For Better or For Worse

By Jeff Levy

I was having dinner with friends recently and remember looking around the table.  I was there with my partner of 23 years.  A lesbian couple was there with their adopted 9 year old son. There was also an old friend from high school and his wife, whose children were both in college.  And finally at the table was a divorced couple—the man having come out as gay 10 years into their marriage and though divorced, they remained close friends.

I thought about these multiple variations of family and was surprised by the matter of fact nature in which I experienced this scene.  I thought about how differently I might have felt 30 years ago, and how differently we might conceptualize family and marriage in 30 more years.  I also began to think about families I see in my psychotherapy practice that might not feel nearly as comfortable and as accepted sitting in that same restaurant today.

While my psychotherapy practice has always included individuals who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer, over the course of the past 15 years I have found myself working with men who identify as gay or bisexual who are married to women as well as the women who find themselves in these marriages.  Recently, these relationships have been labeled “mixed orientation marriages” or MOM.  This label, however, doesn’t begin to fully describe the dynamics and idiosyncratic nature of the individuals involved in these relationships, how they construct them, and the ways they must navigate the very narrow, dichotomous and binary ways in which most of the world conceives of sexual orientation and marriage.

Renegotiating the Boundaries of Marriage

I first met David in a group I had created for married and formerly married gay and bisexual men.  I began doing these groups when I realized the isolation experienced by so many people in mixed orientation marriages.  At the time, David was living with his wife Elise, in a suburb of Chicago with their two daughters.  They had known each other since college (about 15 years) and had been married for 10 of those years.

Early in the relationship, David had shared that he thought he might be gay, but the two had chosen to marry and any of the issues that his disclosure had created were not discussed for the next 10 years.  David entered the group after describing many years of “internal pressure” and a sense of inauthenticity.  Eventually he shared with Elise that he was “definitely” gay and that he could no longer repress this part of his identity.

Rather than decide to divorce, David and Elise explored how they might negotiate David’s being gay in the context of their existing marriage:  could David identify as gay and Elise identify as straight and could they stay married, have a meaningful relationship, and raise their two daughters together?  Both were smart, creative, funny, honest, religious, and had similar values about parenting and raising their children.  And despite David identifying as gay, he and Elise continued their relationship.

As David became more comfortable with himself as a gay man, he shared with Elise his desire to be sexual with men.  The couple experimented with David having sex with men outside their relationship, with inviting individual men to have sex with the two of them within the context of marriage, and also experimented with each of them having relationships with men outside their marriage.

Throughout this experimentation, their communication remained consistent and honest.  They committed to experimenting with multiple potential workable scenarios without being constrained by narrow or dichotomous conceptions of sexual orientation or rigid heterosexist models of marriage.  Eventually, they settled into an agreement in which they would remain married, continue to live together, parent their children together, and remain open to other sexual partners.  They found a new way to define their marriage that allowed them to honor all the exceptional ways in which they connect and love each other, without experiencing the sexual component of their relationship as the one that defines their marriage.

Ending the Marriage and Co-parenting Children

Not all couples have the desire or capacity to stretch the boundaries of marriage in the way David and Elise had chosen.  Jacob, a 45 year old, Catholic, heterosexually married, self-identified gay man anxiously hurled himself into my office for his first appointment and, before even sitting down, announced:  “I’m married. I’m gay. I have two children. And I’m NOT getting divorced.”   Unlike David, Jacob had not shared any of his feelings with his wife Maria, though he reported sleeping in a separate bedroom for the past four years.  He denied that anyone in his family suspected anything unusual as a result of his sleeping arrangements.

From my work with Jacob, I had a growing sense that he was more interested in having a relationship with a man than he was with maintaining his marriage.  Though he verbalized a commitment to Maria and his children, the image that continued to grow for him was a monogamous relationship with a man, a friendship with his wife, and joint custody of his children.

As Jacob became more comfortable sharing his gay identity with others, he eventually had more overt conversations with his wife which resulted in a separation and, eventually, a divorce.  While the two remain friendly, their relationship is somewhat strained.  They continue to cooperate around the parenting of their children and attend their children’s events as a family.  Both Jacob and his now ex-wife have had relationships following their divorce, though neither is currently married or in a committed relationship.

