by Joe Kort, MSW copyright, 2005 • Originally
published in the
Psychotherapy Networker Magazine
When we think of a “mixed marriage,” we typically imagine
two individuals of different races or religions. But the
mixed-orientation marriage—with one straight spouse and one
who’s gay or lesbian—is just as real, though far more likely
to operate underground. This long-shrouded partnership burst
into public view in August 2004, when New Jersey Governor
James McGreevey went on national TV to come out as a "gay
American," while his wife, Dina, stood stock-still by his
side, her mouth arranged in a frozen smile. More recently,
bestselling author Terry McMillan (How Stella Got Her
Groove Back) publicly denounced her husband, Jonathan
Plummer, for carrying on clandestine affairs with male
lovers. Suddenly, America was buzzing about the "horror" and
"tragedy" of straight and gay individuals united by
Let me be clear at the outset: I’m not against
mixed-orientation marriages per se. They can, and do,
work well for some couples. What I don’t support are
mixed-marriages that are steeped in secrecy, which is how
these relationships too commonly operate.
Living a Lie
During my first appointment with Eric, he told me that he’d
had some homosexual experiences and wasn’t sure whether he
was gay, bisexual, or a sex addict. The manager of a major
export company, 48-year-old Eric had been married to his
wife, Ann, for 25 years, and the couple had a teenage son
and daughter. But even before he’d gotten married, Eric
admitted, he’d had frequent and elaborate sexual fantasies
When he was 21 years old, a college therapist told him what
he badly wanted to hear: that his urges were simply sexual
perversions that would pass. The therapist further advised
him not to act on these "perversions," but to go forth and
lead a healthy heterosexual life. Deeply relieved, Eric
decided to marry Ann, whom he’d dated during his senior year
of college, and to keep his homoerotism to himself.
At first, Eric felt he pulled it off pretty well. He loved
his wife and enjoyed sex with her, though he often used
images of men to stay aroused and reach orgasm. For a number
of years, he didn’t act on his homosexual urges, so he
didn’t feel bad about them. Occasionally, he’d masturbate to
porn, but he was careful to throw the magazines out
afterward. Overall, Eric’s lack of romantic feelings for
other men convinced him that his urges were "simply" sexual,
not part of full-fledged gay identity. He told himself he
was "heterosexual with a bit of kink."
Then, several years into the marriage, the couple bought a
home computer, and Eric’s delusions quickly began to
unravel. Secretly, he began surfing gay-porn sites and
entering chat rooms. Before long, he found himself meeting
men for anonymous sexual encounters. "But all this time, I
loved Ann and believed in monogamy, so I felt horribly
guilty for cheating," he told me.
One night, as he surfed the web, he stumbled upon an
internet club expressly for married gay men who wanted
monogamy with another man without leaving their wives. He
immediately joined the group, and soon afterward met Harris,
who lived in a nearby city and was also married. They
“clicked” online, met soon afterward, and agreed that they’d
found the perfect arrangement. They told their wives they’d
met at a business conference and discovered that they both
enjoyed fly fishing, which gave them the excuse to spend
whole weekends alone together, for enthusiastic sex and—for
Eric, at least—deepening intimacy.
But their idyll was short-lived, for Harris soon announced
that he wanted to have sex with other men. Eric was
devastated. He plunged into a depression so black that Ann
couldn’t help but notice. Finally, sleepless and distraught,
he called me.
After listening to his story, I pulled no punches. "You’re
not living with integrity," I told him.
He exploded. "This from a gay therapist? For a response like
that, I could have called Dr. Laura!"
I assured him that I didn’t necessarily disapprove of his
having an intimate relationship with a man, even though he
was married. "The issue is that you’re keeping secrets,
deceiving your wife, and aren’t being congruent with
yourself." I said. "If you both had an open relationship,
with informed consent on her side, that would be different."
"You have no idea what my life is like!" Eric shouted.
"You’ve never had a wife and kids you loved, and because of
it, faced giving up someone you’re mad about." He started
crying. "Maybe you’re not the right therapist for me," he
said between sobs. "I need someone to support me and help me
make this work."
"Make what work?" I inquired.
"Having a relationship with both my wife and my boyfriend. I
don’t want to lose either of them."
I gently told Eric that if he wanted someone to approve his
living a lie with his wife and himself, he was correct—I
wasn’t the right therapist for him. "Until you get honest
with yourself and your wife," I said, "I can’t support your
belief that having sex with someone outside of marriage is
okay." Even more important, I told him, "Until you act from
a place of integrity, I don’t think you’ll feel any happier
or more whole than you are right now."
If Eric wasn’t prepared to tell his wife, I said, there was
another viable option—to stay married and make a commitment
to never again act on his homosexual urges. I made very
clear that my perspective on this was different from
practitioners of Reparative Therapy (RT), who tell gay
people that sexual reorientation is possible and, indeed,
I believe that’s nonsense. However, I do believe that people
who self-identify as homosexual, but don’t wish to come out
as gay, can choose to create a heterosexual lifestyle.
