Monday, April 4, 2011

An Overwhelming Emptiness: Reprise and Reflections

About ten days ago, I published a post entitled “An Overwhelming Emptiness.” It was Dave’s story, the story of his struggle to come to terms with his sexuality and identity in a Mormon mixed-orientation marriage (MoMoM) (pronounced “Mō-Mŏm”).  Then, about a week later, I published another post, entitled "Falling Away", in which “James” described his struggles with his MoMoM. 

These posts have, to date, generated over 30 comments and have racked up more page views in a shorter period of time that virtually any other post since I started blogging last October.  “An Overwhelming Emptiness,” in particular, generated some wonderful comments that I wanted to highlight in this post, along with some of my own observations, around some general themes of concerns faced by gay men in MoMoMs.

Accepting Who You Are

Dave had written that his counselor had “suggested that being honest about [his] sexuality with [him]self and others is a first step. But will that lead to happiness?”  MoHoHawaii responded to this question by writing that “coming out to yourself and those closest to you is only a first step. By itself, it may not make you feel better, but it can be the beginning of a longer process that may result in significant life improvements … [After all,] coming out is scary. It has ramifications. It may introduce changes in some significant relationships in your life, including your marriage. If you're ready to start this journey, give it a go. If you need more time, then wait.

For those of with a Mormon background, coming out to oneself may be one of the most difficult things one has ever done, every bit as difficult – if not more so – as coming out to a spouse.  The reason:  because we finally not only admit to ourselves what was previously “unadmittable”, but also accept it and – most difficult, but which provides the greatest degree of health – embrace it. 

Once that hurdle is overcome, however, peace can come.  As Alex (who has only recently come to terms with being gay and has reached a decision with his wife to divorce) wrote:  “I can totally relate to what you’re going through. You feel at peace for the first time with yourself because you can accept something that you’ve been trying to change and fight for years. But it scares you because you don’t know what that means for your future, for your marriage.

 Like you [Dave],” he continued, “I spent some time with Evergreen. I went to the conferences, read their books, went through the manual - all the time believing that if I just prayed long enough, worked through enough, I could “diminish” my feelings of “same sex attraction.I don’t have a condition called ‘same sex attraction.’ I’m gay.  I’m homosexually-oriented. And what that means is not just that I have a sexual attraction that I have to keep “in check,” but that I want to be emotionally and physically intimate with a man. If you know what orientation is, you realize you want fulfillment.”

In response to Alex’s comment, Dave wrote: “Until I reached this point [where I’m at right now], I didn't understand the dimension of emotional love that is missing. As you point out, it's not confined by the generic "same gender attraction" term, it is my sexual identity, which is part of me; it's who I am. At the same time, accepting my true identity makes me want to live in harmony with my identity ...”

Gay + Heterosexual Marriage = Happiness?

In response to the (theoretical) question of whether a gay man can be happy in a heterosexual marriage, MoHoHawaii responded:  “It depends on ‘how gay’ you are. A minority of gay people appear to be capable of relating romantically with a person of their non-preferred sex. These folks are capable of maintaining acceptable opposite-sex marriages and making the necessary compromises. For the rest of us, an acceptable level of satisfaction in a mixed-orientation marriage is just not possible.

However,” MoHoHawaii continued, “the statistics no matter how dismal aren't really relevant to any individual case. The relevant question here is where you fall on the Kinsey scale, from super straight to super gay. The fact that you are 14 years into a relationship and still feel a severe inability to achieve a passionate emotional connection with your spouse could be seen as evidence that you're more on the gay side of this continuum.  People on the outside can't really advise you here. You need to look into your own heart and decide if you can continue along your current path, or if real change is needed.”

 Don wrote:  “I've seen many gay men leave their religion and marriages and find happiness but I've never seen gay men find real peace and happiness in a [Mo]MoM or in a religion that doesn't fully support their natural state of being. Religion and fear seem to be the drug of choice and those who give advice to continue on that path are enablers. Misery loves company. The real truth is all of this can just go away. It happens every day. Men choose to step out of their old way of life that was never really working and into a new life of self acceptance.”

