Stages of Relationship Change in Mixed Orientation Couples

Posted by on Jan 30, 2015 in ISSI Blog

Stages of Relationship Change in Mixed Orientation Couples

Andrew MOC

The discovery of the same-sex attraction of one’s spouse can be trying for both members of the marriage (Yarhouse, 2010).  This may cause many questions and conflicts to arise for the couple, and navigating this experience within the marriage may be a difficult process.  Each couple will navigate this experience in their own way, but there are four broad stages of relationship change that mixed-orientation couples will experience:  awareness, emotional response, acceptance of reality, and negotiating a future.  Various persons have provided insight into these stages, such as Amity Buxton, founder of the Straight Spouse Network.

The stage of awareness occurs at the time of the disclosure or discovery of one’s same-sex attraction to one’s spouse (Yarhouse, 2010).  This disclosure or discovery may take a variety of forms, and the level of conflict experienced may vary based upon that form of discovery.  In the emotional response stage, the spouse will experience a myriad of emotions and reactions in response to his or her awareness of their spouse’s same-sex attraction.  The acceptance of reality stage will follow and consists of the process of realizing and accepting the same-sex attraction of one’s spouse.  If any sexual behavior has occurred, the spouse must also come to terms with that behavior.  This process will, in many ways, resemble what a spouse will encounter when someone discovers a spouse’s affair.  The final stage, negotiating a future, refers to the process of one or both spouses coming to a decision about whether and, if so, how the marriage will proceed in the future.  This process of deciding the future of the marriage should be done “in the context of mature, discerning pastoral care,” (pp. 152).

Progressing through these stages of relationship change can be difficult for many couples. So, following a few important guidelines may benefit the sexual-minority spouse as he or she engages these stages.  Sexual-minority spouses should begin the conversation with one’s spouse by merely describing his or her attractions and not identifying with them, (Yarhouse, 2010, pp. 143).  One’s same-sex attraction does not necessarily identify or define one’s true self, and thus, making a distinction between same-sex attractions, homosexual orientation, and gay identity may prove fruitful for the couple.  Moreover, exploring what the attractions mean for the couple and where the attractions came from for the sexual-minority spouse is helpful.  This discussion is important in helping to bring light to how one connects events and experiences in their past and how they make meaning of those events and experiences.  At this point, it would also benefit the sexual-minority spouse to investigate how one will weigh his or her sexual attractions in relationship to the other pieces that one holds true about his- or herself.  Some of these considerations may include one’s biological sex, gender identity, past sexual behavior, planned sexual behavior, and values about sexual behavior and identity.

On the other hand, the sexual-majority spouse in the mixed-orientation marriage may experience a “relational offense” or “interpersonal trauma” upon the discovery of his or her spouse’s same-sex attraction (Yarhouse, 2010, pp. 147; Baucom & Gordon, 2003,).   According to Baucom and Gordon, adequate time and attention to this trauma is essential, and research in working through such trauma suggests three stages:  1) impact, 2) search for meaning, and 3) recovery (2003).  The impact stage indicates the emotional experience that comes from the recognition of the effect the traumatic event has upon the spouse and the marriage.  In the next stage, search for meaning, the spouse strives to comprehend the same-sex attraction, any resulting sexual behaviors, and why the traumatic events happened.  Following this is the stage of recovery, wherein the spouse is able to successfully navigate the trauma caused by their spouse’s same-sex attraction.  This stage consists of enhanced understanding and reduced negative emotional experience in recollecting the interpersonal trauma.

For the couple, four important observations are seen in couples that are able to remain together and treasure their spouses and their marriage, and they can serve as suggestions to bolster mixed-orientation marriages of others.  These tools are “communication, fostering a sense of ‘us’, flexibility, and sexual intimacy” (Yarhouse, 2010, pp. 148).  In communication, the couple strives to engage in frequent discussions that embrace honestly, empathy, encouragement, and support.  Next, reestablishing a sense of “us” may be accomplished in a variety of ways.   Some ways that have proved effective include: remembering the aspects of one another that initially drew the couple together, reviewing what positive aspects are empowering the couple to stay together at present, and reflecting upon the shared beliefs and covenants that have held the couple together.  Staying flexible requires that the couple recognize the uniqueness of their own marriage and adapt accordingly.  Addressing sexual intimacy is also a unique experience for the mixed-orientation couple, and the couple should abstain from using examples in the media or entertainment as a standard for their own relationship.

-ISSI Staff


Yarhouse, M. A. (2010).  Homosexuality and the Christian.  Minneapolis: Bethany House.

Gordon, K. C. & Baucom, D. H.  (2003).  Forgiveness and marriage: Preliminary support for a measure based on a model of recovery from a marital betrayal.  The American Journal of Family Therapy (31)3, 179-199. Doi: 10.1080/01926180301115



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