Sunday, January 17, 2010

Unnatural Relationships

OK, here's what I hope for.

I hope for discussions about attraction and relationships involving gay men in same-sex relationships and gay men in mixed orientation marriages not to be carried on as if marriage were a zero-sum game. As if what gay men in same-sex marriages win, gay men in mixed-orientation marriages (and their wives) lose, and vice versa.

There's a dynamic that always goes on in discussions about same-sex marriage. Sometimes it's at the fore, sometimes it's the unspoken elephant in the room. On the one hand, discussions of desire and nature seem to come with the implication that mixed orientation marriages shouldn't exist or are doomed. On the other hand, discussions of choice and change seem to come with the implication that same-sex marriages are unfaithful or selfish.

I notice when some of these discussions take place, there are quiet calculations taking place in the background. Someone shares his or her experience, and others listening in are trying to figure out whether that person's experience adds to or subtracts from their commitments. The happiness of a gay man in a same-sex relationship is taken as implying that a gay man in an opposite-sex relationship is hard-wired to be unhappy with a woman. In defense, people start piling in and testifying that God condemns same-sex relationships; and same-sex relationships just don't last. The happiness of a gay man in a mixed-orientation marriage is taken as implying that a gay man in a same-sex relationship was too weak or selfish to have made the morally superior choice of marrying a woman. In defense, people start piling in and testifying that people in mixed orientation marriages won't ever get their needs met; and mixed orientation marriages just don't last. And so on and so on, around and around it goes.

But relationships are not mathematical equations. They are living organisms with histories and habitats that are utterly unique. One of the things that often delights me about relationship stories is hearing how two people met. So often there's an element of serendipity involved, a chance encounter or some unusual introduction or something out of the ordinary that takes two people out of the usual course of their life and throws them together in some way that makes them take notice of each other in a new light. I've so often heard a couple tell, with knowing smiles, how "if it hadn't been for so-and-so, we never would have met."

And if the account of the encounter has interesting twists and turns, so much more the tale of the subsequent relationship. The longer a relationship lasts, the more choices an individual makes in the framework of that relationship; choices that determine not only whether or how that relationship can last, but the whole texture and character and personality of that relationship. And what is even more miraculous is that there is not one but two people making choices; often very, very different choices in the same relationship. At any point, any one member of the relationship could make a choice that causes a terminal divergence, bringing the relationship to an end. A relationship only lasts when two people both make choices that somehow converge, that somehow always lead back to the other. Like a dance.

Like a dance, each partner responds to the moves of the other. A change of rhythm or the introduction of new moves might confuse a partner for a moment, but that partner can always choose to adjust their own moves, matching their partner and coming back into sync. Or they might introduce some new moves of their own, challenging their partner to respond, forcing their partner to decide how or whether they want to keep dancing. I've been on many dance floors with my partner, but I've never been part of a dance where every couple had the exact same moves. I've never seen a dancer respond to a new rhythm in exactly the same way as any other dancer.

So a gay man comes out to his wife. New move, new rhythm. Some wives will follow, some won't. Sometimes that dance ends, and starts again with new partners. If the dance continues, the wife may make certain accommodations and certain demands. New move, new rhythm. Some gay men will follow, some won't. Sometimes the dance ends, and starts again with new partners. Sometimes the dance continues, with new levels and kinds of interaction and satisfaction for the partners.

The particularity of the moves in a mixed orientation marriage are different from the kinds of moves you typically see in a heterosexual marriage or in a gay marriage. Gay marriages have particular moves that you don't see in heterosexual or mixed orientation marriages. Heck, lesbian marriages have different moves from gay male marriages. But the fact of moving is the same in every relationship.

Why do two partners end up together? And why do they stay together? The answer is unique in every relationship. I hear the repeated refrain from gay men in mixed orientation marriages that they never had the experience of "falling in love." That really only gets disconcerting when they compare their moves to someone else's. But the only thing that's really important at any given moment is that you are in the dance, not necessarily how you got to this point in the dance.

