Redux: Sexual FluidityPlay
"Whatever" — that's how the actress Maria Bello describes her sexual orientation. Her "love who you love" attitude toward sexuality, regardless of gender, is often referred to as fluidity.
Maria joins the Sugars this week to discuss a couple of letters having to do with the confusion and complications that can accompany a shift in one's sexual preferences and partnerships. She wrote about the evolution of her own family structure in her 2013 Modern Love column for The New York Times, "Coming Out As a Modern Family," which she later turned into the book, "Whatever...Love is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves."
This episode was originally published on March 3rd, 2017.
I've always made the "right" decisions: I went to college, rarely drank or acted irresponsibly. I graduated, got married, got a good job and then had a child. Despite these “right” decisions, I've always been melancholy...so much so that it often wore thin on my husband. Recently, I've confirmed my long-time feelings that I am bisexual — and more than likely, a lesbian. This revelation came through my first lesbian experience with my best friend since childhood. She is straight and a single mom who wants to find the right man, but somehow always chooses the wrong one.
Here is what happened: After a night of drinking (out of character for me), my best friend told me that she knows I'm a lesbian, and then she kissed me. What followed was a night of intense, drunken sex that started in a public bathroom and ended in my guest room at home. It was the first lesbian experience for both of us. My husband was our designated driver, but he has no idea what we did.
He is aware of my bisexuality, and even once asked if I have feelings for my friend. Early on, he said I could have a girlfriend if it would make me happy. I was aghast and said no. I was wrong to have an affair, but I feel like I finally accepted who I am. I no longer feel like a mistake in this life. I no longer feel worthless and unworthy of love. But at what expense? The betrayal of my family?
While my friend and I were having sex, she told me that she thinks she's in love with me and that she wanted to be the only one in my life. Since that night, we've tried to go back to normal. At my prompting, we finally spoke about what happened, though she was reluctant to do so. She said she tries not to think about what we did, and that it only confirmed that she is heterosexual. I feel crushed, embarrassed, and stupid. I put my family on the line for her.
Truthfully, I would have given it all up for her. I have no desire to leave my husband to find any woman to be with. To me, she was the only one. I've never felt more natural and in love, even drunk. But I don’t know how to feel about my friend anymore. In some ways, her rejection makes it easier; I don't have to ever revisit what occurred. I will not have another affair, and I can continue life with my traditional family. Yet, I am also hurt that her mere "curiosity" was fulfilled at the expense of my great risk. I am not an experienced drinker, so I don't know what is natural to occur. How common is gay sex when you are straight? Does a drunk mind truly speak a sober heart? Could she be in love with me? I'm inclined to take her at sober face-value, but how can I ever look her in the face again? Sugars, I implore you: please help me make sense of all of this.
Drunk in Love
Steve Almond: The great irony here is that Drunk in Love is married to a man who knew more about her own desires than she was willing to admit. He said, you can have a girlfriend if that will make you happy. But this woman is saying, I can either have this woman who I love and become a lesbian and lose my family, or I’ll run back to my family and lose this very important friendship. And that seems so depressing, that you would have to choose one over the other.
Maria Bello: We often feel that we need to make a choice in our lives between two things that seem completely antithetical. But the truth lies in holding both things in your hand. It’s not just in making a choice, it’s in the gray area. My suggestion would be for Drunk in Love to spend time on her own to, first of all, get to her truth. And then eventually, when she feels more secure in that, the next step is to go to a therapist with her husband, or with her best friend.
Cheryl Strayed: Drunk in Love, I really encourage you to not think about what your husband wants or needs, or what your friend wants or what her motivations are, and really think about who you are and how you can build a life that makes you feel happy and centered. We get all kinds of letters from people who have been sexually fulfilled outside of their marriages. A marriage doesn’t have to look only one way. That’s what I think fluidity is all about, is saying, “I’m going to be the agent of my own life. I’m going to define what intimacy means to me.” The idea that we get to rebuild begins with knowing oneself.