Giving Yourself Permission to (Even Think About) Divorce

In addition to all the other issues gay guys in MoMoM’s have to deal with is the issue of divorce itself.  With the Church’s emphasis on the stability of marriage and the additional (very thick) layer of the doctrine of eternal marriage on top of that, it is extremely difficult for many Mormon men to allow themselves to even contemplate the possibility of divorce.  To do so carries not only the normal anxieties that most (non-Mormon) men would face while contemplating divorce and all of its ramifications; it all carries the ponderous and excruciatingly weighty concerns over the crushing failure that divorce represents in the temporal (i.e., the “here and now”) Mormon world and culture and in the context of Mormon theology and the entire “Plan of Salvation.”

As I have written before, I refused to allow myself to even contemplate divorce for most of my married life.  My parents had been divorced; one set of grandparents had been divorced; my siblings had been divorced.  I was determined that this would never, ever happen to me and my family.  As it turned out, I was willing to force myself to go to great lengths of unhealthy behavior to ensure that it never happened. 

When my wife started floating the prospect that our marriage was – seriously – over, I panicked.  I couldn’t allow myself to contemplate this.  Until I had what I can only describe as an epiphany last summer – well before my Packer-induced gay crisis – whereby my mind and heart was suddenly opened to the concept that there could be life after a divorce; and not only could there be life, there could also be happiness.  This experience prepared me for what lay ahead in the next few months.

For these reasons, I was pleased to read the following advice to Dave from MoHoHawaii:  “I do think you might be happier if you entertained the possibility in your mind that you might end your marriage. What this thought experiment does is help reduce any feelings that you are trapped in your situation. It's one thing to choose to stay in a marriage because of various practical reasons; it's another thing to feel trapped and hopeless in such a situation. Staying married should be something that you actively choose, not something that's forced on you.  If you seriously gave yourself permission to get divorced and considered it as a real possibility, you might still choose to stay married. I think the fear of divorce causes a lot of stress that can be alleviated by simply admitting that it's one of the real possibilities and then starting to work systematically on the underyling issues.”

The Wife

Of course, there are always two people in a MoMoM, usually a gay husband and a straight wife.  Guilt and concerns for a woman that a gay husband often feels a great deal of love and affection toward are also issues that weight heavily upon the mind of the husband.  Often, these feelings of guilt and concern are so strong that the husband may not even allow himself to consider that perhaps his wife might be happier as well if the marriage was ended.

Dave described his feelings in this regard in a follow-up comment:  “Believe me when I say that I care a great deal about how my choices have affected my wife. Much of the anger, despair and self-loathing I've carried around is related to this very issue and what my choices have done to her and my family. And although I noted that we discussed my SGA several years ago, I didn't explore the depths of my sexuality enough to really understand and explain what this means to me and my wife and our relationship. Instead, I bought into the notion that I should determine the causes (distant father, etc.) and thereby understand solutions, which allowed me to go back into the closet.

 “This time, I hope to behave differently. This includes bringing my wife into this process. She has to understand the journey I will take to explore my future. And she needs to know that accepting my sexuality means I will not swallow all the koolaid. And I need to learn to live honestly. The lying that is required to masquerade in the role of perfect Mormon husband/son permeates many aspects of my life. By being honest about this process, what I'm feeling, what my goals are, etc., I hope that she will be able to decide for herself what she wants and not feel that she has to settle for an incomplete marriage because of all the baggage the church piles on top of us.”

Alex, who recently came to a decision with his wife to divorce, wrote the following:  “It’s been a hard process talking to my wife. Having to go back and tell her that I don't fill emotionally fulfilled by sexual intimacy with her. Having to explain that the attraction I feel for her isn’t the same as the attraction I feel for men. It hurts me and her … I thought that could change. But I really feel that with the lack of emotional intimacy that should come with physical intimacy [is] … probably not going to change. And why should she or I accept anything less than a true marriage?

“[S]he asks herself if she’s doing something wrong. And she asks herself if she just isn’t pretty enough. And a lot of things … As I opened up to her, she opened up to me. I’ve been withdrawn from my marriage. I haven’t put myself into the relationship like she has. I realize what I’ve put her through. My wife has been suffering from this. Telling her didn’t necessarily make it worse. It just helped me open my eyes to the reality of my situation.

“[The bottom line is that] I’m not getting divorced so I can go be with a man. I’m getting divorced because I realize that we can’t make our marriage work. Living together as roommates, best friends, sure. But marriage? No way.”

“For the Kids’ Sake”

Right behind the concerns over getting a divorce are concerns over any children of the marriage.  Of course, almost any father contemplating divorce would be concerned about the effects on his children.  However, once again, in the case of MoMoM’s, there are additional layers of concern arising out of Mormon culture and theology that may prevent a gay father from allowing himself to gain more perspective on the situation.

