily web of shared activities, values, experiences, and mutual commitment. The emphasis within the relationship may change, but the faithfulness to a shared caring and loving remains.
In many MOMs it is this “passion for life” that becomes the hallmark location for the erotic. As already stated, to imply that sex play ceases to be a part of the couples’ life together is a misnomer. Our loving and lovemaking is as an expression of an erotica in which the mysteries of love connect us intimately to each other and to the expansiveness of life. Passion for the world, which should be an erotic hallmark of all couples, has the potential to align us in meaningful relations with each other, with our neighbors, with creation, and ultimately with God. Such passion is truly a sacrament for us.
I do not wish to imply that MOM couples are free of anxiety. We are not. In a correspondence reflecting upon these comments Amity Pierce Buxton stated: “There's so much misunderstanding and so many misperceptions out there. On the one hand MOM's are invisible and on the other a MOM is one of the most complex relationships. The differences to be bridged are much more challenging and their transcendent mutual agreements are much harder to achieve. From my perspective … in most cases, MOM couples have a deeper bond than many heterosexual couples.”
Mixed-Orientation and the Queer Scene
Among MOM couples there is no consensus about what makes for appropriate or inappropriate actions within the relationship. A survey of family structures indicates a multiplicity of responses by individual couples. For example there is the monogamous-mixed-orientation-marriage (no sexual partners outside the marriage), the open-mixed-orientation-marriage (sexual partners outside the marriage), the closed-loop-mixed-orientation-marriage (one sexual partner outside the marriage who the spouse is aware of), and the unaware-mixed-orientation-marriage (the queer spouse has not disclosed to the straight spouse). Fascinatingly, three of these four configurations are also found among uniformed-oriented couples on both sides of the divide.
Equally the queer scene is a multi-varied experience and not a monolithic occurrence. The gay, bisexual, or transgender spouse may participate in the queer scene, yet this participation is not a threat to the marriage. It is common for a MOM couple to attend queer functions together such as pride parades, queer support groups, or support groups for straight allies. It is also common for MOM couples to attend some of the abundantly available straight functions. Such activity honors the dual orientation in ways that give expression to the relationship the couple has established.
For my wife and me a key place to be involved in the queer scene is our local congregation. While living in Denver we were members of a gay affirmative church in Aurora, Colorado. This church became our home for many reasons, one of which was that it offered us a time and place to connect with other gay and lesbian Christians. In this church we were out as a MOM couple, but it is not what we were known for. We were better known for our children, our love for each other, and our love for the church. In an interesting extension of this experience, I have a networking of lesbian, gay, and transgender friends who are also invested in ministry. These are areas I consider part of the “queer scene” and places my wife encourages my participation and leadership.
Most MOM couples acknowledge that the queer scene is there to be a part of and enjoy. Our intentionality to the issues of respect and support allows us to make appropriate choices as to how we participate in this scene. my wife and I know well the parameters of our relationship. However, we also recognize that our expectations are not universal. We appreciate that other MOM couples may agree to a different set of boundaries. Like all other relationships, these settlements are unique to each couple.
For me, the mixed-orientation-marriage is best described as a fractured chalice. Yes, we are nuanced. Yes, we will remain a part of the marriage landscape. Yes, there are other things deemed more pretty. But the fracture does not make the chalice unusable. Rather the fracture draws attention to the uniqueness of this chalice among a plethora of uniformity.
To answer the question, “Why haven’t you divorced?” I can only reply that my wife and I love each other.