Mixed Orientation Marriage: a case study for the now and the not yet

This topic seems to have enough complexity to be a source of some consternation from multiple viewpoints within the larger conversation about faith and sexuality. Indeed, each individual situation is so unique that it is difficult to make generalizations without it feeling like a disconnect for at least some who live in this reality. The basic concept of mixed orientation marriage is descriptive of one or both spouses experiencing some degree of same-sex attraction. In light of this, it is easy to recognize that anyone who identifies as bi-sexual who is married could be described as being in a mixed orientation marriage. Bi-sexual individuals may or may not appreciate that description – not so much because it is inaccurate but perhaps because it may seem to have a connection to an ex-gay paradigm. Ironically, I have also encountered individuals within the ex-gay paradigm who don’t like the term. While they may be willing to clarify that they still experience some degree of same-sex attraction, the mixed-orientation descriptor seems to insult them. Perhaps, they take it as a statement asserting that complete orientation change is rare.

It seems to me that the usefulness of the description mixed-orientation marriage is less for the individual who might use it for themselves and more to aid in clarification and understanding in the larger conversations. The description, I think, does something very important. It brings a level of honesty and authenticity into the conversation. As I see it, the description is intended to be value-neutral. It isn’t a judgment on someone’s marriage.

If anything, where there has been honest disclosure of the reality of same-sex attraction, I have seen people in mixed-orientation marriages be much more intentional about their pre-marital preparation and their investment in the relationship during the marriage. Because there is a unique area of vulnerability, the strongest mixed-orientation marriages have very clear priorities and commitments, making use of accountability and support in a committed and consistent manner. In my experience, where there is a good level of self-acceptance on the part of both spouses that same-sex attraction is simply a part of their reality that they need to steward and navigate there is a greater capacity to maintain the fidelity that is consistent with their beliefs and values. And as I have often said, there are some very vibrant and healthy mixed orientation marriages.

I’m afraid, however, that these are the stories that don’t really make the headlines in this conversation. The headlines are the marriage break ups. The headlines are the individuals who emerge from denial and hiddenness. The headlines are the double-life exposures. The headlines are that folks who’d claimed to be healed but now evidence ongoing same-sex attraction. In the midst of these headlines are real people experiencing significant pain as they seek to come to grips with their honest reality. It is deeply unfortunate that such stories become fodder for the culture wars.

Because the truth is, marriage can be very difficult – whether same-sex attraction is part of the mix or not. And marriage break-down brings great pain – regardless of the catalyst.

Someone made this comment on a previous blog:

“I can’t help but respond to your several references regarding the difficulties of mixed-orientation marriages. In our society, marriages are quickly crumbling if there is no sexual fulfillment. Marriages without some form of emotional spark can become drab much easier. My marriage started with emotional intensity, but it was not long before reality demonstrated that a fulfilling relationship requires more than sexual excitement; it needs on-going work and commitment. Is there any value in reassuring mixed-orientation relationships that in a significant number of heterosexual marriages, eventually one or both partners will no longer experience sexual fulfillment? In fact, one partner may become quite negative about sexual intimacy. Respectful compromises can be found and other areas of intimacy can become more fulfilling and certainly more stabilizing.”

Such a comment highlights the challenge that the heterosexual majority has in imagining life in a mixed-orientation marriage. It also highlights the mistaken assumption that the deficits that may be experienced in a mixed orientation marriage are merely experienced in the arena of sexual arousal and climax. This capitulates to a very reductionistic understanding of same-sex sexuality.

My response to the comment was: “Your observations about heterosexual marriages are important and probably not honestly articulated as often as should be within Christian communities. However, it is perhaps a bit naive to suggest that those in mixed-orientation marriages are unaware that marriage in general is difficult.

There are many in mixed-orientation marriages who are quietly and faithfully making a life together with plenty of unique accommodations and compromises and discovery of their own rhythm of intimacy and grace.

So while I have tried to point out the reality that mixed-orientation marriages are not something I would recommend, I would also be the first to say that I know some couples who are experiencing a life-giving marriage and the richness of God’s grace together. Marriages need both intimacy and fidelity – and that can be navigated and stewarded well.

Why does any marriage come to a point of separation and divorce? Could we always just say, “Try harder? Make more compromises? Give more of yourself?”

The temptation for those of us in marriages who do make daily choices to remain faithful and to find innovative expressions of intimacy despite disappointment, loneliness and grief is to intimate that it is simply an issue of motivation. However, in a posture of humility and grace, we seek to listen well, to love unconditionally and to reserve judgment for God who fully knows the heart.

When we seek to hold in tension issues of authenticity, intimacy and fidelity, there is no mathematical formula that neatly works for every human being …. and at the end of the day, we are all desperately dependent on grace.”