Gay men in same-sex relationships have historically been told that their relationships are "unnatural." As our understanding of the nature of sexual orientation has evolved, gay men in mixed-orientation relationships increasingly find themselves being told that they are the ones in "unnatural" relationships.

But the truth is that every relationship is unnatural in the sense that relationships don't last unless two people are willing to put effort into them. No relationship just happens. It has a history that makes it unique -- a history that may have analogues in other people's lives, but that is actually unrepeated and unrepeatable anywhere else, with anyone else.

Every relationship is also natural in the sense that human beings are social creatures. Every relationship comes into being both through choice and desire. Every relationship meets needs. Every relationship fulfills some needs better than other needs, and each relationship has different proficiencies in terms of the kinds of needs it meets. That works, because every individual in a relationship has different needs.

I can't imagine being in a mixed orientation marriage. At one point, I considered the possibility very seriously, and even went through a period of fasting and prayer to discern whether I should seek to marry a woman. The result of that fasting and prayer and discernment led me to conclude that that would be a very bad choice for me. I made decisions that ultimately led to my relationship of more than 17 years with my honey pie, Göran. Looking back, there are things I might have done differently, but in terms of the grand story arc, I am incredibly grateful that I made the choices I did that led us together and made a couple of us. My relationship with him is the single greatest blessing in my life, after my relationship with God and my testimony of the gospel. When I contemplate the choices of folks like Bravone or Scott or Beck, they look impossible to me. I get a headache trying to imagine myself in their shoes.

But that doesn't make the choices they've made invalid. Nor does it make their relationships more or less deserving of happiness and success, nor more or less capable of achieving happiness and success. Nor should their happiness and success be taken as some kind of proof that I should have made different choices, that my relationship with Göran is somehow sinful or selfish or wrong. Nor should their success be used as ammunition for legal campaigns that deny me and my honey the protections of marriage.

I wish we could get that kind of stuff out of our system. Because there is value in comparing notes. We do learn from hearing how others made the choices they've made, where those choices led, and what it has meant to them to do what they've done.

Sometimes, the problem doesn't come from others trying to undermine us. Sometimes the problem comes from our own insecurities and fears. We hear what someone else has to say, and all our anxieties about our own relationship come to the fore and make it impossible for us to hear what they're actually trying to say. We need to get spiritually centered, find a way not only of speaking but hearing without fear.

This is difficult because we live in a culture that has turned these kinds of discussions into a political, social, spiritual, religious, and legal minefield. There's always somebody ready to turn somebody else's life into a political or theological argument; or perhaps we too readily indulge the temptation to make an argument of our own lives. It's disrespectful, it's painful, and it's terrible. To do so totally violates the sanctity of human life, human freedom, and human relationships. And it leaves us living in fear, and alienates us from one another when we ought to be living in love, and helping lift one another's burdens.

Any ideas how get through the minefield intact?


Bravone said...

What a thoughtful post. Thank you for taking the time and so succinctly describing what I too believe. I may be part of the problem you you address, but don't mean to be. I can only describe my relationship and my experiences. Just like you cannot imagine what it would be like to be in a MOM, I cannot fully understand what your marriage is like.

In my attempt to describe how I feel about my marriage and how it has worked for us, I hope I haven't given you or anyone else the impression that I am some how superior or that our relationship is more worthy or fulfilling than anothers.

I love the metaphor of the dance you used. It is beautiful and does depict the need to adjust and adapt over time in a relationship.

I believe that same sex, mixed orientation, and heterosexual relationships are more alike than not. In order to be successful in any of them, patience, love, respect, honesty, trust, forgiveness, compassion, intimacy, service, and selflessness are essential.

Marriage, regardless of the type has the potential to bring out the best of those involved, strengthen society, and bring true fulfillment and happiness.

I honor and respect your marriage, and see the good fruits it has produced in your life. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and seeking common ground. Thank you for your example and friendship.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

I am as much a part of the problem as you are, if indeed we are part of the problem. As I pointed out, part of what we're up against is a culture that sets us up to be adversaries when we should be brothers.

