Clarification on Our Mixed Orientation Marriage

Back in January, I wrote a post about my mixed-orientation marriage with Anna. Since then, I’ve mulled over things I wish I’d said a little better, and things I would have liked to include but didn’t.

The reactions to the post were varied. Many people in our lives voiced their support and gratitude that we’re sharing our journey with them. Others were confused and, quite frankly, turned off by it all. Some saw it as a situation to be fixed, a broken “half-marriage” if you will. Those who do life with us day to day, and those who know us well, are fully aware that this isn’t the case. But with the limited picture painted for them in a few thousand words, I can understand how many see a much more dire circumstance than what actually is.

The fact of the matter is that it is impossible, in the scope of a blog post, to capture all that a marital (or any significant) relationship is. And just as it is important to consider authorial intent when reading divinely inspired scripture, so too must a reader consider the purpose of any writer when making inferences and forming impressions and opinions based on that writer’s words. In fact, I imagine that if we all, myself included, got a little better at that, we’d get a lot further in dialogue with those whose beliefs and experiences run so counter to our own.

My intent in writing that blogpost was not to give a comprehensive account of my marriage. Rather, I had three objectives in mind: First, I was attempting to shed light on the fact that traditional marriage to a member of the opposite sex is an option for gay (or same-sex attracted, if you like) Christians in some instances. Secondly, I wanted to acknowledge some of the challenges that such marriages will likely include, by highlighting them in my own. And finally, I wanted to express my gratitude to the Spiritual Friendship community for providing a space for me to work out the complicated relationship between my faith and my sexuality, alongside others who can relate.

I hoped that in addressing these three things, others in mixed-orientation marriages would feel encouraged that they aren’t the only ones on this path that often feels like a trek through uncharted territory. I hoped that it would bring awareness to other Christians that there are likely people in their churches and communities who are in such marriages, and that it would give them a glimpse into some of the unique challenges that they face and for which they need their Christian family’s support and prayers. I trust that all these things have been accomplished to one degree or another.

Unfortunately, what I wrote, or more precisely, what I didn’t write, has also left many with the impression that my marriage is a daily heavy burden, an altogether unpleasant cross that Anna and I must hoist daily upon our backs and drudge through life together. And this just isn’t the case. We have a very full, rich life together, and we are happy with each other. Certainly, we’ve had very dark seasons. There have been times when it did seem that marriage was a mistake. That is not, however, where we are now, nor is it where wehave been throughout most of our marriage. The emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical intimacy that we share is very real. So are the challenges that we face in those areas. In many cases, those challenges look very different from the challenges faced by those in typical heterosexual marriages. But at this point in our lives together, I’m convinced that they are no greater.

Mike AllenMike Allen lives with his wife and daughter in Shanghai, China, where he teaches English at a private Chinese school. He volunteers with an international youth group, and he blogs in his spare time about faith, sexuality, and life as an expat in China at Adventure in Shanghai.

17 thoughts on “Clarification on Our Mixed Orientation Marriage

  1. Thanks Mike for sharing this. I just read your former post also. I really believe that if we Christians could start being open and honest about our lives with all our struggles and victories and knowing that even if our struggles are different from those of our brothers and sisters, we are not better or worse, the body of Christ would be what it’s intended to be with the Holy Spirit uniting us. All of us are called to pick up our cross daily and each one of us knows what is our cross. Reading these posts and the book Washed and Waiting have helped me a lot to understand my brothers and sisters that have SSA. Before I had a wrong concept of it. I have no doubt that God has put you all in my path to clarify things. It’s an encouragement to hear from your story how we can pick up our cross and live in the process of sanctification. My prayer is that God continues to strengthen you and your beautiful family!

  2. Sounds like a typical marriage with typical challenges in many respects. Gay/SSA-Attracted/Homosexual/Ex-gay people (I hate labels) aren’t more broken then the rest of the population. As soon as that gets established folks will figure out that of course they/we can get married just like everyone else. Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. Since reading Wes’s most recent book, I’ve been giving some thought to the conservative Christian obsession with the need to have a singular “biblical model” of marriage. And I’ve especially given some thought to our tendency to christen the Freudian-romantic notion of the “nuclear family” as the biblical ideal.

