The Other Orientation Issue: Poly and Mono

In every mixed-orientation marriage, there’s comes a moment, or many, many moments, when an open marriage is considered, discussed, maybe even tried on for size. It only makes sense. If a gay or bisexual person is going to be married to a straight person, the only other option is stuffing the same-sex desire. Forever. That’s pretty bleak prospect, and one a loving person would never want to impose on another. This, ultimately, became one of the big questions in my marriage: Could I live in an open marriage or in a marriage where my partner had to deny half (or more) of herself?

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My poly family (not). Actually this is an abbreviated version of what the back of my minivan would have looked like with a woman I dated, who happens to have a gay husband.

My wife was very effective at keeping it on lock-down. She is supremely self-disciplined, and even ‘proper.’ She had a deep religious belief in the sanctity of marriage. And yet she was in frequent and obvious torment. The early signs that this would be a very, very difficult life were everywhere: She admitted to being bisexual shortly after we met, her only sexual love affair had been with a woman, and she admired and identified with a couple she knew who had had ‘married’ a second woman. Yet we naively thought it wouldn’t matter, that love would conquer all. For my part I thought bisexuality was like a switch, I suppose, and that monogamy was just as possible for her as for me. (As for the poly wedding, I just didn’t even understand what that was supposed to be about; it never dawned on me that that would have been her ideal situation until after we were married.

Of course the trouble started within six months of being married. I won’t go into the long story, but the short version is that she frequently and consistently fell in love with women she knew, sometimes only with a physical attraction, but more than a few times with a deep, emotional love – a true emotional affair. And as I pulled back from her to protect myself from these wounds, the idea of an open marriage was always there.

Now, there was a long period when our four children were young when this issue seemed to fade, and if our sex life didn’t get much better, things settled into what I can only now describe as a don’t-ask, don’t-tell rut. But inevitably it returned. As it always would.

And this time when it returned I really had to deeply consider whether an open marriage was the right thing. I tried and tried to wrap my mind around the idea of her having a lover, and possibly me having one, too. But that made no sense to me. I’ve always been a one-woman man. I’ve never cheated. (I’ve been cheated on, but that’s a different story.) I want someone who wants me and me alone as a lover and partner. I know we can’t be all things to all people, but in my partner, I need that sense of completeness to go both ways. Always have, always will.

There are people out there who make statements like: “People who can’t embrace polyamory are unevolved.” That makes me angry. I do not judge or dismiss the practice, if everyone is honest and on board. It just isn’t for me. I’m not orientated that way.

Because I do believe this is part of our orientation – whether we’re wired to be monogamous or not, whether we’re able to give and receive everything we need from one love partner. Me? I want and need that. My wife? She wanted me and a woman. She would have been willing to forgo it to stay married, but the stark reality was that she was not and never was satisfied with me. She couldn’t be. We were just oriented differently – both our sexual orientation and our, if you will, numerical orientation. And in the end, that was too big a difference.

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Goodbye Exodus. May White-Knuckle Monogamy Leave with You

The ‘pray the gay away’ organization Exodus International recently announced it is closing down. Its mission–getting homosexuals to believe that a lifetime of struggle, confusion and occasional torment over sexual orientation was something that could be happily overcome through prayer–proved in the end to be as simple-minded and just plain wrong as we had all thought. 

ImageThe belief that homosexuality can be (or needs to be) ‘overcome,’ and it’s associated belief that sexual preference is a choice, once among the most cherished and powerfully held beliefs of social conservatives, is beginning to fade. This is surprising and unexpected to those of us who knew such things to be false decades ago. And it should also be the cause of great hope among straight spouses. 

It’s worth noting among straights for one obvious reason: that everything that leads to acceptance of homosexuality as unchangeable inevitably will lead to fewer ‘mixed-orientation’ marriages in the future.

But for some of us there is a second piece to this. When a spouse comes out as gay, in many cases, like mine, there is an initial desire to stay married. There is love, familiarity, a more or less stable (or at least ‘normal’) family. There is also fear of change, financial shock, devastating the kids, etc. Some decide to open the marriage, letting the gay spouse find an outlet (and sometimes the straight spouse, too) within whatever open marriage parameters they establish. 

Some of us try and try to get there. I tried for years to get my mind around an open marriage, but I just kept coming back to the fact that I am monogamous, and that I need that in my spouse, too. (Poly vs. mono orientation is a subject for another post, so I’ll just leave it at that for now.) And in that kind of situation, you end up with a no-win choice: divorce or the gay spouse stuffs it. A very small handful of people make one of these choices work, somehow. But most, like me, can’t. 

And this is where the thinking of Exodus International and its ilk comes in. Over many years my wife, a serious Catholic, quietly tried to pray it away. She tried to keep it under control by sheer force of will and her inclination toward self-denial. She was in therapy for years, still is, trying to reconcile being a closeted gay woman married to a straight man who won’t open the marriage. But who *wants* to live that way? Who wants their spouse to live that way? Who wants to be, or be with someone who is, in therapy for the rest of their life in order to stay married?

