What are known as "mixed-orientation" marriages are far more common than you might think and can take on all sorts of different forms.
Illustrations by Tom Scotcher
This post originally appeared on VICE UK
After 20 years of marriage, Mark couldn't take it any more. He still loved and cared for his wife, but had started to feel a strong attraction towards a close male friend. These feelings started to saturate his thoughts, and gradually an urge to escape the rut he'd found himself in as he entered his mid-40s brought everything to the fore.
After one drunken night out, the two friends had sex. This soon became a regular occurrence; Mark now recalls that he was "a bit blasé" about the whole thing, believing he'd never get caught. His nonchalance was misplaced—one day, Mark's wife caught the pair kissing in the kitchen.
While Mark's affair was a surprise, that it was with a man was not. Mark's wife had found a stash of gay porn shortly after they married in their early 20s, and he'd formally come out to her (although not to the rest of the world) at the age of 28. Despite his sexuality, Mark told his wife that he'd never sleep with another man, promising to stay faithful to her for as long as they were married.
But after catching him, his wife didn't walk away. In fact, today—after 30 years of marriage—they're still together.
A gay and a straight person trying to maintain a marriage seems like quite an ordeal to put yourself through. Yet for millions of people in mixed-orientation marriages, it's a basic fact of life.
When psychologists and counsellors talk about mixed-orientation marriages, or MOMs, they are describing unions in which one partner is openly gay, the other straight. And such marriages are far more common than you might think. There's currently no single set of figures available for MOMs in the UK but, according to stats released by the Straight Spouse Network, an organization set up to help the female partners of gay Mormon men in Utah, there are 2 million mixed-orientation marriages in America alone.
Although it's far more common for a gay partner to come out after the couple marry than before, this is by no means universal, according to Douglas Chay, a Maryland-based therapist who runs his own practice, Pride Counseling, and describes himself as an MOM specialist.
Douglas says that "in some cases, before the actual marriage people agree to have what they think of as a non-traditional marriage. They set rules on whether the homosexual partner can have sex with other people. They may have deals where they can both have sex with other people. But often it's simply the homosexual partner who wants that."
As long as they don't flaunt what they're doing, they can keep themselves satisfied and maintain their friendship with their wife, albeit by maintaining celibacy
The proliferation of support groups on the internet suggests a relatively sizable chunk of Britain's homosexual community are in mixed-sex unions. Mark himself is a long-standing member of Gay Married Men, a group that meets in Manchester and has around 50 members who range in age from their 20s to their 50s. The vast majority of members are already "out" to their wives.
"Those who have carried on [their marriage] are on a similar agreement to me," says Mark. "As long as they don't flaunt what they're doing, they can keep themselves satisfied and maintain their friendship with their wife, albeit by maintaining celibacy."
According to Mark, Gay Married Men doesn't offer counseling; it exists to provide regular group meetings where "people share experiences of how they have managed to come out, coming to terms with their sexuality, maybe the breakup of their relationship or the struggle they have had to carry it on." However, it's not all serious emotional support; members also occasionally swap tips on where to go cruising in the local neighborhood—which suggests the vow of celibacy might mean different things to different people.
Similar support is available across the UK; just type "mixed-orientation marriage" into Google and you'll find a support group in pretty much every major British city (though not all offer advice on cruising). Intriguingly, the vast majority of the groups are aimed at men, suggesting the homosexual partner in an MOM is invariably male.
One of the oldest MOM support bodies, Courage, was founded back in 1988 by Jeremy Marks, who was himself about to embark on an MOM at the time. Jeremy, a committed Christian, says he knew he was gay from puberty but couldn't pursue his true feelings because "people thought it was beneath contempt. It was very demoralizing—you had society telling you [that you] were a monster."
After years of living a single, celibate life, in the late 80s Jeremy began a platonic relationship with a longtime female friend who shared his devotion to Christianity. "She was fully aware that I was gay, but she didn't know what that meant because I wasn't involved in homosexual relationships, and perhaps we were slightly afraid of loneliness and wanted to make our families happy," he recalls.
"We 'dated' for about 18 months before marrying. We were really getting to know each other as friends, but we never slept together. Even after getting married it was never a sexual relationship."