    I think it would make much more sense to accept that a wide array of different marital narratives can fall within the ambit of being biblically acceptable. There’s no reason why we should be beholden to a single narrative. And there’s especially no reason why we should be beholden to the model we have selected. The church ought to stop trying to stuff everyone into the same narrative, and instead help couples develop the wisdom to craft a narrative that works best within their particular circumstances. It often seems like our efforts to strengthen marriage have made it a less flexible and less desirable institution.

    The Bible rarely gives us a blueprint for how to do things. Instead, it admonishes us to become wise. Simply put, there is no bullet-proof biblical way to avoid the tough work of acquiring wisdom. And the more we search our Bible for easy answers, the longer we will have to wait to grow in wisdom.

    That’s why I’m a bit skeptical of the Side A/Side B dichotomy. That dichotomy suggests that I have to choose among: (a) accepting a same-sex relationship on the world’s terms; or (b) subjecting myself to the social isolation of being a celibate gay Christian in today’s nuclear-family-idolozing church. I suspect that there are plenty of other choices, even if one believes that sodomy is a sin. Mixed-orientation marriages are certainly one option. Vowed friendships, as commended by Wes in his recent book, are another option. I fear that many Christians end up opting for the Side A approach because the Side B approach often leads to social isolation, extreme loneliness, and thoughts of suicide.

      • Side A — God blesses same-sex marriage.

        Side B — God requires lifelong celibacy for gay people.

        These are the basic definitions that you and Justin use. But they’re pretty useless unless one defines “marriage” and “celibacy.” In my evangelical (PCA) context, there’s a huge gulf between these two positions. Marriage means nuclear-family style marriage, where the husband seeks to have his interpersonal needs met entirely by God and/or his wife. Along those lines, celibacy means that he seeks to have his interpersonal needs met entirely by God.

        For example, I asked my former pastor whether Wes’s notion of vowed friendships would fit within the context of celibacy. He replied that, in his view, such friendships violated the terms of celibacy if the two parties ever formed any kind of emotional bond with each other. He would view committed friendships as being inconsistent with a Side B ethic, i.e., under the reasoning that forming an emotional bond with another guy is just a non-physical version of gay sex.

        I recognize that this is not exactly what you mean by Side B. But I fear that the A/B dichotomy leads to confusion, and tends to leave a lot of gay Christians feeling like they have fewer options than they actually do. In my view, there are many forms of committed same-sex friendships that could easily fall within the ambit of celibacy. So, in my view, the first step in making the Side B approach seem workable entails freeing our visions of celibacy from its captivity to heteronormative Freudian notions of sex and marriage (i.e., freeing it from just being the inverse of the nuclear-family model of marriage).

      • In my mind, the key is whether the distinction is made in such a way that privileges heteronormative identities. As the terms are typically used in an evangelical context, Side B refers to a gay person who adopts a social identity that doesn’t challenge heteronormative assumptions (or to someone who believes that gay people should adopt social identities that don’t challenge heteronormative assumptions). In contrast, Side A refers to the opposite, i.e., that gay people are free to adopt social identities that challenge heteronormative assumptions.

        In reading Anderson’s other writing on these topics, especially his harsh review of Michael Hannon’s and Wes’s work, I see Anderson as adhering to the definitions I’ve provided. After all, as Anderson made clear in his review of Hannon’s piece, he views the privileging of heteronormative social identities as central to any biblical approach to these topics. On this point, Anderson and Corvino are in agreement. The difference has to do with whether these terms merely describe the social identity that a gay person adopts for himself or herself, or whether they can also describe people like Anderson, i.e., straight people who have truck-loads of opinions as to what kinds of social identities gay people are free to adopt. But from what I can tell, neither disagree that the central question is whether gay people are free to adopt social identities that challenge the privileging of heteronormative social identities. Side A says yes; Side B says no.