Steve: Drunk in Love, I know it feels like everything is coming apart at the seams. You’re feeling a collision between two stories: the one about how you want the world to think you are — the good girl who makes the right decisions — and the person who you know yourself to be, which is someone with very confusing and, in your own mind, contradictory desires. But that’s your invitation to not say anything more to your friend or your husband than, I feel really confused right now. And I need help, and I need you to not announce what we are or what our relationship is going to be, but just help me sort it out.
Maria: And most importantly, Drunk in Love, have compassion for yourself. We’re all complicated human beings, and the more that we face ourselves and our truths, the better we can love ourselves and others.
I am a 36-year-old man, married to a lovely woman. We have a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. I have a thriving career, and we have a wonderful life. Not a day passes that we aren't told what a beautiful family we are. Everything appears to be OK from the outside, but in reality, my marriage seems all but over.
The problem is, I am gay, or at least bisexual, strongly tending towards gay. I haven't always been this way, I don't believe. My wife and I first started dating a decade ago. Back then, I considered myself straight. In hindsight, I may have been bi-curious, but nothing more.
I've always heard that gender and sexuality was fluid, but I never really believed that, or at least I paid the idea no mind until about 5 or 6 years ago.
My current reality is, of course, a big problem in my marriage. My wife and I don't have a sex life anymore, mostly because I just can’t get into it. I wasn't able to communicate this change in my sexuality with my wife because I was confused and ashamed. Instead, about a year ago, she checked my Internet browsing history, and you can image what she found. Her reaction was shock, hurt and betrayal. My reaction was further confusion and shame.
Since then, I committed to therapy and discovered the source of my shame: being raised in culture of religious homophobia. I’m slowly working through it, with the goal of achieving total transparency, acceptance and a healthy degree of self-love. I know now I owe this to myself and to the people around me.
Sugars, my wife and I truly love, respect and appreciate each other. We are best friends. We work together in businesses we own, co-parent amazingly together and laugh together. But we do not have sex. We do not even share the same bed.
I wasn't always gay, but I now want to be with men. I know this, but I don't know what to do with this reality. As you can probably guess, I am not out. That is something I will deal with in good time. My wife loves our life as much as I do, but we are both so lonely in a way that we can't help each other with.
My wonderful therapist has suggested separation counseling for my wife and me, because she says we both deserve to have fulfilling love lives. She also tells me that we can remain in a non-traditional marriage if that works for us, but I don't believe that will work for my wife. She is a good-hearted, traditional sort of gal.
I cannot believe that this is now my story and the story I wrote for my wife. I am still ashamed of that. I do not know what my options are from here. I've never heard of someone else in this story, so I feel in uncharted waters, without a paddle.
While I am working through the shame, the confusion only festers.
Please help, Sugars.
Ashamed and Confused
Cheryl: My heart hurts to read this letter. This is somebody who is really suffering. Ashamed and Confused, you are a partner with your wife, but I do think you need to transition out of this traditional marriage. Whether that means divorce or not is something for you to decide. But you don’t have to lose every aspect of this relationship by changing it. You now understand that you’re gay and you want to be with men. That’s some clarity you didn’t have before, and that’s a gift. That doesn’t mean that everything has to be destroyed with this woman that you love and respect and have a friendship with.
Steve: I think we have this compulsion to say, “You’re this or you’re that. Figure it out and keep your identity static so everyone knows what to call you.” Ashamed and Confused, right now, it’s clear that you want to have men as sexual partners. That might shift. It might not. But the idea that you’re just out of the closet now is part of the trick we are playing on ourselves — that we can only be one thing or the other. You are what you are at this moment. Your desires are what they are at this moment, for this partner. They could change over time, and the world just has to deal with that and accept it.
Maria: Ashamed and Confused, you don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Your wife sounds like a wonderful partner and person in so many ways, whether you’re sleeping in the same bed or not. Change is hard, but being honest and getting to the other side was one of the most freeing things that I’ve ever done. A great therapist of mine has this exercise that involves going into a body of water, and even though it’s cold and waves might be coming, you just keep walking and you say “Bring it on, bring it on,” — meaning all of the truth. Let it wash over you. I know it’s scary, I know it’s cold, but bring it on. Because eventually, that will calm down, your body temperature will adapt, and you’ll be still and free and more comfortable.