You Need Help: Where Do I Go From Here

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Q:  Is there any way a so-called “mixed orientation” marriage can ever work? My straight, cis husband and I have been together for almost 15 years, and we have a young child together. When we started dating, I told him I was bi, but that it wouldn’t be an issue since I only wanted to be in a relationship with a man due to my conservative upbringing. I recently started therapy and I am realizing a lot of things about myself including the fact that my sexual orientation is probably a lot further to the left of the spectrum than I realized and this may be a factor in my depression.

What are my options here? I have no idea how to deal with this without destroying my family.


Oh sweetheart.

You ask what your options are. Factually speaking, you have a few: you could bury this information that you’re discovering about yourself and try to continue in your life with your family as if nothing has changed. You could tell your husband what you’re realizing and just wait and see what he says. You could tell him and say you want to leave. You could tell him and say that this doesn’t have to change anything about your marriage. You could tell him and ask if you can try opening up your marriage. You could tell him, and also tell him that this is scary and new and you need his support now more than ever, and see what he says. None of these are the right thing to do; none of them are wrong. Other people have done all of them many times before.

Knowing what your options are isn’t the hard part of this, though. The thing that’s hard is knowing what you want. When you realize that you were wrong about what you wanted in one part of your life, how can you feel sure about what you want when it comes to everything else? Once you start to think about what you want, how do you deal with the terrifying prospect of maybe having it?

I dated men for a long time, and then I dated women. That phrasing makes it sound like a very natural and seamless transition. Which it probably is for some people, but I wasn’t one of them. I had known that I liked girls for as long as I knew I liked anything, but I didn’t feel like I needed to integrate it into my life plans in any real way. I didn’t have a conservative upbringing, but I did convince myself that nothing with a girl could ever really happen. Because I didn’t know any other queer girls; because when I did, they weren’t my type; because when they were, they weren’t into me; because when they were, the time wasn’t right, the circumstances were too complicated, the moon was in the wrong phase. If a situation arose where none of these excuses were handy, I ran as fast and as far as I could. Women were something I could only want as long as I could never have them; if what I wanted was actually attainable, it was so scary the only way I could handle it was pretending it didn’t exist. The last thing I wanted were options. I know what it feels like to want to wall yourself into the safest route possible.

I’m not sure from your question what exactly “mixed orientation” means to you — it could be that you’re still identifying as bi or somewhere on that spectrum, and are attracted to/have feelings for your husband. Or it’s possible that you’re now feeling like you ID as a lesbian or aren’t interested in men/your husband really at all anymore. To answer your question: “mixed-orientation” marriages can work, in the literal sense that people of different sexual orientations can have happy marriages. Even queer-identified women married to straight cis men can have happy marriages. Faith Cheltenham, director of BiNet USA, is married to a (bisexual) man. Jennifer Baumgardner, author of Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics, is married to a man. Susie Bright, author of Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World, is in a life partnership with a man. Margaret Cho. Sia. Angelina Jolie. Clementine Ford. Amber Rose. Vanessa Carleton. I also am married to a man.

So marriages that look like yours certainly can work; that isn’t the question. I’m pretty sure you already know that; I think you also more or less know what your options are, too. It’s possible that you’ve even been thinking about one or two options in particular, fleshing them out in your head and figuring out what they would look like. That’s not really what you’re asking, I don’t think. I think the real question, the big bad, is how to be sure of what you want. And once you’re sure, how to gather up the courage to do it.

You (and your husband) have to decide, then, whether you want to be in a mixed-orientation marriage; in this particular marriage. It’s not clear from your question how your husband would feel about this. For some men, being with a “practicing bisexual” (an obviously fallacious idea, but still one that many people ascribe to) isn’t what they want. If you’re feeling less bisexual and more like you’re exclusively interested in women, then he might be even less excited about that. At some point, you will almost definitely end up having to talk to him about this, and when you do, the way he responds or reacts is totally up to him. I’m sorry. You can’t control how he deals with this. Only you.

So think about you, now. About what you want. And I don’t mean what gender(s) you want, necessarily. For some people in this situation, there is a “right” gender of person that you want to be with, but even if that’s the case, it doesn’t usually come with soul-searching, only with time. Think about what you want.

