Reflections on An Overwhelming Emptiness
About ten days ago, I published a post on my blog (invictuspilgrim.blogspot.com) entitled An Overwhelming Emptiness. It was Daves story, the story of his struggle to come to terms with his sexuality and identity in a Mormon mixed-orientation marriage (MoMoM). Then, on Wednesday of this past week, 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 himself and others is a first step. But, asked Dave, 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 youre going through. You feel at peace for the first time with yourself because you can accept something that youve been trying to change and fight for years. But it scares you because you dont 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 dont have a condition called same sex attraction. Im gay. Im 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 Alexs comment, Dave wrote: Until I reached this point [where Im 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 MoMoMs have to deal with is the issue of divorce itself. With the Churchs 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 couldnt 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.
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: Its 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 isnt 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 shes doing something wrong. And she asks herself if she just isnt pretty enough. And a lot of things As I opened up to her, she opened up to me. Ive been withdrawn from my marriage. I havent put myself into the relationship like she has. I realize what Ive put her through. My wife has been suffering from this. Telling her didnt necessarily make it worse. It just helped me open my eyes to the reality of my situation.
[The bottom line is that] Im not getting divorced so I can go be with a man. Im getting divorced because I realize that we cant 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 MoMoMs, 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.
Ill 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.
Alex, did you attend BYU as a student?
And did you attend anywhere else?
If the answer to either of those questions is “no”, then I wonder what your basis for comparison is in saying the students there are any more naive than the students at any major American university.
“No one believes more profoundly that love conquers all than someone who is in it but has yet to conquer much.”
She speaks the truth.
I am lucky to have dodged the bullet that is BYU.
My gay Mormon ex and I did make it out. it was great, for both of us. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other.
but at some point, his hints to me that he was gay became more and more important, and because I knew, from other experiences, what it meant, I worried more and more that it wouldn’t work.
All of this about gaining some wisdom, maturity and experience is also valuable to more conventional straight couples. I am currently doing research on A) Mormon marriage and B) Mormon infidelity. I’m planning a book or two on it all and won’t share much here, but heavens, some of the stuff I’m learning could curl your toes….
Because my first link seems useful, I’ll provide another: http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/3388/from_here_to_eternity%3A_of_mormons_and_celestial_marriage/
I think that some of the problems inherent in ANY Mormon are compounded in MoMOMs, in that Mormons are taught that marriage will provide A) their greatest source of happiness and fulfillment and B) eternal salvation.
that should be “I think that some of the problems inherent in ANY MOM are compounded in MoMOMs”
And re: this:
I didn’t attend BYU, but I had a sister, parent and friends who did, and I could see that people who went there were by and large more naive than my friends and family who studied elsewhere.
And then I moved to Utah, and got more exposure to BYU, and realized that I previously had NO IDEA as to just how naive and inexperienced many of its students really are.
it’s truly shocking.
I’d also like to recommend this really entertaining video on queer Utah: http://hemisphericinstitute.org/devotion/2011/03/queer-utah/
@55, We’re one step ahead of you — it’s already in our MSP TV sidebar! 😀
Yes I did attend BYU. I was there 3 years undergrad, and two years for a master. I taught at BYU for two of those years. Don’t get me wrong, I love BYU students but they are still naive and inexperienced, and often ignorant.
I currently go to school at a UC (In california).
Holly you’re right. Obviously when I was married I made out and more and it still didn’t all click at first. I just wish that I hadn’t been so inexperienced before getting married.
Sure, but I’m still not exactly what you would consider “naive” versus what you would consider to be “experienced.”
something that made me less naive was the experience of having openly gay instructors and classmates and realizing pretty easily that “queer” wasn’t “weird.” That would not have happened at BYU in the 80s when I was an undergrad and I doubt it would happen there now.
