The charmingly beautiful and strikingly intelligent Jessie Christensen has been married for the past six years to the dashingly charismatic and objectively humble Ben Christensen. Jessie has a master?s degree in Spanish from BYU, two children (also from BYU), and a wealth of trivia knowledge that once got her into Jeopardy!?s contestant pool and will hopefully get her on the show one day. Jessie blogs as FoxyJ at http://foxyj.blogspot.com; her husband blogs as Mr. Fob at http://www.fobcave.com.
BEN: When and how did you find out about your husband’s attraction to the same sex? How did this revelation affect your decision to marry him?
JESSIE: Ben and I had been dating for a few months and had started talking about marriage. He had not yet proposed to me, but we were both seriously discussing getting married later that year. One night we went to the temple together and on our way home stopped to get some fast food. As we were talking in the car, he told me that he had always felt attracted to men. I asked if he had ever acted on those inclinations and he replied that he had not and that he had been involved in counseling, both before and after his mission. At the time I was taken aback, because I hadn’t considered the possibility that he could be gay. After all, he was dating me and had asked me to marry him. Knowing that he was gay didn’t affect my decision to marry him very much, because I felt that he wanted to get married and I trusted him in this. I also prayed a lot about the decision and felt that it was right.
Given this new knowledge about your fianc?, what are some of the expectations and fears you had going into marriage? How have those played out in your experience thus far? What are some issues that you didn’t think of before but wish you had?
Thinking back, I’m not sure I had a lot of expectations for marriage at all. Well, at least not consciously articulated ones. I think I assumed that we would always be close, that we wouldn’t have a lot of conflict or difficulties, that we would always spend lots of time together, that we would generally agree on everything. I think those are the unconscious assumptions I had about our relationship, and I realize now that they were unrealistic expectations. In my experience so far I’ve discovered that people can change and that some amount of conflict is inevitable in a relationship. I think one issue we never discussed while dating was how we would talk about Ben’s feelings of same-sex attraction with our family and friends. We didn’t do this because at the time we were treating it like a non-issue and he didn’t identify himself as “gay,” but I think we should have discussed that more.
How have you dealt with these unexpected changes? What do you do when your expectations — unconscious or otherwise — aren’t met?
Well, I’ve dealt with unexpected change in a lot of different ways. Some healthier than others. I’ve gotten mad, yelled, sulked, and been manipulative. Those aren’t really healthy ways to deal with frustration or conflict in a relationship, as I think we have both learned. I’ve tried to become better educated about good communication strategies, both through reading on my own and attending things like workshops and firesides. We’ve both realized that we did not grow up with functional models of good conflict resolution skills, so this is something we are having to learn about how to work on by ourselves. I’ve learned to be more assertive in determining what my needs are that are not being met as well as articulating those needs to my husband. I’ve also learned how to rely on myself or on other friends to help fill some of my needs instead of putting it all on my husband. I think that was an unrealistic expectation that I had — to assume that he could take care of everything I needed for me. I think that there are definitely some things that should stay within the marriage, like sexuality, but many other things shouldn’t depend solely on our spouse. I’ve noticed that as I have become a more independent person in some ways it has actually strengthened our marriage.
Do you have needs that aren’t met — or at least not to the level you’d like them to be — specifically because your husband is gay? If so, how do you deal with this deficiency?
I’m really not sure whether or not my unmet needs are due to the fact that my husband is gay or not. I have not had a serious relationship with any other men, so it’s hard to tell what is due to attraction to men and what is due to his personality. Also, being gay is part of his personality so it is hard to figure out what role that specifically plays in his behavior. Probably one of my biggest challenges is insecurity; I want to make sure that I am getting enough attention and that my spouse focuses solely on me. Sometimes Ben doesn’t fill that need, but again I’m not sure that anyone can. Part of the challenge of being married is finding the balance between separateness and unity and I think we are still figuring that one out.
What do you do to ensure your sexual needs are met? Are they?