        I agree that Justin Lee refers to a certain type of Side A relationship, which is a same-sex marriage that affirms the most common forms of gay sex. But, in the way that many evangelicals use the Side A/B language, the kinds of committed friendships that Wes describes would also fall within the ambit of Side A, as such relationships challenge the hegemony of heteronormativity.

        For most evangelicals, the experience of heterosexual desire is the core essence of our humanity, especially for men. Just spend a few minutes reviewing the blogs of leading evangelical thinkers on sexuality (Tim Bayly, Owen Strachan, Denny Burk, etc.). Thus, by the evangelical logic, even celibate gay Christians must face some degree of marginalization within the church. After all, by the evangelical logic, the mere failure to experience robust heterosexual desire constitutes hostility toward God. Moreover, most evangelicals are fairly committed to the Freudian notion that all interpersonal intimacy is reducible to sexual intimacy.

        So, for most people struggling to come to terms with their sexuality in an evangelical context, the key issue is not one of whether to engage in gay sex or not. Rather, the key issue is whether or not to adopt a social identity that accepts heteronormativity (and the Freudian assumptions that underlie it) as legitimate. After all, most evangelicals don’t see a big difference between two adult men enjoying an emotionally close friendship and two adult men engaging in anal sex. By the evangelical logic, the former is merely a non-physical variant of the latter. So, if the Side A/B discussion is going to be helpful, it has to address this key point.

    • The “nuclear family” is what you get when society makes autonomy (the right of individuals to choose who they will date/marry) the key ‘ethical’ factor in family life. The West made autonomy king more than 150 years ago. In the East (and a long time ago in the West) personal choice is (kinda) / was secondary to “collectivist” ideas about what marriage should be (kin deciding who you should date/marry). A mixed-orientation marriage would just be a marriage in Victorian England or contemporary India/China. It’s only in the present-day West that the mixed-orientation bit looms large as “inauthentic”.

      But gay folks in the West have to come to terms with the culture they are a part of :- and “gay marriage” does feel intoxicatingly right in our situation.

      • Hi Joe,

        You make an interesting point about our culture’s understanding of marriage. A friend and coworker of my wife is from India, and it’s always good to hear her perspective as someone whose marriage was arranged, but who grew to genuinely love her husband. In China, where we live, arranged marriages aren’t the norm, but it seems that marriage is often seen as a matter of practicality more than “romance.” People seem to choose partners based on what will position them well financially or socially. (This, of course, is a generalization, and it doesn’t apply to everyone.)

        And in those contexts, and even in Victorian England, as you point out, mixed-orientation marriages would just be marriages. But I would suggest that regardless of how society sees the marriage or labels it, some of the dynamics of a (what some of us call) mixed-orientation marriage in India or China, are still going to be different from the norm. Even the same kind of different that they are in the West.

        So, is categorizing and labeling M-O-Ms helpful? I don’t know that it is all the time. On the one hand, if we isolate “these kinds of marriages” into their own special category, does it serve to cripple us and make us think that they can never be full and satisfying marriages? Perhaps. But even if we don’t categorize them, the relational and physical struggles that can arise when one spouse is gay will be present, all the same. Does identifying it and giving it a name help to understand and then to address it? It can. And it has for Anna and me. I find that it’s been helpful to hold two truths in tandem with one another.

        On one side of the coin, there’s the reality that my marriage is, indeed, quite different from the norm, because *I* am quite different from the norm. Many (but not all) of the assumptions made by our culture, churches and pastors, and even marriage counselors about husband/wife relationships often don’t apply very well in our marriage. So, often, the advice that they offer doesn’t really translate very well in our context, either. And it’s good for us to be realistic and acknowledge that, well, things are a little different for us.

        But on the other side is the fact that we are a man and woman who have entered into a covenant bond of marriage, as it has been ordained since the beginning of time, and that this transcends any particular challenges or deviations from the norm that our marriage might entail. And just like all marriages, it takes hard work and commitment to make it good and to make it persevere. And of course, there’s the added element that we believe it is God who is ultimately sustaining it.

