By Lindsey Thomson, MSW
Our mental health and overall wellbeing are inextricably tied to the core relationships we have in our lives. Bisexual and other non-monosexual folks are in a unique position as we may find ourselves in romantic and/or sexual relationships with folks who do not identify with a queer identity and/or who are also queer but not specifically bisexual or non-monosexual (i.e., heterosexual, lesbian, and gay people). As bi+ folks, different combinations of sexual orientations may change the dynamics of intimate relationships in expected and unexpected ways. From my own experience and observations, I have noted a growing number of Facebook support groups focused on mixed-orientation relationships (relationships in which partners identify with different sexual orientations). These groups provide unique spaces to discuss common experiences such as decisions around coming out to partners and other family, discussing and exploring queer sexual desire, navigating relationship dynamics such as monogamy and/or ethical non-monogamy, and more. Recently, social researchers have also aimed to gain deeper insight into bisexual folks’ experiences in mixed-orientation relationships.
To learn more about bisexual women’s and others’ experiences across relationships, I reviewed key findings from two recent studies focusing on the experiences of bi+ folks in “mixed-orientation relationships” (see Vencill et al., 2018 and Davids & Lundquist, 2018 for more information).
Mixed-orientation relationships (MOREs) refer to relationships in which partners identify with different sexual orientations. This often looks like one partner identifying as bisexual and the other holding a straight, gay, lesbian, or other monosexual identity. Research has found broadly that romantic relationships typically have a positive impact on individuals in terms of overall health; however, the unique relationship experiences of bisexual folks add complexities to existing findings that previously have not incorporated the experiences of bisexuals in MOREs. Regardless of relationship status, bisexuals navigate societal contexts where bi-negative attitudes are held among heterosexual, gay, and lesbian communities. Not surprisingly, bi-negative attitudes are often related to relationship instability. Overall, lesbian and heterosexual women have been found to hold the most hesitation in dating bisexual individuals. Bi-negative attitudes are also stronger in individuals with more conservative attitudes.
Interestingly, bisexual folks in a relationship with a lesbian partner reported lower levels of stress than folks with heterosexual partners. These findings suggest that partnering with a same-gender and/or other queer person may facilitate access to support or act as a protective factor against heterosexist attitudes and stress related to discrimination due to a queer identity. At the same time, bisexual women in relationships with someone of the same gender were also likely to experience feelings of bisexual erasure and uncertainty around their sexual identities when they were assumed by others to be lesbian.
On a different side of things, researchers found that being in a relationship with a partner who is a different gender is related to increased rejection from lesbian and gay communities compared with bisexuals with same-gender partners. Bisexual women in romantic relationships with men showed higher levels of internalized bi-negativity, depression, and increased alcohol usage. Higher levels of social isolation in finding romantic partners and/or within queer communities were also related to increases in depression, anxiety, and stress in connection with the anticipation of bi-negative attitudes. Even hearing stories of queer discrimination from others meant that bisexual folks were likely to experience higher rates of anxiety related to affirmation of their bisexuality (or lack thereof).
The good news is that bisexual women, particularly in different-gender relationships, have developed clear strategies to mitigate negative attitudes and impacts. Many bisexual women continue to learn about and engage with information and educational materials around bisexuality (including this publication!). Bisexual women also explore and express queer desire through fantasy as well as creating “visual representations of bisexuality” in their homes.
Despite the existence and impacts of bi-negative attitudes, bisexual women can build satisfying relationships with both same- and different-gender partners and with similarly valued relationship aspects such as trust, communication skills, honesty, and by creating shared relationship agreements. There are mixed findings on whether bisexual folks more often practice ethical non-monogamy (vs. monogamy) in their relationships, with some studies finding no differences in prevalence and others finding increased prevalence. Whether monogamous or non-monogamous, researchers infer that bisexual folks may hold more open attitudes to consensual non-monogamy as a practice in relationships. Regardless of different relationship styles, bisexual people are finding ways to build satisfying relationships with folks of the same or different gender or sexual orientation.
Although limited, research on the experiences of bisexual folks in romantic and/or sexual relationships demonstrates the importance of connections to bisexual-specific and affirming resources and supports, for the sake of individual mental health and relationship health. Findings also demonstrate the strengths and resilience of bisexual individuals and communities who face widespread bi-negative attitudes yet find ways to bridge differences in sexual orientations to build loving relationships with a diverse group of partners. More research is needed to better understand the experiences of bisexual folks in MOREs, particularly in connection with additional identities and intersectionalities (e.g., BIPOC folks), and it is this author’s hope that we continue to gain insights and to foster crucial connections and community among bisexual folks.
Davids, C.M. & Lundquist, G. G. (2018). Relationship themes and structures of bisexual individuals. Sexual and Relationships Therapy, 33(1-2), 6-12.
Vencill, J., Carlson, S., Lantaffi, A., & Miner, M. (2018). Mental health, relationships, and sex: Exploring patterns among bisexual individuals in mixed orientation relationship. Sexual and Relationships Therapy, 33(1-2), 14-33.
Lindsey Thomson lives in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, with her wife CJ, Scottish Terrier Kevin, and 28-year old turtle Toby. She is a community-engaged research and teaching professional at the University of Guelph and is very passionate about the role of research and community collaboration in social change.