Although the couple decided to separate in their 50s, Jeremy is now dedicated to helping other people make their MOMs work. He's left Courage and now runs his own counseling service. He says he's in regular contact with between 20 to 30 MOM couples today, hailing from all over the world.
"Many of them have kids. It's a terribly difficult dilemma for the men—and of course it's very difficult [for the women]," says Jeremy. "Some men are closer to the middle of the Kinsey scale [the formula that uses a continuum to grade a person's sexuality] and get some enjoyment out of sex. However, there's always that tension for them, that they'd like to be with people of the same sex as well."
Yet, for all the obvious sexual barriers that can afflict an MOM, many gay men end up with children, which can make things even more complicated down the line.
One such man is Steve Williams, who runs Gaydadsupport.net, an organization set up to facilitate online conversations and meet-ups between homosexual fathers. Steve says he knew he was gay at the age of five and that his initial sexual experiences were all with men, but he's still ended up with four kids.
In his early 20s, Steve met a woman by chance after falling asleep on a bus, and found he enjoyed her company. Living in Basildon, life was far easier at the time if you were heterosexual; Steve recalls that his first heterosexual relationship "wasn't love at first sight, it was convenience."
The couple soon got engaged, and as they were planning their nuptials Steve's fiancée announced she was expecting. "I was lucky she got pregnant quickly," Steve recalls, "so she didn't want sex that often. Sex wasn't difficult, it just wasn't overly pleasurable. But when we had sex, she just tended to get pregnant.
"I actually never intended telling my wife that I was gay—I genuinely believed I could live that lie for the rest of my life. But soon after I married, a guy I'd had a relationship with reappeared, and it appeared my wife knew him. So I basically had to tell her. Even then, like a lot of wives, she assumed I was bi, not gay, and I didn't feel the need to correct her.
"We continued to have sex sporadically, and this kept producing kids. Yet, as time went on we started living in separate beds, then separate rooms, and reverted to a friendship rather than marriage. She allowed me to have dates and she had dates as well, on the pretext that we knew we were going to get divorced at some point. We just wanted to wait until we found someone worth getting a divorce for.
"Eventually I met a guy and got very close to him. One day, my wife asked me to choose between her and him. I chose the guy."
Some couples do manage to go the distance, despite the overwhelming odds
Steve, Mark and Jeremy have all negotiated the MOM journey by very different routes. However, the support they have provided to other people allows them to take a panoramic view of the MOM landscape.
So, is there a "typical" demographic for MOMs? All three are adamant that it's impossible to pin this down.
Marks insists that "there's no dominant occupational group, although the majority are skilled or professional—well-educated. It does seem to be people who've had a career and knuckled down and done what was expected of them."
Steve, meanwhile, says, "I would love to say there's a clear stereotype, but there isn't. I've had everyone from doctors, airline pilots... all sorts. If anything, there's probably a lack of manual professions. You don't get many factory workers; I can only assume it's the environment where they work."
The three men also agree that the vast majority of MOMs will, eventually, end in divorce. However, this is by no means a universal rule; some couples do manage to go the distance, despite the overwhelming odds.
When asked how a couple can manage this, Mark suggests that "to some extent they want to stick with it through fear of the unknown, the fear of loneliness. And also they value what they have, someone who's a very good friend. It seems a mutual thing in most cases. The wife has been given the opportunity to separate and it's not been taken.
"In my own case, first and foremost we are best, best friends—always have been—and we felt we had a lot together. I wish I could answer why my wife has stayed with me; I suppose there would be the fear of explaining it to family if she left. I don't imagine it would go down too well."
In a sense, the accounts provided by Steve, Mark, and Jeremy paint a negative picture. The world they describe is hemmed in by fear, embarrassment, and a desire to please everyone but oneself. Perhaps in time, people will look back on MOMs with pity, just as the children of the Enlightenment scorned the God-botherers of the Middle Ages.
Yet, we should also acknowledge the sacrifices these people have made, the struggles they have endured to make their marriages work. A straight marriage was never their dream, but they've followed it to the end of the rainbow.