When I did start dating women, it felt like I had cracked the code. Getting there was a painful and messy process, but it was one of the few things I’ve ever done in my life that ultimately felt incontestably right. I felt freer and sexier and more like myself. But I realized after a while that despite that, things were still confusing and sometimes stupid and sometimes painful. I still had problems with partners, even when they were women. I still had personal struggles, even when my partners were women. Even with women, there were times when I was in the same room as them but felt totally alone. All of my issues with the world and myself weren’t lifted by figuring out my sexual orientation. The problem wasn’t with the gender of people I was dating; the problem was with me.

This isn’t to say that you should stay with your husband, or that you should do anything. It’s to say that there’s more to this than figuring out who you’re attracted to. It’s also about figuring out what you want out of a partner, what you want out of a relationship, what you want out of yourself. When you do, does it look like your husband? Does it look like your marriage? Does it look like your life right now? Maybe it doesn’t; maybe it does. If you do think that you want to be dating women, those questions will still be just as important.

When I first started to realize I didn’t actually want to date men my whole life, I was in a long-term relationship with one. It didn’t last long after that. We had plenty of other problems that led to our split, which I think would have happened anyways, but the enormous upheaval of self-examination didn’t help. Even if your relationship is otherwise perfect — which no relationship is — the process of peeling away layers of the person you thought you were can be explosive and it’s hard for any relationship to make it through that unchanged. For me, it turned out that while that relationship wasn’t right for me, it wasn’t necessarily about gender. I went on to date people of multiple genders and when I did find a relationship that fit what I wanted for myself, it happened to be with the man I’m now married to. What I’m saying is that finding out who you are and what you want is a practice that you continue to engage in forever, not a task that you complete once. You need to go through it right now in terms of your husband. Regardless of what decisions you both make, you’ll need to do it again the days after that and after that.

The bad news is that there’s no one who’s going to come and save you on this; no one is going to appear to show you what to do. The good news is that you are your own best and bravest rescuer. When you unearth one thing you didn’t know about yourself, it can be an opportunity to dive in and know all the things you were afraid to. It’s the scariest thing you’ll ever do and the most valuable. It’s not going to destroy your family — your family is made up of people who love you and each other as individuals, and even if you do something that upsets them, that isn’t going to change. And if your whole family’s wellbeing was resting entirely on your ability to maintain a relationship and lifestyle that’s harmful to you, things were already shaky for reasons that I doubt are your fault. We have a responsibility to keep our families safe and support them, but not to limit our own freedom and happiness to make sure they never have to deal with anything uncomfortable.

You’ve already started — even if it doesn’t feel like it right now, you’ve already taken the step of getting into therapy and asking this question, which means you’ve done the hardest part. If you don’t already know how you’re going to handle this, you will. You just have to promise yourself that you’ll be brave enough to honor it when you’re ready.


Send your questions to youneedhelp [at] autostraddle [dot] com or submit a question via the ASK link on autostraddle.tumblr.com. Please keep your questions to around, at most, 100 words. Due to the high volume of questions and feelings, not every question or feeling will be answered or published on Autostraddle. We hope you know that we love you regardless.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1128 articles for us.

54 Comments

  1. This is one of the most important articles on ” being happy and finding real love”, I have ever read!
    Rachel is so “right on” in all she says. Especially about being brave enough to look deep inside oneself, and find the true person you are. Some of us have layers upon layers that are hiding our “real self”. Those assumptions (now called “constructs” ) have parental, societal, peer group, and even self origins. So that the real “you” is hidden. And as Rachel says, you have to be brave , to leave your “security blanket” to discover the happiness and love that only can come from the “true you” under all the layers.
    Rachel’s brilliant and compassionate “reply” is such a great example of the intellectual perception of the women who lead Autostraddle, as well as women in general.
    Do all of you feel that feeling in your heart like I do? Sort of a swelling? That’s female emotional love for Rachel……I think.