Once again, MoHoHawaii framed the issued succinctly:  “Would your kids benefit if you could relate to them from a place of happiness instead of despair?  Not to plug the institution of divorce, but just because you have a bad marriage doesn't mean you can't have a good divorce that includes respect, affection and a significant improvement in the outcomes of everyone involved.”

I’ll close with these words of Don:  “To think that the best thing for your wife and kids is an unhappy, unauthentic father is delusional. When the plane is going down put on your own oxygen mask first and then help others. You are of no use to those around you if you are suffocating. There's lots of air available, all you have to do is breathe.”


  1. I completely agree that accepting myself, or admitting that I was gay was the first and most difficult hurdle. Once I did that, peace poured over me like I'd never felt before. In fact it felt so good that I thought I'd be able to live like that...just knowing it myself ... for the rest of my days.

    But we're not the only ones that that sort of decision impacts. As you mentioned, our wives deserve to be able to make that choice themselves...if they want to be married to a homosexual man. Mine didn't and I thank my lucky stars every day.

  2. I think it may be too easy to talk ourselves out of love and passion for a spouse, given the disconnects that do exist in MOMs and the struggles of coping with the complexities of life in general. How is it that we could 'fall in love' with a woman, have a passionate early phase, and then later detach from that same relationship? I know there are no easy answers, no one-size-fits-all, but such has been my experience, and I suspect this is not uncommon. Yet in my situation, married to an open-minded companion, willing to love me gay and all, has allowed me to re-attach to the marital satisfaction I once experienced.

    So, while I inherently agree with the key points and comments reviewed in this recap, I'm still a little uncomfortable with the tone and overall conclusion of this post, which seems to be heavily skewed towards divorce as the ultimate solution. Maybe I'm over-reacting here, but I think gay individuals and their spouses need to be encouraged to find a solution that works best for their unique family circumstance, given all the options, and not be herded into a generic conclusion. Also, I and other gay Mormon men who remain in MoMOMs do not want to feel like we're outliers or compromised, because we've chosen to keep our marriages. I want to be viewed as legitimate in my life's path, just as you appreciate the support and validation of your decision for divorce.

    Relationships are seldom perfect: there will be days when I or she will frankly wish for something different. But there will also be days when we experience true joy and tenderness together. I'm sure that same sex unions experience similar ups and downs. So why should I work to convince myself that 'the grass is greener on the other side of the fence?' I think the key is one's overall happiness and satisfaction with life. If I can and do enjoy happiness and fulfillment in my MoMOM, even if it is mixed with frustration at times, then is it worth staying? For me, it is.

    As I commented in the first post, and I'd like to reiterate here, I believe the key virtues to be employed in successfully navigating a marriage or divorce are these: kindness, respect and honesty. Actively tempering our thoughts, words and actions with these guiding stars will help us figure out our family's best course, as well as to help us to positively grow from difficult circumstances.

  3. @Dadsprimalscream - Thanks for your comment. You have highlighted the key starting point: self-acceptance. And you are absolutely right about the perspective of the wife in a MoMom. Like you, I am grateful that my wife took the position that she did.

    @GeckoMan - There is nothing in this post that was intended to "skew" towards divorce as the "ultimate solution." I merely attempted to compile and present comments received.

    Having said that, however, I will agree that there were certain points that I believed needed and deserved to be made concerning issues surrounding divorce. There is so much pressure upon a gay Mormon man who is in a MoMoM that he often is unable to allow himself to gain perspectives on his situation that are different from those imposed by his culture and religion. One of the purposes of this post was to highlight these different perspectives, not from a position of advocating, but merely of presenting.

    You as well as others who are experiencing a degree of success in maintaining your MoMoM should not feel threatened or that you are "outliers" or "compromised" by posts such as this. No one is saying that what you are doing is not valid or authentic for you, or may be not be valid or authentic for someone else. And your perspective and experience is just as welcome in any discussion on this blog as anyone else's.

    That being said, what was said in this post, as well as others, needs to be said. Perspectives presented here represent authentic voices of very real men who are struggling with very real issues in very authentic ways. There is no "advocating" going on here, unless is an advocacy of providing perspectives on a situation that men may have been unable or refused to allow themselves to see or have.

    There is much more I could write in response to your comments, but perhaps I will have to save them for a post. :)