        Thanks for your comment, and for reminding us that the modern western concept of marriage and sexuality is not universal.

      • Joe,

        I agree entirely. Unless we are willing to challenge the Freudian underpinnings of the nuclear-family model of marriage, then it’s hard for celibacy to amount to anything more than social isolation. Sadly, most evangelical churches in the US would frown upon a committed same-sex friendship just as severely as a same-sex marriage. The latter relationship would be condemned for impropriety, while the former would be condemned for creating the appearance of impropriety. In most “traditional” Protestant circles, there’s simply no room for any kind of committed relationships outside of marriage on the nuclear-family model (or on terms that don’t expressly challenge its hegemony).

        So, for those of us evangelicals who are attracted by the notion of committed friendships, we’d probably have little hope of living out such friendships except in an affirming church. And then we would face ostracism for our objections concerning sodomy.

        So, I agree that what Wes proposes is theologically correct. I just don’t see how it can easily be practiced in most Protestant church settings. After all, most churches that oppose sodomy are also opposed to the idea of two adult single men forming a close interpersonal relationship, even if it is non-sexual. It seems to work up through the age of about 25, but then people start to raise questions.

      • “So, for those of us evangelicals who are attracted by the notion of committed friendships, we’d probably have little hope of living out such friendships except in an affirming church. And then we would face ostracism for our objections concerning sodomy.”

        Evan, I think there’s an easy answer to your problem: you’re under no obligation in the affirming church to tell anyone that you’re not doin’ the nasty. That’s none of their business to begin with, and I hardly think you’ll be asked. So…go get ’em, tiger! 😉

  4. As someone who lived in a mixed-orientation marriage for many years (my wife is now deceased), I have greatly appreciated Mike’s posts and can only second (most heartily) the wise words he has written. The ensuing discussions have been enlightening, and I am grateful that this issue is being addressed with interest and respect. I will continue to declare that mixed-orientation marriages can be a valid option for gay Christian men!

    On the messy topic of Side A/B labelling, I will dare to throw a suggestion into the mix which I find helpful for clarification. In my mind, Side A represents the acceptance of intimate same-sex relationships while Side B avoids them. Within this context, I categorize same-sex relationships along the following continuum:

    Side A: gay marriage
    Side A- : vowed friendships

    Side B+ : mixed-orientation marriages
    Side B: celibacy

    My apologies if this throws unwelcome fuel on the fire. I’m the first to recognize that relationships are much more diverse and complicated than this, but sometimes it’s helpful to be able to simplify the scenario…if only as a foundation for understanding.

  5. My assumption was that Side A meant that gay sex is compatible with Scripture and that Side B meant that it wasn’t. Thus, there would be plenty of room for different approaches to celibacy/marriage even within the Side B camp.

    • Daniel,

      That may be true, but you have to define what is meant by “gay sex.” Many evangelicals tend to see any desire for interpersonal intimacy as reducible to a desire for sex. This is especially true in Reformed and fundamentalist circles. So, in such contexts, “celibacy” requires the avoidance of interpersonal intimacy. I daresay that the notion of a same-sex “spiritual friendship” would be fairly difficult to practice in a Reformed or fundamentalist church setting…unless you wanted to be the subject of constant gossip and innuendo.

  6. Hey Mike thanks for sharing your heart both here and in the first post! Wow, even after knowing you for 8 years and during our church plant together I learned a lot more about you and Anna. I’m so grateful to hear more about your story together. I am blown away at your love and devotion to Anna and hers to you. Friendship and love is so important in a marriage, as much if not more than sexuality or romantic fulfillment. Even in my marriage to Allie for 10 years now (going on 11 in November) I can honestly say my friendship with her means as much to me if not more than any romantic/sexual part of our relationship. It’s key! Yours and Anna’s marriage is a testimony to God’s redeeming grace and friendship towards us. I thank God for your story and testimony. Can’t wait to see you guys soon in the States and catch up. Miss y’all and I bet baby girl is getting so big now!

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