There’s a line of thought among some jilted str8 spouses that ‘if only my gay spouse had been willing to be honest and try things would have been OK.’ Well, you would have ended up in an open marriage or with a spouse living a life as an incomplete person. That isn’t drama; it’s fact. And say your gay spouse insisted it was not too big a sacrifice. Would you end up like the one str8 woman I talked with, who was in a cold, distant marriage, but whose minister literally said, “it’s bad that he’s gay, but he isn’t acting on it, so what’s the problem?’ 

And beyond that, one more thing: It does not *ever* really go away, not matter how hard they stuff or pray. It’s always there for them, sometimes small and sometimes almost unbearable. It manifests in emotional affairs, depression, outbursts, resentment, and a distance that can never, ever be bridged.

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The Kids Are Alright

I’ve done a lot of waiting and hesitating out of fear over the last five years – fear of change, fear of looking bad, fear of losing my gay wife. (Really.) All of those fears are stupid right on their face.

ImageBut the one I clung to, the one that always seemed valid, is the fear of screwing up my kids. I have four; three are still minors. I kept myself married for many years past what I should have with a couple of core beliefs:

– Not living with my kids 24/7 would be failing them, and

– The kids would hate me and end up maladjusted.

So I stayed stuck, for four full years after the final “gay bomb” of my wife expressing her ache at not being able to be with a woman, of having to live this long lonely life monogamously married to a man. (This is stuff for another post. It’ll come.)

Both of us were inordinately worried about our kids. We had created a quiet, stable, careful life for them. They never had to deal with change. I’ve worked for the same organization for 19 years; she for 17. We had even lived in the same house for 14 years. And we told ourselves that this was good for them.

Although they can be completely oblivious to a mess or unfinished homework, kids are very active observers of what is happening around them. They absorb tension and strangeness in their and either act out or internalize it as stress and depression. Or both.

As the years (years!) wore on and I agonized, knowing I was unhappy and needed to leave for me, but also “knowing” that breaking up my family would destroy my kids. I was told this was not true. But I’m stubborn. I clung to this idea. And my kids grew depressed, restless, troubled. They could tell. The knew. I was living in the damn basement, for God’s sake.

My oldest daughter grew particularly depressed. And once we told them – Mom’s gay and we’re separating – it was like the air had been let out of an overblown balloon. Her relief was visible. “I knew this,” she said. We’d been lying to her and all of them for months. In retrospect this is and was far worse than any changes we could have/should have/and have made. All the delays cost me was my integrity, a part of my sanity, and a relationship with an amazing, beautiful, sexy woman, who finally had enough of being put off.

I just moved into a new place, an upper duplex big enough to have my kids half the time. It’s a kind of crazy, cheap place in a central-city neighborhood of apartments, thrift stores and crappy corner markets that sell candy, cigarettes and $19 TracFone flip phones to throw in the trash after the deal goes down. There’s a lot of yelling outside and a few sirens at night. My kids are getting used to that, but it’s a 10-minute walk to their school on the other side of the Interstate, eight minutes to the park and rec center. I don’t have much stuff for them, and they are sharing beds right now, but they love it. And so do I. They’re going to be just fine.

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The Straight Spouse Badge of Honor

When your partner comes out as gay, you join a club no one wants to be in. But, once in, many people embrace it, live it, can’t let it go.

OK, your spouse lied and cheated. They deceived you. That sucks. Some say “they stole my future.” But how does this differ, really, from any other ugly divorce to a bitch or bastard? Lots of straight-straight marriages are filled with lying and cheating and bullshit. Gay-gay relationships, too. It’s the way some humans are wired, it appears. (Though I refuse to believe it is inevitable in every relationship. Just can’t let myself give in to that much skepticism.) 

When “I’m gay” first hits you, it’s the most lonely feeling in the world. Luckily, there are straight spouse online and in-person support groups, Facebook groups, mailing lists, etc. I’ve belonged to them all (and left most of them). It’s a huge relief to know you are not alone. And you are not. There are literally millions of people who have been in or still are in this situation. 

But something happens. These groups take on lives of their own. The vibe on one Yahoo! group I belonged to, dedicated to staying married, became angrily oppositional to anyone who suggested that being married to a gay person was difficult. (Sorry, it is. It just is.) And the other extreme, a Facebook group for straights became a feeding frenzy of unwavering support for the wronged straight and unmitigated fury at a gay ex who did anything the straight did not like. 

The first group bummed me out, and I felt very strongly that they were giving up their own lives to accommodate the gay spouse. But I can’t know that, and they were making their own decisions and choices. 