Another very important experience was watching some of my friends come out of the closet as we were in our early 20s. A few were Mormon; more weren’t. Three of my close friends, all of them in temple marriages, went through absolutely harrowing divorces. The coming-out would not have happened at BYU in the 80s, either, though the divorces might have. I know there aren’t many out LGBT students at BYU even now.
By the time I got engaged to a man who sorta maybe thought about liking guys before he met me but knew, as soon as he met me that God had fixed him, I knew quite a few people in functioning gay relationships, exactly zero out gay people in straight marriages that were working, and close to a dozen people (including the parents of some of friends from high school and so forth) who had divorced because one spouse was gay.
Despite my fiance’s reassurances, I went looking for information on sexual orientation. The more I learned, the more I worried.
it was my fiance who broke off the engagement, and he did it while still denying that he was gay. I kept hoping he was telling the truth that he wasn’t gay and that we could get back together. But the second he actually said, “I’m gay,” I quit hoping that. In fact, once he came out, HE tried to start things back up again–he was terrified of being excommunicated and so forth, and wanted me to save him. But I wasn’t going to do it.
In short, going to a public rather than a private university meant I was far less naive about the topic of homosexuality–and sex in general, frankly, than many of my peers who went to BYU. I am pretty certain some of what we covered in art history or literature classes, for instance, was excluded from similar courses at BYU.
Good examples. Please allow me to add my own data point on this tangent. 🙂
I attended BYU as an undergrad and Rutgers (the State University of New Jersey) for grad school. I can’t really compare the two in terms of how naive-about-life the incoming freshmen were because once I was in grad school, my circle of friends was almost entirely graduate students.
When I was at BYU, I met a whole lot of students whom I thought were naive and ignorant. OTOH, I was a whole lot more arrogant as an undergrad than I am today. And, even then, I met a whole lot of students whom I didn’t consider naive or ignorant. Plus, I found that you can learn a whole lot of interesting things from living in the peculiar environment of BYU that you won’t learn from an ordinary university. Different things than you would learn about human social dynamics than what you’d learn somewhere else.
I’m sure that’s true. My friends who were at BYU in the 90s during the September 6 stuff and some of the other purges of intellectuals learned at a fairly young age all sorts of things about group politics and so forth.
But it’s not such a huge deal to learn some of those things later, because you don’t necessarily have to make major life decisions based on that knowledge while you’re still very young. It wouldn’t be such a big deal that BYU is intentionally a fairly sheltered environment if people weren’t so often pressured into making one of the biggest decisions of their lives while they’re still there.
And I’m also sure that there are some very knowledgeable, sophisticated students at BYU every single semester. But in terms of overall trends, it doesn’t seem surprising that students would be more naive at BYU, since it is, as I said, an intentionally sheltered, guarded environment.
Right, so to reiterate: whether BYU students are more ignorant/naive than average college freshmen is not necessarily established, however there is a deliberate effort on the part of the institution (and many of the students themselves) to remain sheltered from the ideas of the world. But the key difference for this discussion is that BYU students are strongly encouraged to marry while they’re still naive rather than getting some life/relationship experience before making such a permanently life-altering decision.
Your example about the September 6 is definitely the sort of thing I’m talking about. Allow me to give one more example mentioned by a friend of mine whom I was hanging out with this past weekend:
My friend was talking about her decision to get her temple endowments when she was around 21 even though she didn’t have marriage or mission plans at the time. She explained that her circle of friends at BYU at that time consisted mostly of men who were RMs (hence temple-endowed) and women who weren’t temple-endowed, though they were all about the same age. And she described that sometimes the men would say things about the temple amongst themselves, but they’d be careful to shoo all of the women away and make a show of protecting their little girl ears. “It was very infantalizing,” said my friend.
Through this experience, some may have been learning the lesson “men are to women as adults are to children.” At the same time, others (like my friend) were learning that having men perform their rite-of-passage-to-adulthood (including shared grown-up secrets) a few years before women creates an interpersonal dynamic where men are encouraged to view women their own age as children.
I can work with that.