Mixed Orientation Couples and The Nashville Statement: What Would I Do?

Last week, I wrote about advice given by Nashville Statement signer Rosaria Butterfield to a heterosexually married woman who fell in love with acounseling image 2 woman. In addition, this woman had come to dislike her husband greatly and had not been intimate with him for over a year. Butterfield’s answer to the intimacy problem was for the woman to submit to sex often, even though she said she couldn’t bear it. My strong criticism of this generated intense discussion and questions about what I would do in such a situation. This post addresses those questions.
I don’t have to speculate since I have encountered scores of these counseling situations over the years with both straight and mixed orientation couples. Let’s review Butterfield’s scenario:

Sitting across from me at the kitchen table this afternoon, you poured out your heart. When you married your high school sweetheart at 19, you never once suspected you would be in this place. Now, at 39, after twenty years of marriage, you call yourself gay.
In tears, you tell me that you have “come out,” and that you’re not looking back. You haven’t had an affair. Yet. But there is this woman you met at the gym. You work out with her every morning, and you text with her throughout the day.
Even though you are a covenant member of a faithful church, sit under solid preaching, and put up a good front for the children, you have been inwardly despising your husband for some time now. Hearing him read the Bible makes you cringe. You haven’t been intimate with him for over a year now. You tell me you can’t bear it.

Apparently, according to Butterfield, the kitchen table woman is considering an exit from the marriage to be with the gym woman. Butterfield denies that the woman is gay since, in her mind, sexual orientation isn’t a category of existence. She cautions the woman against destroying the family, urges her to repent, submit to her husband’s leadership, and have sex often. It is the last bit of advice that I called the worst advice ever. Butterfield said:

Second, embrace the calling that God has given to you to be your husband’s wife. Your marriage is no arbitrary accident; God called you to it in his perfect providence. And God’s providence is your protection.
Your lot has fallen in pleasant places (Psalm 16:6). Pray for eyes to see this. Recommit yourself to one-flesh love with your husband. Pray together that your hearts would be knit together through Christ. Make time to talk honestly with your husband about how your body works. Show him. Make time to preserve your marriage bed as a place of joy and comfort and pleasure. Have sexual intercourse often. This is God’s medicine for a healthy marriage. One-fleshness is certainly more than sex, but it is not less than sex. Your husband is not your roommate. Treating him as such is sin.

Based on my experience, I think Butterfield’s advice, if followed by the woman in her current emotional state, would hasten the demise of that marriage.

What is a Better Approach?

The first thing I would do in this case is to determine who the client is. Is it the woman or the marriage? If she came in to see me alone then I would work with her to pursue her goals in accord with the sexual identity therapy framework I developed along with Mark Yarhouse. We work within the value framework of the client after a vigorous process of clarifying values and beliefs.* This might mean the marriage might never be the focus.
Even though I would focus on her values and beliefs initially, I would certainly ask if she had any interest in saving the marriage. If she did, I would recommend that the husband come in as well. If he agreed, then the couple and relationship would become the focus.  For the sake of discussion, I will assume she has some interest in saving the marriage.
Intimacy is always a focus on marriage counseling but can never be forced. Especially in the church, there is a power differential between men and women. Counselors must be sensitive to this and treat each member of the couple with dignity and equal respect. No one is to be shamed for sexual desires nor should anyone be shamed for lack of sexual desire. The partner who is more interested in sex must understand that intimacy cannot be forced or coerced from the partner less interested in it. This truth applies to so many situations in marriage, not just the one in the Butterfield scenario.
Full personal histories and a history of their relationship would need to be fleshed out with all of the triumphs and failures. Circumstances surrounding courtship, marriage and births are critical to the development of their story. We want to figure out how the current crisis fits into the ongoing narrative. This is standard counseling work but it sets the stage for making intelligent recommendations tailored to the couple in the room.
I have worked with dozens of Christian couples who have implemented some form of Butterfield’s advice prior to seeing me. When women have done this against their will, the results have been resentment and anger. The marriage deteriorated to the point that counseling was a last resort before seeing the lawyer. I recall one case in particular where the a woman not only left her husband but left her church and lost her faith. Her husband had required her to see the elders on more than one occasion because sexual frequency wasn’t to his liking. Even after he realized how degrading the whole thing was, it was too late. She had enough.
Another woman complained of pain in intercourse but was forbidden by her husband of seeing a gynecologist. After she went anyway, it turned out she had a medical reason why intercourse was painful. When this information was shared with her husband and the pastor, it didn’t matter. She was still required to fulfill her wifely duty because it couldn’t be that bad. She had children after all. That was it, the marriage was over. There are too many more stories.
In the context of mixed orientation marriages, some marriages have stayed together and some haven’t. Some women are bisexual, decide that the family is irreplaceable and worth more than another relationship. Other women determine that they lied at the beginning, were never straight and feel horrible about it. The couples decide it would be best to end the relationship for everybody concerned. Some gay people (I call them spousosexual) have sufficient fluidity in their orientation that they fall in love with one member of the opposite sex without losing their general attraction to the same sex.  Although I don’t think it is common, some of those marriages survive.  The point is that the one-size-fits-all advice offered by Butterfield to woman who have resentment against their husbands would almost never fit anyone and should be removed from the web. I can only see pain and destruction coming from it in the context it was offered.

