two women and a child

Sex in a Sustainable World Part 5: Non-Traditional Relationships & Preserving the Family

Many argue that “alternative lifestyles,” a term often used to refer to anyone not fitting into the heterosexual monogamous box, are a threat to the family structure, and thus a threat to the very fabric of our society.

For example: “If our little Timmy sees our male neighbor kissing his male partner, he may also become gay, not form a family to raise grandchildren for his parents, and become a sinful and less valuable member of society!”

See all posts in this series.

There’s still a lot of pressure against non-traditional relationships of any kind. Unfortunately, this continues to push many people into traditional relationships that don’t really fit.

Many couples plan their lives together, get married, and make many compromises and sacrifices in anticipation of growing old together. They invest time and energy into major things like a house and kids, and then experience a tremendous upheaval when one partner develops the courage to come out of the closet.

They could be gay, lesbian, asexual, bisexual, transsexual—whatever the case, it’s something that’s not compatible with either partner’s basic needs, and it’s a part of their nature that they just can’t hide anymore.

In the early 1990’s Amity Pearce Buxton wrote The Other Side of the Closet: The Coming-Out Crisis for Straight Spouses and Families. Following a long marriage to a gay man, she interviewed hundreds of individuals whose spouses had also come out. Buxton’s Straight Spouse Network has estimated that in the U.S. alone, at least 2 million non-heterosexual individuals have been or still are married to heterosexual partners.

If that estimate is anywhere close to reality, that’s a lot of people.

Most likely, the rates of non-heterosexual individuals getting married has decreased, as society has become somewhat more understanding. But as far as I know, the estimates don’t even include individuals who are asexual, that is, those who have never experienced physical attraction toward people of either sex. Such lack of attraction is not attributable to any physiological issues, psychological issues, sexual abuse, or trauma.

Because there’s still some debate as to whether asexuality is a valid orientation, there may be many couples who haven’t realized that one partner may fit this category.

So what happens in such cases?

It’s probably going to be painful and messy for both partners and children. Each partner will have a lot of psychological baggage to deal with. The non-heterosexual partner is coming to terms with an identity they’ve largely hidden for years, and are finally finding the courage to reveal.

The heterosexual partner may have come to doubt their sexual abilities and attractiveness due to an uninterested partner. They may blame themselves for choosing an incompatible mate, and question their ability to trust others. For career and political reasons, the non-heterosexual partner may even ask them to “keep things quiet” for a while longer, limiting their ability to obtain support.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sites like asexuality.org are filled with spouses–both men and women–who wrestle with the frustrations of having a spouse or partner they love dearly in many ways, but with whom they’re sexually incompatible. This includes both partners–the one whose orientation fits the norm, and the one whose orientation is less common.

The couple might find a way to stay together under a new agreement, or there might be an amicable separation. But in many cases, the money set aside for expenses like kids’ college education may go to divorce attorneys.

While the couple has taken on life responsibilities that they evolved to manage as a team, they must now relearn to stand on their own with many of the same responsibilities.For example, the partner who is more skilled at cooking family meals now has to spend more time on the finances, which their partner previously handled much more efficiently. So now the kids get fast food more often. How’s that for protecting families and children?

The blame might go to the queer partner. How could they be so dishonest? How could they hide this?

The blame might go to the heterosexual spouse. This is particularly likely in cases that involve an asexual partner, where knowledge of the orientation is still gray. The sexual spouse, whether male or female, may be blamed for having too high a sex drive, for making unreasonable demands, or for doing other things wrong in the marriage that contribute to their partner’s nonexistent sex drive. (The latter is actually a cause in many low- or no-sex marriages, but these are cases where neither partner is truly asexual.)

The truth is that our societal attitudes are largely to blame. If society rejects my sexual nature, my options may seem quite limited:  a) be open, but risk social, economic, and political consequences, including the possibility of growing old alone, or b) just hide it as well as possible, fit into the accepted box, and go along with things. Or, c) I might doubt what seems to be my true sexual nature altogether, if nobody seems to talk about it or validate it. Perhaps it’s just a phase, and I’ll change and grow into my “normal”  relationship after a while. After all, that seems to be what everyone else does!

In other words, many people will continue to end up in relationships doomed to fail until we can discuss sexuality more openly. Our failure to accept a range of sexual orientations and arrangements destroys many families. It harms many adults and children.

I recall one case where a couple confessed that the wife used to be a lesbian, but then “converted and gave up her past ways” with religious support to marry her wonderful husband. They are a very friendly couple whom I still greatly respect in most ways, but I was a bit skeptical on that topic. I could almost hear him thinking proudly from behind his smile, “Yes, I am THAT good in bed.”

My hope for her—and for him—is that she is actually bisexual with a relatively fluid orientation, and isn’t unhappily repressing her natural sexuality. Otherwise, I hope neither of them is too attached to monogamy.

As mentioned earlier, even couples who are initially well matched sexually must put conscious effort into maintaining their erotic connection. When a couple doesn’t even have some degree of mutual shared chemistry in the first place, the odds of maintaining a traditional monogamous martial relationship are much lower.

But even such relationships might stand more of a chance of partial preservation if we were more accepting of alternate arrangements. These arrangements, including open marriages, are certainly no guarantee for success, as Buxton discusses.

Nonetheless, such couples might not feel the need to cast aside their hard-built relationship altogether, along with the connections and understanding they’ve created. If they are still compatible in other significant ways, such as child rearing philosophies, a broader range of socially acceptable family arrangements might provide them with additional possibilities.

They might be able to preserve some elements of their family, rather than severing all ties to start entirely separate new lives.

Although I don’t watch that many sports, I think a soccer analogy helps to illustrate how people often deal with relationship incompatibilities:

The effectiveness of a given team depends not only upon the skills of each player, but upon how well the team has learned to communicate and work together. And developing that takes much time and effort out on the field together. If a really talented player moves to a new team, it will take some time before they can have the same impact as they did on the prior team.

Because of this, even the teams with the poorest records would never entirely dismantle their team at the end of a season, even if regulations allowed for it. Teams replace just a few players at a time, even when they need major improvements, because there’s still a lot of shared ability embedded in the relationships among the remaining players.

But with our current relationship norm, we’re constantly taking a “split up the team” approach. Even with long-term relationships, we’re generally expected to leave one completely behind before forming another. We now “belong to” a new person, and they to us. Granted, this may lessen the need to deal with certain challenging emotions such as jealousy, but at what cost?

The concept of “non-traditional” living arrangements is certainly nothing new. As just one example, in the 19th Century, women lived together in so-called Boston marriages to help them remain self-sufficient without a man.

But even with non-traditional couples, there’s increasing pressure to adopt the same standard relationship structure that’s already been proven to fail for many heterosexuals. A few years ago, when I volunteered for a same-sex relationship equality event, I was initially surprised when a gay man proclaimed that he had no desire for same-sex marriage to become widely accepted.

Two-person marriage for everyone may be a double edged sword: On one hand, it shows increased acceptance (or at least tolerance), and allows for some economic incentives. It provides a way for a couple to illustrate their commitment, to make things like child adoption easier. But on the other hand, it may be pushing everyone into the same box that sometimes creates other issues.

Lots to consider.

See all posts in this series.

Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

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