But Eric wasn’t open to this option, either. At the end of
the session he left quickly, mumbling over his shoulder that
he’d call if he wanted to reschedule. I figured there was a
good chance I’d never hear from him again. But a month
later, he called, sounding desperate. His depression and
anxiety had worsened. "I gotta tell her," he said.
When a gay person comes out to his or her straight spouse,
the couple is likely to embark on a roller-coaster ride of
emotional stages that often encompass humiliation, revenge,
renewed hope, rage, and, finally, resolution. While each
couple is unique, these stages can serve as a rough road map
for therapists trying to help mixed-orientation couples make
sense of their feelings, communicate honestly, and,
ultimately, make informed, healthy decisions about their
When Eric told Ann that he was homosexual, she was stunned
and horrified. "Did you marry me just to have kids?" she
railed. "Were you just using me all along?" When he then
admitted that he’d been having an affair with Harris, her
hurt and horror turned to cold fury. Blaming him for ruining
her life, she ordered him out of the house and threatened to
tell their two teenage children and their families of
origin. She also planned to see a divorce lawyer to get full
custody of the kids. "You do realize," she hissed, "that no
judge would let a homosexual even have visitation rights!"
Beneath Ann’s rage was a deep sense of humiliation. "What
kind of a person was she to choose a homosexual husband?"
she wondered. Eric, in turn, felt humiliated by Ann’s
accusatory response, which only reinforced a lifetime of
shame about his essential "wrongness." I explained to Eric
that Ann was trying to shame him because of the humiliation
she felt, but that he needed to take her threats of reprisal
seriously. At my suggestion, he asked her to join him for a
therapy session, and she reluctantly agreed.
Before they came in, Ann sent me a long e-mail detailing
everything she knew about Eric’s dysfunctional childhood,
neurotic personality traits, inadequate fathering,
problematic work and sleep habits, and more. This wasn’t
unusual. Typically, when spouses learn that their partner is
gay; their first response is to focus on their partner’s
As the joint session got underway, Ann was quick to let me
know that she didn’t trust me. "Why would a gay therapist be
interested in helping us decide whether to stay together?"
she demanded. She wasn’t sure she wanted to stay with Eric,
she said, but she wanted to keep the possibility open. Her
concerns made sense to me, and I explained my perspective on
mixed-orientation marriages. "If you both want it to work,
then so do I," I assured her.
For most of that first session, I listened to, and
validated, Ann’s flood of thoughts and feelings. Both Ann
and Eric wept, insisting that they wanted to stay together
but weren’t sure it was possible.
I then appealed to Ann’s sense of integrity. If she wanted
to remain married, it needed be a conscious choice free of
shame and darkness. But Ann was unwilling to look at her
contribution to the issues in the marriage. Spouses in all
marriages—gay or straight—choose partners, in part, to meet
certain unconscious needs. I tried to explain to Ann that
straight individuals rarely marry gay people accidentally.
Either they have sexual issues themselves or they need
emotional distance from their partners. Ann didn’t want to
hear any of this. Instead, she projected all of their
problems as a couple onto Eric.
I spent our next several meetings trying to facilitate
clear, open communication between them. What did each of
them want? Ann made it clear that she couldn’t tolerate
Eric’s having a relationship with both her and Harris.
"You’ll have to choose," she told him. But soon afterward,
Harris made the choice for Eric by breaking off with him.
Eric was crushed, although his boyfriend’s decision also
clarified for Eric what he wanted—or at least what he
thought he wanted. Now that he’d lost Harris, he couldn’t
face the possibility of losing Ann, too. He apologized for
hurting her, and told her he wanted to stay married. "I love
you, and I promise to stay faithful," he said.
This new pledge of fidelity initiated the next stage of the
coming-out process for Eric and Ann as a couple: a kind of
honeymoon period of renewed hope and mutual appreciation.
Because Eric truly loved Ann, and because he’d empathized
with her pain, she began to feel she’d been reunited with
the man she married. Eric, for his part, was profoundly
grateful that Ann was willing to take him back. "She’s a
saint!" he told me, his voice edged with awe.
Shortly after they reunited, Ann stopped coming to see me.
She also refused to see another therapist or attend a
support group for straight partners married to gay partners.
But Eric continued on in therapy. Before long, he
acknowledged that he’d begun to feel restless and
dissatisfied. He loved Ann and his kids; there was no
question about that. But with no homosexual outlet, his life
felt flat and empty.
Eric’s growing dissatisfaction initiated the next stage of
the couple’s process, when they become aware of the limits
of the possible. While still hurt, Ann was genuinely happy
to have Eric back. But, the absence of a man’s emotional and
sexual companionship weighed increasingly heavily on him.
Increasingly depressed, he found himself surfing internet
porn sites once again, and drifting into chat rooms. Before
long, he was telephoning men and meeting them for sex—and,
he hoped, for love.
