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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.
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.
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