Long Term Marriages and Uncertain Futures

Ellen was 80 years old and referred to me by a colleague who was treating her grown daughter, a survivor of sibling incest.  At first, we focused on dealing with the secrecy of the incest, but gradually Ellen revealed that her daughter was not the only one harboring a secret. Her ex-husband Charles, she told me, was gay and she had known this even before they married.

She and Charles met at a party while they were both undergraduates in the 1940s. She described him as flashy, sensitive, and exciting.  “I was immediately attracted,” she smiled. Charles invited her to one of his parties, and when she arrived she noticed that she was the only woman in attendance.  The men were dancing together and sometimes kissing. She realized they were “homosexual” but she wasn’t put off by it as they readily accepted her into their circle. After graduating, the group of friends disbanded.  Charles started graduate school and Ellen got a job. The two continued to socialize casually until one evening Charles proposed to her and she accepted.

As therapy continued, Ellen opened more of the secret feelings she harbored related to Charles’ being gay.  When her youngest daughter reached adolescence and the other children had left home, She realized that she could no longer remain in the marriage. She was worried about how Charles’s behavior was affecting their children. Angry and frustrated after 30 years of marriage, Ellen divorced him.

As she became more in touch with her resentment for having protected Charles’ for the entire 30 years of their marriage, she asked Charles to come to a session. Many subjects were discussed for the first time–including the incest–and Ellen, for the first time in her life, made an overt statement about Charles’ “secret” relationships and “secret life.” As she cried, Charles took her hand, and held it tightly.

Two years later, Charles died as a result of cancer.  He named Ellen as his sole heir and included in his will, was an apology to her for the pain he caused.  In addition to the apology, however, he thanked her for her love and for her ability to maintain a sense of family throughout their marriage and after the divorce, which at that time, was an anomaly.

Shifting Constructions of Marriage

In my work with mixed orientation marriages, I have been witness to various trajectories, discoveries, and constructions of relationships and families.  The family created by David and Elise certainly falls at one end of the continuum of possibilities, while the family created by Jacob and Maria falls closer to the other end of that continuum.  I have seen couples believe that they will ultimately divorce yet after much conversation, choose a continued marriage with renegotiated boundaries and revised agreements.

I have also seen couples intent on remaining married, yet after much discussion, realize that their individual needs cannot be met in the context of a mixed orientation marriage and they decide to divorce.  Similar to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” concept so present in Ellen’s relationship with Charles, I have seen mixed orientation marriages (usually when I am working with only one member of the couple) who never discuss their sexual orientations at all, who live lives of extreme secrecy and disconnection, and whose children grow up sensing something is wrong between their parents but are never fully able to trust their realities.  And finally, there are those marriages in which one partner eventually “outs” himself and divorce is the only option either person in the marriage is open to.

Much of what I share is based on my experience with gay/bisexual men in heterosexual marriages or with heterosexually identified women who find their husbands are gay or bisexual .  Of course, there are lesbian and bisexual women married to heterosexual men who are managing some of the very same issues, as well as unique issues based upon gender, motherhood, and other identities.  There are also many traditional heterosexual couples who face struggles around changing roles and identities of one or both members over time.

As I write about mixed orientation marriages and their permutations and variations, I wonder how my colleagues will react.  I imagine some will have personal value systems that at best are inconsistent with these concepts and, at worst, see these as immoral and/or unhealthy.  And then I think about my dinner with my friends and their children; the many ways family manifest at that table and how wonderful it was to sit with such variations of love and connection.

During an evening with a lesbian couple and their four year old son, we were each talking about our own parents when the four year old said to me:  “Jeff, what’s your mommy’s name?”  I answered.  And then, without a second thought, he asked:  “And what’s your other mommy’s name?”

You can be anybody that you want to be. You can love whomever you will. You can travel any country where your heart leads, and know I will love you still. You can live by yourself. You can gather friends around. You can choose one special one. And the only measure of your words and your deeds, will be the love you leave behind when you’re gone.

—Fred Small (Performed by “The Flirtations”….click here )

Published on December 29, 2017