I think that right now the answer would be yes. Like most people, my sexual needs have changed over time; right now I have had two kids within the last five years and am a busy mom. Most of the time my need for sex is usually outweighed by my need for sleep. :) But seriously, there have been times in our relationship when I did not feel like my needs were met. To me, however, when I think of “sexual needs,” I don’t usually feel like I need orgasm or even sexual contact. I generally think of physical intimacy, like cuddling, caressing, or kissing. I actually rarely want sex itself. From what I’ve read, this is fairly common for women. However, this is something we’ve had to work on in our marriage. There have been times when we have been physically distant from each other that have been very difficult for me. As I’ve mentioned before, due to some issues in my past, I have a hard time communicating my needs due to trust issues. Sex is a very difficult subject for anyone to talk about and it has been hard for me to voice my feelings and needs. Being rejected after making a sexual advance is hard because it is such a personal sort of rejection. What I’ve been working on with my husband (and we’re still working on it), is clarifying the difference between a rejection of sex for personal reasons (too tired, stressed from a long day, etc) to a more global rejection of intimacy in general. I think my need for sex is usually tied to a need for more intimacy in all aspects of the marriage, and when we are more closely intimate with each other in an emotional sense the physical is usually easier. Growing up I always heard things like “a good sex life is tied to a good emotional life” or “the best way to make up after an argument is to have sex” and I do believe that. We do often have to work hard to place importance on sexual intimacy at this point in our marriage. I think this is mostly due to the fact that we have two small children and are both busy with school and work more than the fact that my husband is gay. I’ve read a number of articles about the “seven-year slump” which I think describe us to perfection. It actually helps me to know that the decline in sexual activity is fairly common among other types of couples and not just a sign that something has gone horribly wrong since our first few months of marriage. :) So, I guess the short term answer is that my sexual needs are currently being met, and if they are not then we work on communicating more. I think that is just like all things in marriage–we need to work together and find a way to meet our needs in a way that will strengthen our relationship while ensuring that each partner is not compromising themselves too much.
You mentioned some things you learned while growing up that seem to have contributed to your perspective on marriage. What experiences, skills, or personality traits of yours have particularly helped you deal with the challenges of a mixed-orientation marriage?
This one has been hard for me — it’s usually easier to think of the things I’m not so good at. I think one thing that has helped is the fact that my parents have always been open about their struggles in marriage. I’ve always known that marriage takes work and that you don’t just live “happily ever after” once you get married. I’ve still learned a lot since marriage, but I think it helps to have a realistic idea of what you’re getting into before you start. I also think that the fact that I got married after going to college for a few years and serving a mission helped. I still feel like I was young and immature, especially compared to where I am at now, but those extra years of life helped me much more than if I had married at 19. I feel like I’m also pretty open-minded and forgiving in my attitudes towards others, and this has been a help in accepting my husband and his struggles. That’s about all I can think of, actually. I think more than anything it’s important to have a strong commitment to being married and to doing what it takes to keep your relationship working.
What role does religion play in your life and in your marriage?
As I mentioned before, we originally met when we were serving in the same mission, and then dated and married while attending BYU. Obviously our decision to date and marry was inspired by the religious milieu we were in at the time, but I wouldn’t say that we only married due to religious pressure. Right now religion in our marriage has been a source of conflict for the last few years, since my husband decided to leave the church. This has been a much harder issue for us than his same-sex attraction alone. I was reading some advice on a website for couples with differing levels of activity, and they pointed out that it takes most couples many years to adjust when one spouse leaves the church. This was comforting to me, because it has been a big adjustment and it still is. I am still active in the LDS church and believe in its teachings. Religion for me has generally been more of a personal thing; I consider my relationship with God even more important than my membership in the church, if it is possible to separate the two in any way. I try to live my life in the way God wants me to and to raise my family the same way.
Considering your husband’s attraction to men and especially now that he has left the church, do you feel that you worry about his fidelity more than women married to straight, actively LDS men do?