Late one night, Ann caught Eric making arrangements on line
to hook up with a new man. After an explosive fight, they
returned to my office together. "I love you," he told her in
that session, "but I have to be who I am. I want to stay
married to you and have affairs with men." I still remember
my sense of foreboding when Ann, looking strained and pale,
agreed to his terms. This type of arrangement can sometimes
work out, but only when the straight spouse is willing to
take a long, close look at herself. So far, I hadn’t seen
any willingness on Ann’s part to do that. I strongly
recommended she get some individual therapy, but she assured
me, "I can handle this on my own."
Eric continued to meet men, but now told Ann the truth about
his plans. Between dates, he’d often sit in their driveway
for hours talking on his cell phone with guys he’d met
online. From Eric’s vantage point, Ann seemed to be
adjusting pretty well to their "new marriage." Then one
night Eric returned home from a date to discover that Ann
had told their son and daughter that their father was gay.
He was stunned and furious. "How dare you tell them without
my permission," he raged, "and without letting me be part of
"What was I supposed to do?" Ann countered bitterly. "You’re
out all hours meeting guys, and I’m left here worrying sick
you’ll be killed!"
Back into therapy they came.
Ann stubbornly held to her position that she’d told the kids
only because she was worried out of her mind, not because
she was furious at Eric. Firmly, I told them that I believed
that neither one of them was behaving either with respect to
themselves or their relationship. As far as I could tell, I
said, Ann wanted a full-time, monogamous husband—sexually
and emotionally. Eric wanted a boyfriend as well as a wife
who was reasonably happy with the arrangement. Their aims
For the next few sessions, I worked on encouraging both of
them to examine and identify their authentic relationship
needs. Within a few weeks, Eric decided to come out as a gay
man—in his words, to live "as the person I’ve been all
along." Ann, for her part, realized that it was impossible
to make the marriage work. They decided to divorce.
When I work with people in mixed-orientation marriages like
Eric and Ann’s, my goal is neither to help them to stay
married or to get divorced. Instead, it’s to help partners
come back into integrity with themselves and each other.
It’s truly up to the couple, not to me, to discover what’s
right for them.
That said, I tend to start from a place of hope for the
relationship. Unless one partner definitely wants out of the
marriage, I start by asking a couple how their marriage can
continue. I work with each partner on what he or she really
I realize that many therapists disapprove of a gay husband
and straight wife staying together under any circumstances.
Many believe that such an "arrangement" is a clear sign of
an intimacy disorder. Some might urge the couple to consider
divorce to allow both parties to move on with their lives.
Other clinicians might advise the gay husband to remain the
sexually faithful partner he promised to be on his wedding
day. I once held this belief myself—that anything less than
monogamy betrayed the relationship. Now I’m open to the
various arrangements that couples adopt.
The principal reason I’ve changed my mind it that I’ve now
sat with many couples who’ve struggled long and hard over a
divorce or separation when, in the end, that wasn’t at all
what they wanted. So I’ve come to accept that there are a
number of instances in which responsible nonmonogamy between
partners is a viable option. One such instance is when the
couple is older, has invested emotionally, financially, and
psychologically in each other, and want to be together in
their later years. Another is when the couple has become
best friends, and the marriage is sacred to them. A third is
when the man is emotionally heterosexual and physically
The idea here isn’t to change the orientation of the gay
spouse. That’s impossible. Rather, it’s to accept the couple
as they are and honor what they want.
In doing this kind of work, taking a thorough history on
both partners is essential. While Ann refused to
participate, I was able to do some effective
family-of-origin work with Eric. He grew up in a family that
demanded obedience, and therefore Eric learned early on to
get his needs met underground. I helped him see that his
depression stemmed, in part, from his inability to openly
make decisions for himself and allow himself to experience
the consequences of those decisions. Gradually, I helped him
feel safe enough to do this.
Ann still hasn’t gotten help. She remains angry at Eric for
"ruining her life." This outcome isn’t the norm: many gay
and straight spouses who divorce ultimately become friends.
While Eric wants friendship, particularly for his children’s
sake, Ann has made it clear she’s not interested. Meanwhile,
Eric has done his best to talk with his teenage kids about
who he is, why he’s made the decisions he has, and how much
he loves them. At this point, they’re more aligned with
In the meantime, Eric has met a man with whom he wants to
spend the rest of his life. He continues to regularly visit
his children, but doesn’t talk about his gay life or bring
his partner around, at their request. I hope that,
eventually, the children will develop a separate
relationship with Eric and accept his life as a gay man with
a new partner, just as they would if their parents had
divorced and Eric had married another woman.
It’s often hard for me to sit with mixed-orientation
couples, since I get in touch with my anger at living in a
society that shames gays and lesbians into role-playing
heterosexuality. If gays were treated with respect and
empathy to begin with, much personal suffering and chaos
could be spared.
As comedian Jason Stuart says, "I wish you straight people
would let us gay people get married. If you did, we’d stop