So, last week's FFAQ question came from Anonymous. She asks:
Being married to a wonderful man, who happens to be gay, I wonder if you have any advice? How common are mixed orientation marriages? How are they different, how are they alike?
I'll break my answer to this excellent question into two parts: discussion of mixed orientation marriage, and then general marriage advice.
So, how common are mixed orientation marriages? The truth is, I have absolutely no idea. Nobody really knows because most mixed orientation marriages are not usually public. But I do know this: they are much more common than I ever imagined.
Lolly and I at our Portland wedding reception.
For the first years of our marriage, Lolly and I felt totally alone. There was nobody out there doing "this" that we knew of. We had a sense that we couldn't possibly be the only ones--a couple who was in a mixed orientation marriage, but one that was working well--but gayness (at the time, and even still to some extent) was so taboo that there was no way we would ever hear about these people. Instead, in those days, you'd only hear about mixed orientation marriages as they fell apart. The gay spouse would have some period of self-realization, decide to leave his or her family, come out publicly and thus reach other people's radar, drawing attention to a sometimes messy aftermath.
We felt completely alone. Completely isolated. We would look at each other from time to time and ask "Are we crazy? Are we insane to be doing this? There have to be others out there. There just have to be. But where are they?" We knew we were doing what was right for us, and we knew our marriage was wonderful, but there was this sense of aloneness.
But after the coming out post? That's when it became really clear that this wasn't an isolated thing. Many, many people have found love in mixed orientation marriages. Even still I'll get the occasional message from a mixed orientation couple who says something like "Hey guys, thanks for posting your post--just want you to know there are others out there in really happy marriages." There are lots of people who are living in happy mixed orientation marriages under the radar--in your wards and stakes, enjoying their lives. I'm not sure how many, but more than I ever would have imagined.
At the same time, I also got a lot of responses from people in failed mixed orientation marriages--so there are a lot of those too. Obviously, there is going to be success and failure in any marital subset.
The statistics struggle. With the secrecy of this type of marriage (Lolly and I were totally under cover about it for ten years--most people had no idea I was gay, and so statistics obviously didn't reflect people like us) it's difficult to get accurate numbers. But there are people trying to ascertain this data. There is a study happening right now that I think will help gauge this to some extent, though I still think secrecy will mask a large number of successful mixed orientation marriages.
If you are in a mixed orientation marriage or have ever been in one, consider taking this survey: click here to take survey
It doesn't matter if you have positive or negative feelings about your marriage--it's just important to try and get as much information as possible, so please take that survey if you haven't already.
Now, the fun part. Advice.
I'm a marriage and family therapist, so I really do love marriage and think it can be such a beautiful thing. It's always amazing to me how resilient people are as couples as they face hard things. I'm also amazed at how small patterns of thinking--feeling entitled, feeling like a victim, feeling like it's okay to be in contact with past lovers--can completely and totally undermine what would otherwise be a really healthy relationship.
I don't actually see a lot of differences between mixed orientation marriages and other marriages in my own life, nor in my work as a therapist. The same things that will keep a mixed orientation marriage vibrant and strong are the exact things that will keep any marriage vibrant and strong. I don't mean for that to be a cop-out answer. I even started writing this list as it specifically pertained to mixed orientation marriage, and then as I wrote, I realized that the things I was saying were universal. Marriage is complex. Love needs to be nourished. Marriage requires forgiveness and patience. These are realities that will exist in any marriage.
So, I decided to be more general. Here are several tips that I have to keep your marriage happy and healthy whether you find yourself in a mixed orientation marriage or not:
1. Be totally honest and transparent with your spouse. Even about the really hard things. Even when you know it will hurt them, or you're having feelings that are painful and unwanted, or if you've done something you wish you hadn't done. Each partner must be totally transparent with his or her feelings and actions. A marriage thrives on honesty, transparency and connection. It will wither and die if you keep secrets. Marriages cannot survive secrets. I see this over and over and over.
Being honest about hard things taps into true vulnerability. It gives your spouse the chance to accept you for everything you are. It honors your spouse, and lets them know you love and trust them totally. If you can't be honest with your husband or wife about the deepest, darkest most obscure places of your heart, your mind, and your past, who could you ever be fully transparent with? The answer is nobody. We as human beings have the fundamental need to be known completely and fully. Marriage is where that happens.
I cannot emphasize this enough. Be honest. Always. Totally and completely. No matter how difficult it is or how much it hurts. It will open up pathways of understanding and empathy, and trust will be the bedrock of your relationship.
2. Do not let isolated circumstances bleed into every problem. Lolly and I are in a mixed orientation marriage. If we aren't careful, we could start to make the mistake of viewing every problem we have as the result of being in a mixed orientation marriage. "You didn't take the trash out last night. Because you're gay!" I know that's a hyperbolic example, but this type of thing does tend to happen from time to time if a person isn't careful. So your husband has depression. So your wife struggles with an eating disorder. So your husband is a sports fanatic. So your wife really loves to shop. That does not mean that every issue that occurs is directly tied into one of these notable characteristics. Let isolated issues stand on their own, and be careful not to conflate them with other issues.
3. Recognize that every marriage has "perpetual problems." If you notice that you have the same fights with your spouse over and over and over (and over and over) you are not alone. In fact, every marriage has what John Gottman called perpetual problems--or difficulties that persist throughout a marriage and that are largely unresolvable. These perpetual problems arise because they are tied to intrinsic personality characteristics of both partners which will remain static over time. In other words, we are who we are, and we can't change our personalities, which ultimately is a good thing.
When you find yourself in a perpetual problem, it means that both parties have a legitimate perspective based on real things. Your job is not to change your spouse to see things your way. Your job is to see things their way, continue to own the validity of what you think, and then compromise around the edges. If you like vacations to be long, lazy and unplanned, and your spouse likes vacations that are scheduled every minute, neither perspective is wrong (even though your family probably sees things your way and validates it because they see things in a similar fashion!). You find a way to compromise around the edges while honoring both perspectives. Perhaps you take turns having vacations your way and then their way. Perhaps you split a vacation in half. The goal with perpetual problems is to see them for what they are, and then find ways to compromise that don't dishonor yourself or your spouse or his/her perspective.
4. Finally, think positive things about your spouse. There is a lot of literature out there that demonstrates that we control how we feel about things and people by the thoughts we allow ourselves to have. You can literally change the tide of negative feelings towards your spouse by actually changing how many times in a day you think positive things about him or her. It sounds so basic and simple that many people never do this, but there is a five to one ratio to making this work: for every one negative thought about your spouse, you need to proactively think five legitimate positive thoughts to counteract the negative feelings that brings. I have certain things I do every single day that help keep my thoughts about my wonderful Lolly as vibrant and positive as possible.
I could go on and on, but I think those are four really basic and important steps to building a good marriage. They will work for mixed orientation marriages, or any marriage at all.
Thanks for asking such a great question. Tune in next week for the next voting poll...
And have a great weekend everyone!