I had a conversation with a long time friend a few days ago. This individual has been in a mixed-orientation marriage for many years. There is honesty, mutual respect and mutual support in their marriage relationship. But there are also deficits. This friend is struggling to know what he makes of the generous spaciousness posture of New Direction. On one hand, something about the dialogue and the acknowledgment of difference attracts him. On the other hand, there is tension. And the tension is complex. The freedom in generous spaciousness to not judge or feel compelled to demand repentance from those who hold an affirming view of covenanted same-sex relationships is both threatening and attractive. The willingness to relinquish some certainty for a posture of humility seems to smell like Jesus but also raises red flags. The language of modernity-shaped evangelicalism peeks through in concerns about “the truth” and “there can only be one right response”. But even these words connect to some confusion about whether that is really the way to move forward and whether that really conveys the good news of a personal and relational Jesus. And underneath all the thinking, reflecting and struggling are the haunting questions about their long-ago choice to live life in the covenant of a mixed orientation marriage. “If I embrace generous spaciousness what will that do to my motivation and foundation for my own marriage?” “If I make space for gay Christians who experience fulfillment in a gay marriage – what does that mean for me in the reality of the disappointment and deficits that my spouse and I experience in our marriage?”

From a purely intellectual perspective, one can separate the two. An individual needs to own their decisions and commitments. They need to clarify their beliefs and values around fidelity and intimacy and then live in alignment with those values. But in the tangible reality of our human longing and disappointment and grief – the things that rise up in our heart in the middle of the night when we cannot sleep – such neat compartmentalization falls short.

The reality is, those in long term mixed-orientation marriages often deeply love one another. They have shared a depth of experience and life that means something. At the same time, in the depth of that shared life, there can be a poignant awareness that something is absent – something that transcends the normal challenge of married life. One same-sex attracted man said with great emotion that he had on occasion prayed that God would just take him home so that his straight wife could have a second chance and be loved by a straight husband the way she deserved. What a sign of love and devotion. What a gnawing sense of loss.

Our tendency in hearing something like this is to try to fix it. Some may think they just need to go to the right program, or get more prayer, or more counseling. Rest assured, this couple has gone above and beyond in pursuing God’s transforming grace. Others will want to affirm to them that God will understand and extend grace through separation and divorce because he wants them to be happy and fulfilled. This most often seems shallow and selfish to this couple and not representative of their love and commitment to God and to each other over the years.

I know another couple, both now affirming in their theological views about gay marriage, who have chosen to stay together. The man openly identifies as gay. This isn’t threatening to the wife. Together they model love and grace in living in the tension. I know another couple, both now affirming in their views, who had a ceremony in which they released one another from their vows and blessed one another to enter new covenants of love. They had the support and prayers of their faith community around them in this bittersweet transition.

Is one right? The other wrong? Is grace in one situation but lacking in the other? Is fear motiving one and love motivating the other?

If you speak to the four individuals represented by these different outcomes, you will encounter people of devout commitment to Jesus, people grateful for and exuding God’s grace, humble people who simply did the best they could in their unique situation to follow Jesus, to love well, and to move into their futures with honesty, authenticity and faith.

To me, this isn’t a matter of “everyone doing what is right in their own eyes” devoid of spiritual reflection. In both of these situations, the couples in question wrestled with Scripture and in prayer, reflected on their experiences and used the good minds God had given them. They also invited their community of faith to journey with them, to pray for them, and also to discern with them.

As someone with more than a decade of experience in pastoral care, you learn that a cookie cutter approach to these challenging realities will fall short. There is no formula. As pastors, we walk with people in their pain, disappointment and struggle. We wrestle with them to hear the voice of the Lord. We create a safe place to be present in the pain. We groan with the rest of creation awaiting the full consummation of Christ’s victory – when our tears will be wiped away, love will be perfect, and there will be no regret.

But now, we see through a glass dimly. We come to the foot of the cross with our deepest longings, with the parts of ourselves that feel so profoundly unfulfilled. We come with the visions of what could have been or what might yet be. We come with our fragile hopes and our cacophony of disappointment and resignation. We come wanting to energize our life’s decisions from a foundation of love rather than the house of fear. We come so weary from our best efforts seemingly always falling short. We come not wanting to discount our love, our care, our concern, protection and desire to serve. We come with wordless groans.

We are stuck in this time between the times. And sometimes it is so very hard to discern what that means in the practical reality of day-to-day life. Are we called to suffer and sacrifice in solidarity with Christ? Are we called to risk, to break out of frightened legalism into the freedom of a second chance? What counts more: our need for wholistic intimacy or our need to be faithful? Intimacy humanizes us. Fidelity humanizes us. Why does it sometimes feel like we have to choose one over the other?

The reality of mixed-orientation marriages baffle many of us – sometimes including those who experience them. Simplistic responses cannot suffice. In this complex kaleidoscope of human identity, longing, fulfillment, intimacy, fidelity, and love, mixed-orientation marriages invite us to a deeper humility. I pray they will also invite us to a deeper honesty. These stories, each one unique in its experiential facets, need to be heard with a generous commitment to listen and enter in. As friends and supportive community, let us not shy away from the tension, let us resist offering solutions, let us rejoice and grieve and hope and accept the reality for what it is. In so doing, let us be a conduit of grace ready to learn and to grow in being the Body of Christ together.