What About I Corinthans 7?

Let me close by saying a word about those who protest by appealing to I Corinthians 7. Here is the passage:

Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

First, Paul said that he wrote this as “a concession, not as a command.” Now, I am not a theologian, I am not from Nashville, nor have I ever been a theologian in Nashville signing important documents, but it seems like it is important to note that this instruction isn’t a command. Those are not my words, but Paul’s.
As an aside, Paul said he wished everyone could be single. Does that mean God’s design is singleness? He said everyone has their own gift. What does that say about the person who never has had an opposite sex attraction?
Back to the passage, I recognize that this sounds like marriage is a kind of a transaction, each person has a duty. There is a sense in which this is true in a normal marriage. When people are basically happy with each other and want to have sex, then Paul said they should not deprive each other. Paul started off the instruction by saying he didn’t think it was good for a man to touch a woman (is that God’s design?), so he had to make it clear that for those who are married and want to have sex, he would make a concession and say it was fine for this occur. In the face of some killjoy saying “no sex,” Butterfield’s advice is great.
However, a little later in the passage, Paul gets to the situation Butterfield encounters in her article.

10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.

Butterfield’s kitchen table lady might leave her husband according to Paul but she shouldn’t remarry, nor should he remarry. I know mixed orientation couples who have an uneasy separation along these lines because living together was too confusing and painful. Of course, that result is not ideal, but it appears to be one envisioned even by a literal reading of I Corinthians.
In short, I don’t think Butterfield’s advice is a proper application of I Corinthians 7 to a marriage where both partners are not invested in the marriage.
 
*For more on sexual identity therapy, see these articles in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal as well as the SIT website.

Wishful Thinking, Forced Intimacy, and The Nashville Statement

photo-1474367658825-e5858839e99d_optI started counseling LGB people and mixed orientation couples about two decades ago. Initially, I had high hopes that counseling might regularly assist same-sex attracted people become straight or bisexual. In a story that has been told elsewhere, I have since changed my mind.
Part of what helped form my current views of sexual orientation was the experience of counseling and researching mixed orientation couples. I concluded: If heterosexual responding did not happen for same-sex attracted people in that context, it probably wasn’t going to happen at all. For couples already married, I decided to work with them to maintain their marriage if that is what they believed was right. However, I don’t make unrealistic promises. And if people decide to part, I certainly understand the pressures which lead to that decision.
Due to my work, I read a recent article at John Piper’s website by Nashville Statement signer Rosaria Butterfield. In it, she gives some of the worstNashville logo advice I have ever read to a woman in a mixed orientation marriage. Below I respond to it. My response to the article is not theological. Instead, I respond as a clinician and researcher.
In essence, Butterfield denies people are gay:

A mixed-orientation marriage combines one spouse who “is” gay and the other who “is” straight. This new language for sexuality and humanity has become our post-Christian world’s reigning (and godless) logic. Gay may be how someone feels, but it can never be who someone inherently is. Because all human beings are made in God’s image, we are called to reflect God’s image in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. We are a Genesis 1:27 people, born male or female with a soul that will last forever, and a body that will either be glorified in the New Jerusalem or suffer unspeakable anguish in hell.