But the second group, the ‘straights can do no wrong’ group, leads to a kind of group-think I find even more dangerous. There was very little critical thinking about anything a group member posted. A member angry with a gay ex for taking the kid to a movie the straight didn’t like, or going on a vacation with a new partner, or not calling on Mother’s Day or some such, was met with universal ‘that bastard!’ and ‘what a narcissist!’ Whereas I’d like to  have seen a few responses along the lines of ‘how is it your business what he/she does?’ and ‘remember to stay on your side of the net.’ But in that community, such questioning is heresy. A straight has earned the right to be angry, now and forever, world without end. Amen.

I don’t want to come off as bitter. I’m not. I just find the straight spouse badge of honor to be too broad a shield. Eventually even straights need to let it go an move on. There are members there still angry eight or 10 or more years later, still have not gotten over it, learned about themselves, and made some kind of peace. A little righteous anger can do wonders to get one unstuck and get needs met, but continually stoked and tended, supported and inflamed by unquestioning fellow straights, it grows into bitterness and a life of anger. 

Some argue that “the gay community owes us.” No, actually, we owe ourselves the gift of taking responsibility for ourselves, and letting the gay ex go and be whatever the hell they need to be. 

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Carefully, carefully …

“Str8” spouses, those of us who were or are married or committed to gay, bi, trans, etc., partners, are a crazily diverse bunch. On Facebook or Yahoo! forums, it quickly becomes clear that there is no ‘type’ more vulnerable to being duped, cajoled or otherwise convinced to marry outside their orientation.

But there is one thing I’ve seen many of us have in common: being ridiculously careful with our gay spouse. It starts as a vague, maybe unconscious realization that something just ain’t right here. If we just tried harder, were more accommodating, did our share of the chores, let them have their way, etc., then maybe things would turn around. I mean, marriage is not easy, right? If we just tried harder, gave more, complained less, whatever, we’d change it. That’s what we’re told.

But here’s the thing: you can’t change gay. It just is and anybody who has seen a gay person try to suppress themselves and stay married to a straight person, knows that if there was a way–pill, prayer, iron will–they’d have done it.

For a man, this is especially damaging. I can’t tell you the number of articles I read that told me to help around the house more, and she soften to me; take the kids more; be more of a man; be less of a man; make a perfect romantic night out… (Aside about that: she once told me she didn’t like going out and having fun because I’d ruin it by wanting to have sex.) And there were so many ways more subtle, from caving in on what I believed in an argument, to being belittled in public and feeling no choice but to shut up and take it. Image

It’s not uncommon for men to hand over their power to their wives or partners, something I recognize all the time now in the peculiar lament “You’re not the man I married.” (No, he isn’t. You worked on him to be more like your woman friends and now he isn’t the guy you were once attracted to. And he let it happen.) But add to that the odd feeling that something is off, something we can’t figure out, something even she can’t identify, and it’s truly insidious.

I marvel now in how long I let it go on. How I gave away my power. How even now I tread carefully in leaving her, working on mediation papers, getting my own place. It’s a hard thing to break, and it drove my next lover mad: I looked like a man, felt and smelled like a man, talked, moved, wanted her like a man. But I wasn’t. Not really. I was a bundle of uncertainty about what she wanted, because trying to figure out what ‘she’ wanted and hoping for intimacy that rarely came, was a two-decade habit.

So that’s me, a straight dad too careful for his own good. Still.

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Starting Over … Again

It’s a hard thing, starting over. Especially the second time. Especially when you have been married for more than two decades to a controlled, closeted, but caring and good lesbian with whom you share four children. When I finally recognized the madness of the marriage – her gayness, the way I let my confusion control and manipulate me, the way I gave in on everything to try to make things right – I was bewildered as to how to proceed. I was lost in the desert without a map.

302857_4256361561788_1848310114_nAnd that’s when I met her, my Angel. An amazing straight woman who is loving, intense, funny, open, sexual, and all-in when she loves. We started slowly as email correspondents separated by 600 miles, but over the first year our feelings grew until one morning, her birthday as it turns out, I awoke with a poem about her on my lips. I wrote it down and sent it to her, risking opening my feelings. She reciprocated. We talked of everything, love, sex, our bewilderment, how hard we tried and tried in our marriages. The common themes in our situations were stunning. And we were both still married. Her husband left for another state and a new job. I didn’t, either for fear of hurting my children or out of just plain fear, I don’t know. When I finally admitted I wanted to be with her, it took another six months to tell my wife I was done trying. And six more months to tell the kids, a few more months to semi-separate (nesting, it’s called, a subject for another post), and another four months for me to really separate and start the divorce process  in earnest. By then it was too late. She had given me everything of herself and I gave back what little my fear and bewilderment allowed.

I know it was somehow too early for me, and too late for her, but I will always regret the fear and angst that kept me stuck, lost me a beautiful woman who loved me dearly, and set me here, starting over, again.

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