I like the dance metaphor too... Looking at relationships that way says a lot about why any kind of relationship succeeds or fails, hether it be hetero, homo or mixed. Indeed, something like 50% of hetero marriages in our culture fail. Somehow that often gets dropped out in these conversations about relationships involving gay men.

I agree that all relationships have key ingredients in common... That we are much more alike than we are different. I think what trips us up is when we focus on the role that one particular ingredient -- such as sexuality -- plays in relationships. It seems self evident to me that sexuality -- while important in every primary bonded/nesting relationship -- may be more important than in some relationships than others, or may be of equal importance but be played out differently. It is obvious that marital sex plays out differently in an MOM than in a SOM. But then some people start making unwarranted judgments about the quality of a relationship based on those differences... Then folks get discouraged and we start to fight.

That's why I like the dance metaphor. One partner may make a certain dance move differently, but so long as his or her dance partner is able to follow his or her moves, the dance flows on, and the relationship flourishes...

We do have much in common, but there are significant differences too. We needn't get tied up in knots about that... So long as we can appreciate that it's the fact of our commonality that allows us to learn from each others' differences.

playasinmar said...

How to navigate the minefield? How about this: some relationships don't work. Period.

If you or a loved one are in a relationship and it is suffering because you or your partner are lousy with money, stubborn, lazy, or the wrong orientation...

...then move on.

It's what divorse is really for. Cut the ties that bind (and gag) and find someone else.

Some M.O.Ms work, some don't. Some marriages work, some don't.

Reboot and try again. What am I missing? Why is this hard? Divorse sucks no matter what the cause.

What makes the straight-married gays so extra special?

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Playa - the minefield I'm talking about is how we talk to each other... Whoops! You just stepped on about six mines.

Of course divorce is an option, and plenty of folks choose it. Some folks prefer another option -- and if they choose that, I'd prefer to find some way to support them in their choice rather than join the long line of people trying to discourage them.

Divorce is an honorable way to deal with the situation of mixed orientation marriages, especially in situations where the same-sex-oriented partner lied to their hetero spouse, or where they married because ecclesiastical leaders promised them the same-sex-oriented partner would change after marriage.

Even under such circumstances, some folks decide to try to work it out. Once their eyes have been opened to the reality of the situation, do they not have a right to decide to re-commit and forge on?

playasinmar said...

Yes, re-commital is an option. Honor and vows are a poor substitute for love, in my estimation.

This is where I toss unto the ring my patented concept of "psycological inability to be happy." it's a term I know you dislike.

Free to love whom you will, but feel crappy about your new status as Vow-Breaker or taking pride in honoring your commitment to your original spouse, but feel crappy in a love-deprived marriage.

(Genuine, physical love. Not the Hallmark-card kind.)

Or, to qoute my old bishop, "Darned if you do darned if you don't).

Unless you divorse and use your legal do-over to try to get it right this time.

["You" the generic spouse, not "you" the moderator of this blog.]

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

You can ask them yourself, but I don't think these guys would keep working at their marriages if they were really "love-deprived."

And if there are burdens they have to bear, why would we add to them with skepticism or presumptuousness?

MoHoHawaii said...

This is an important discussion. My comment was too long to fit here, so I put into its own post, which you can read here.

Beck said...

Thank you, John and MOHOH for your posts on this subject. It obviously hits home.

I know I've calculated my responses sometimes, measuring how I can counter someone's claim of a choice being better than my own, and needing to balance that claim with a counter-claim. I apologize if my comments have been taken that way. I do not claim to have a superior path taken - all I claim is my path is just that - "mine", and it is valid for me. That said, it shouldn't imply that it is therefore somehow invalid for you. There is validity in all of our choices and I really do appreciate your appeal for non-judgmental spirituality being at the core of our discussion.

From my experience, I concur completely and find validity in two profound statements you've made here:

1) "A relationship only lasts when two people make choices that converge, that always lead back to the other..."

2) "Relationships don't last unless two people are willing to put effort into them..."