My first thought was that I don’t know how much other women worry about their husbands’ fidelity. It’s not something we talk a lot about at church. :) Right now I am feeling very secure in our relationship and do not worry about my husband’s fidelity. Also, knowing his personality as well as our history of openness, I find it unlikely that he would be physically unfaithful to me. One thing we do struggle with, and I know other couples in the same situation struggle with it as well, is his relationships with other men. In our culture as a church we tend to be pretty paranoid about opposite-sex pairings between people not married to each other. But we want to encourage men to form positive relationships with each other. Particularly in the case of SSA there is an emphasis on creating close, healthy relationships with other men. However, this can create conflict for spouses. On the one hand I want my husband to have friends; on the other, I don’t want him to be so drawn to his friends that he withdraws from our relationship. I have often heard that women are more bothered by emotional adultery than by physical infidelity, and I think this is especially true in mixed-orientation marriages. I have been grateful that my husband has been able to find good male friends, both gay and straight, but there have been times in the past when I felt like his devotion to his friends has harmed our relationship. I think that at times like that it is good to be able to step back and really take a close look at your relationships with others. I have sometimes felt attraction to other men during our marriage, but societal prohibitions from spending time alone with other men have been a help to me in remaining faithful to my husband. Not that it was that hard, LOL, but feeling a bit attracted to someone you don’t spend a lot of time with is different from feeling attracted to someone you spend time with on a regular basis and are encouraged to be friendly with by other people. Not sure if that last part made any sense…
It made sense to me. You said that you’re feeling “very secure” right now. What makes you feel so secure at this particular point in your marriage?
Last year we separated for a few months and were planning on getting divorced. That was a very difficult experience for me, but it also gave us a chance to reevaluate and recommit ourselves to our relationship. I certainly wouldn’t recommend the experience to anyone, but it helped me with my insecurities by showing me that the worst thing I could imagine (my marriage ending) was possible and that I was still a worthwhile person even without my husband. It also reconfirmed to me that we are both in this relationship because we want to be. Because we committed to ourselves and to our children. I was very wary about getting back together and I think that in a few ways I am still a little guarded now. However, I also learned that sometimes just our willingness to try something can bring great blessings. I felt that getting back together was a good idea and I could see that my husband was sincere in his desire to do that. At the same time I was scared and I didn’t feel a lot of trust and forgiveness in my heart. I had to consciously set aside some of my feelings of bitterness and accept openly what he was offering. To my surprise, I found that I could trust him and that things really had changed. To get back to the original question, I feel secure in my marriage because I know that my husband will communicate with me when he has problems or difficulties. I also know that he will listen to me when I have concerns and that we can work on them together. More than anything, I know he’s here because he loves me and he doesn’t want to be anywhere else.
I?m glad you feel that security now. If a good friend of yours told you she was considering marrying a man who had confessed being attracted to men, what advice would you give her?
Now this is the question that everyone wants an answer to. It’s predicated upon the fact that because something works well for me I must want it for everyone else. So, just to be clear, I certainly don’t go around advocating every gay person to get married to someone of the opposite gender. I don’t go around advocating for gay people to never get into a mixed-orientation marriage. I generally don’t go around making any sort of generalizations about who should and shouldn’t get married (besides Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie–that was just gross). Anyways, if I did happen to have a specific friend in that specific situation I would probably give her the same advice I’d give to any other friend considering marriage. The most important thing to do is to take time to get to know each other. Write each other email or letters; spend time together and apart; get to know each other’s families; spend holidays together. In Mormon culture we tend to rush things when it comes to dating and marriage, and it’s not a bad idea to use a little caution and spend a few more months really evaluating your decision. Listen closely to your friends and family. You don’t have to “out” your boyfriend to them, but listen to any concerns they might have. Outside observers can be helpful. It can also help to take a marriage preparation class or go to counseling together. I just spent a very long time searching on L’s blog trying to find some excellent questions that I remembered from the comments section. I have seen books with similar questions as well; the point is to talk a lot about yourselves and get a feel for how you might deal with problems that arise in the future. It would also be helpful to read some of the blogs and books out there that deal with mixed-orientation marriage, both positively and negatively. And realize that marriage is just the beginning of a long journey. As much as we would like to be able to predict the outcomes of our decisions, we usually can’t. One of the most important things you can do after marriage — any type of marriage — is agree to keep looking forward and to take ownership of your decisions. Our marriage has been strengthened in the last year through our learning to communicate honestly and openly with each other as well as renewing our commitment to the idea of marriage. To sum up, I think the most important decision that anyone who is getting married can make is to evaluate their intentions and only do it out of pure love and a sense of commitment to the other person. When you get married in the temple, it is an individual covenant that you make with God. I try to remember that when I have trouble; I promised God that I would do my part, and since He does His part I keep trying to uphold my end of the covenant. That’s all I can do.
Thanks for your insights. I’m sure a lot of people will appreciate your perspective.