After working with LGBT people for two decades, I believe some people are inherently gay. They have never been attracted to a member of the opposite sex, even while married to one. They have tried everything to change, but nothing changes.
Some people are bisexual and seem to fluctuate without warning or conscious choice. Others are basically gay, but fall in love with one member of the opposite sex. If that love is dashed or ceases for some reason, then there is nothing left of their straightness.
Butterfield says there is one size because of the Bible. Even though that’s not exactly what the Bible says, that’s how she and her Nashville Statement interpret it so that’s how anyone she talks to has to be. I used to look at people that way. I won’t do that anymore. There are many things in this world I wish were different but wishful thinking won’t change how things are.
She continues:

Being born male or female comes with ethical and moral responsibilities, blessings, and constraints — by God’s design and for the purpose of image-bearing. Because creation is an identity issue, my feelings — no matter how deep, abiding, or original to my conscience — are not my identity or descriptive of what kind of Christian I am.

In other words, no matter how real reality is, it isn’t really real unless it matches up with her understanding of the Bible. What Butterfield overlooks is that she is basing her argument on her feelings about the Bible. She is confident that her interpretation is the right one. She feels strongly about it. Her feelings are more right than the feelings of the woman she is talking to. She believes that God’s design for most people is normative for all people. No exceptions are allowed. The fact is that some people are naturally different than the norm. No matter how strongly she feels that such exceptions shouldn’t exist, they do.

No, friend. I am not in a mixed-orientation marriage and neither are you. This false category banks on modernism’s magnetism to personal pain as proof of purpose. Like Frankenstein’s creature, modernity’s identity is piecemealed from the unconverted woman that you once were. But gospel identity calls us to the future. Jesus always leads from the front of the line. If you are in Christ — and I believe that you are — then you are a new woman. You have a Galatians 2:20 identity. If you are in Christ, then you are in the process of being sanctified (Hebrews 10:14). You truly are who you will become when you are glorified one day.

The denial of sexual orientation leads to a denial of the present. The woman Butterfield is talking to is living in a body and brain right now, not “one day” by and by. She has a husband she can’t bear to be with and a conflict that is real in the present. She needs something more than it will be well someday.
I do agree with Butterfield’s caution about ending a marriage. What I advocate for in this post is honesty and reality not broken homes. Many couples I have worked with keep their marriage but with real and honest expectations. Furthermore, they do so after an extended period of examining their beliefs to determine that they want an intact marriage more than anything else. If they don’t have those beliefs, then they may peacefully and amicably part ways.

Worst Advice Ever

However, probably the worst advice I have ever read for same-sex attracted people is what comes next:

Your lot has fallen in pleasant places (Psalm 16:6). Pray for eyes to see this. Recommit yourself to one-flesh love with your husband. Pray together that your hearts would be knit together through Christ. Make time to talk honestly with your husband about how your body works. Show him. Make time to preserve your marriage bed as a place of joy and comfort and pleasure. Have sexual intercourse often. This is God’s medicine for a healthy marriage. One-fleshness is certainly more than sex, but it is not less than sex. Your husband is not your roommate. Treating him as such is sin.

Forced intimacy is not intimacy. I can only imagine the horror of a person hearing these words. I have counseled numerous survivors of this kind of advice. What this does is ruin a person for any kind of intimacy, same-sex or opposite-sex.  Maybe some people can hear this, but to me, this sounds cult-like. Channeling early Mark Driscoll, Butterfield instructs this woman to allow her integrity to be violated in the name of God.
The Nashville Statement is supposed to be all about rightly ordered sexuality. I can’t see how a person entering into coerced intimacy reflects this. Butterfield very clearly tells this woman she sins if she doesn’t have sex against her will. This advice doesn’t even pass the test of her fellow Nashville Statement signer and Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood president Denny Burk’s criteria for ethical sexuality. In his book What is the Meaning of SexBurk wrote:

We ought to evaluate the ethics of any sexual act on the basis of its ability to encompass the four purposes [of sex]: consummation, procreation, love, and pleasure.

Butterfield’s kitchen table friend said she didn’t love her husband and derived no pleasure from the experience. How then is sex against her will an ethical act?
I hope DesiringGod.com reconsiders this article and removes it before anyone takes it seriously.