  2. I don’t know why but I read the article in my head by Mrs. Doubtfire voice…
    I like the kind and tender tone of this article and some sentences hit home really precisely… One has to have patience with self when digging through stuff in head/heart/soul and trying to find way…

  3. Thank you thank you thank you! I love hearing from/about women who come out a bit later on in their lives. I didn’t really date ’til my grad school dating of men, and then I started coming out to myself and others 2 years ago. I too have freer but also very much in the realm of the “confusing and sometimes stupid and sometimes painful…” Yes, of course I still have issues with shyness, etc., that dating girls didn’t magically fix! I think also since I had such conflicted and anxious and confused feelings about hetero dating, and limited experience thereof, I feel like I have so much to learn and figure out. And since I pushed down my attractions to women, I still need to excavate that part of me: my feelings and desires and stuff. I haven’t been in a relationship with a girl yet. And sometimes I am very lonely. But I just keep doing my best to be me.

  4. Also I just wanted to add that Rachel has really good advice. It sucks that NO ONE can tell how things will end up. Try to keep in mind that sometimes certain things happen for a reason. I recently remember coming across the graduation speech Steve Jobs gave at Stanford.

    We can’t connect the dots looking into the future but when we look back at our past that’s when we can see where things worked out where they were supposed to.

  5. THIS>>>> “When I did start dating women, it felt like I had cracked the code. Getting there was a painful and messy process, but it was one of the few things I’ve ever done in my life that ultimately felt incontestably right. I felt freer and sexier and more like myself. But I realized after a while that despite that, things were still confusing and sometimes stupid and sometimes painful. I still had problems with partners, even when they were women. I still had personal struggles, even when my partners were women. Even with women, there were times when I was in the same room as them but felt totally alone. All of my issues with the world and myself weren’t lifted by figuring out my sexual orientation. The problem wasn’t with the gender of people I was dating; the problem was with me.”

    Thank you for putting my own experience into words.

  6. I think this article gives really good advice. Except for the part about family destruction. Sometimes families are destroyed. It doesn’t always get better. Sometimes families cannot or do not ever accept a gay family member. I don’t know if that’s going to be her reality but it’s a possibility.

    And she’s clear that she thinks that’s a possibility.

  7. I think my heart may have done somersaults as I read this. Never has any advice column hit so close to home and been so enlightening as this! I have actually printed this out and highlighted it to use as an emotional guide….. no joke! I have identified as bisexual for as long as I can remember but I have always steered away from relationships with women for the very reasons Rachel listed. I have now been in in a LTR with a a straight cis man for 8 years and never thought anything was amiss, that is until I fell hard for a lifelong lesbian. Long story short, she was very much wrapped up in her own LTR and after 6 months of flirting she finally shut me down after I declared my love (insert tears, an obnoxious amount of gelato and a snuggie here). As hard as the heartbreak and disappointment is, the sh*tstorm of confusion that the situation left is worst. I don’t love the man I’m with any less but how I can in good conscience ignore the onslaught of new emotions she made me feel? Can I live my life and never feel that again? Did I feel all that because I fell so deep in love or because she’s a woman? Do I need to re-analyze my “label”? Am I over thinking this? Though Rachel’s response doesn’t specifically answer these questions, she’s given me so much other material to satisfy the doubt monster that now lives in my head. Thank you Rachel!

  8. This is me! I kinda new I liked girls when I was younger but not in a real tangible way. I have been with my husband for 16 years, we have 2 kids. We have our flaws but we love each other. The last few years have been a little rocky. Then I met someone. I swear this lesbian woman noticed me, checked me out, and it was like waking up. She stood near me and I couldn’t breathe. It was electric. Not sure if it was for her. But I can’t stop thinking about her. I haven’t felt that way in forever, it feels like never. But I know she has a girlfriend. I want to find out what this is, what these feelings are. But this is the only woman I want to find out with. For now anyway. I did tell my husband and we are trying to figure this out. No clue how to proceed since she is with someone. I just ache inside, all the time now.

  9. This was beautifully written- made my heart happy and also gave so much perspective on a very difficult situation. Having been attracted to girls for as long as I can remember, but being with boys because I always felt like the alternative was never an option, then realizing it’s all entirely dependent upon what I want. Thank you so much for writing this!

  10. I know I’m late to the comments but I just found this.

    I am so encouraged by knowing that there are others out there like me.

    I am exclusively attracted to women, which I have known since I was maybe 18, but due to a combination of religion and bad life choices I got married and started a family anyway.

    I’m on ma path to make it right and to put my children first every step of the way. It’s hard to know if I am doing the right thing but every step I take, the more I am beginning to trust in truth.

    Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone on this road

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