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Mixing It Up in the Bedroom

Mixed-orientation relationships: More common (and diverse) than you think.

Key points

  • A mixed-orientation relationship is one in which the partners' sexual preferences differ.
  • Polyamorous/monogamous and kinky/vanilla pairings also experience desire discrepancies.
  • In many cases, it is possible to work through differences in seemingly incompatible desires.

Part of the joy of being human is being different from everybody else. It would make sense, then, that many people come to recognize that their spouses or partners have sexual or relational desires that are different from their own. For some, this is but a minor difference: I like vanilla-scented candles around the bed before we make love, while he enjoys having the hot wax poured on his chest. For others, the differences can present some more significant challenges—not only to their intimacy, but to their relationships, and sometimes, to their own sense of identity.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels
Trying to carry a secret about your most authentic self is a heavy burden.
Source: Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

A mixed-orientation relationship is one in which the sexual orientations of those involved do not align—for example, a straight partner living in a committed relationship with a partner who identifies as LGBTQI. For some, these are relationships born out of a strong love and affection for one another, absent sexual desire. For others, there is enough sexual fluidity to allow for some intimacy, but the partners still recognize that their pairing is not the sexual ideal for one of them. Laura Skaggs Dulin is a queer-identified woman who was married to a straight man for many years, and who writes, “a person’s sexual orientation is their most innate capacity to connect with another human being and sexual orientation is a persistent trait and drive throughout the individual’s lifespan.” These facts can present many ethical and relational challenges to folks who recognize that their identity is not aligned with that of their partner.

But these are not the only kinds of mixed-orientation marriages. For many people who identify as kinky, their desire for BDSM is a core aspect of their sexual identity. Approximately 2-10 percent of people (roughly the same as the number of redheads or left-handed people in the world) identify as kinky. And unfortunately, half of kinky people report hiding their BDSM desires out of fear that “coming out as kinky” would result in revulsion or rejection by their partner. Some never overcome these fears and live their lives hiding their desires. Others attempt to introduce some milder form of kink into the bedroom under the guise of “spicing things up” without revealing just how deep their BDSM affinity lies. Still others make the brave decision to share their kink identity with the person (or people) they love.

Photo by Cottonbro on Pexels
Source: Photo by Cottonbro on Pexels

Speaking of loving multiple people: The third form of mixed-orientation relationship that I see in my office is one in which one partner identifies as polyamorous while the other prefers—or even insists on—a monogamous relationship. Because we live in a culture where monogamy is the norm, it can be unbelievable to hear one’s spouse say that they wish to open up the relationship. These feelings are natural and should be honored. At the same time, we must recognize that for some folks, monogamy feels incredibly stifling—their natural capacity to love multiple partners is suppressed in favor of mainstream cultural expectations and (sometimes) religious beliefs.

Making a Mixed-Orientation Relationship Work

Working through relationship desires that seem to be mutually exclusive can be fraught and challenging—but it is possible! For some, simply being able to acknowledge their orientation, without ever acting on it, is sufficient. They no longer feel compelled to live a life of secrecy, code-switching with their partners and living in fear of being outed as something other than what they were perceived to be. For others, however, this is not enough. They want to experience the full spectrum of their desires, without trying to parse out what is “allowed ” within their relationship and what is forbidden. Some of the hardest and most rewarding work that I have done with couples has been with folks who are struggling to find their “mutual yesses” in the middle of their differences.

When you realize that you and your partner want different things, it can be hard. After all, if they don’t want what you want, do they want you at all? For many, the answer is a resounding "yes." Mixed orientation marriages of all kinds are challenging but can reveal a beautiful strength and resiliency in you both. Learning to advocate for your needs and desires, listening to your partner without judgement, and working together to identify a creative path forward is powerful work.

Ranier Maria Rilke wrote, “Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn't necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own…but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”

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