I have recently experienced these two truisms personally as I've found myself figuratively (and literally) dancing my way into a new rhythm in my marriage with a willing partner choosing to stay in the dance.

As long as she and I are both finding "joy and satisfaction" in the dance, and reconnecting with a new step and rhythm, who can say that this is wrong or right that we continue to dance into the morning? No one! Just us two! It is our choice.

I'm not asking for special compensation or recognition for making this choice, as some others have felt. Nor am I asking that by you validating my dance choice, it somehow invalidates yours.

(NOTE: After meeting you and Goran personally and seeing the love and amarelationship between you, has probably been the biggest validating experience in my life for championing same-sex marriage.)

It isn't a zero-sum game. Thanks for seeing it that way.

Knight of Nothing said...

Beautiful, compassionate, and well-reasoned post, John. I also quite enjoyed MoHoHawaii's thoughtful reply.

As to how to get through the minefield intact, well, that is a gigantic sociological question. The nature of marriage has probably changed more in the last 100 years than the last 10,000. So in a certain sense, the difficulties of MOM or gay marriage (and of talking about said difficulties) are just a part of a larger context of the difficulties of family and relationships in an era of unprecedented freedom, longevity, personal wealth and security.

Too complicated for me!

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Sam - Thanks!

It is complicated... Way too complicated for me too. That's why I think most of the time just working on our listening skills is the most important thing we can do.

Knight of Nothing said...

Of course, there is the more simple, personal answer to the question you pose - keep dancing :-)

Knight of Nothing said...

Saw your reply after my second comment - yes! Exactly. Keep listening.

Anonymous said...

Ironic- my husband and I are terrible dance partners. We are fantastic marriage partners though- even with our built in "idiosyncrasies." Thank you for pointing out so eloquently that which I have been trying to formulate in my own brain. NOBODY's experience can or should have enough bearing on our own so as to change the decisions we make. There are far too many intricate variables in each of us to take one persons experience and use it as a map to our own lives. Neither should we expect others to "do as I'm doing" merely based on similarities in personality, etc. . .
Thank you for being the level-head.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Marriedtoamoho - Thank you. I think some of us prefer the happy certitude of being able to say "this is always this way" and "that is always that way." But relationships are far more complicated and mystical than that.

I think there are plenty of situations where the dance needs to end, or change in significant ways. But if you've done/are doing your homework, and you know in your heart you're on the right course, than you owe it to yourself and everything you hold dear to stick with it, regardless of what others are telling you. I know this sounds too fuzzy to some folks, and will make some folks impatient, but that's the way it works best I think.

By the way, I love your blog name, though for the longest time it looked like "marriedtomato" to me!! :)

Original Mohomie said...

I appreciate your thoughts and the fact that you took the time to articulate them. I agree that most discussions around this involve a lot of prejudices and preconceived notions people don't let go of, along with defensive sensitivities which compel them to read into others' statements in order to validate themselves or place themselves on higher moral ground. Do you think it's really possible for a faithful LDS person to speak of celibacy or MOM without a hint of regarding same-sex partnership as transgression, even if understandable transgression? Maybe I'm projecting my own understanding of LDS doctrine, but I don't see it as possible. But I can see how it's possible for someone to regard it as any other transgression. And can someone who has chosen same-sex partnership really speak of MOMs without some hint of thinking those who enter into them are self-deceived, even if they think they're happy? I just can't ever shake having that in the back of my head in such a discussion, but I try not to let it make me defensive. :-)

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Original Mohomie - Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

I think that kind of stuff is always at least in the background; and sometimes it's good to acknowledge it before starting a discussion, so you at least know what to watch out for.

Fortunately, I've noticed that so many of the celibate and married gay men I interact with on line have been very respectful of my relationship. Some have made clear that they fully support the political campaign for legal same-sex marriage.

I'm trying to be similarly respectful and supportive of them. I want to try to think of this more in terms of happiness being the goal, and each of us supporting each other in pursuit of that goal, letting others discern for themselves how best to achieve it.