Am I enough for my bisexual partner?

On bisexual satisfaction in hetero relationships

Written by Kristen Mark, PhD, MPH, CSE

Bisexuality gets a bad rap as being a transient identity. Many assume it's either a stopover to gaytown or just an experimental temporary detour from straight life. But research (and millions of lives lived and identities experienced, including my own!) clearly point to bisexuality as a unique, valid and persistent sexual identity.

When a bisexual person gets into a long term relationship, their identity is often presumed to be either straight, lesbian or gay based on the gender of their relationship partner. Because of this, bisexual people may face feelings of their identity being erased (us scientists call this bierasure) or they face negative attitudes or beliefs about bisexuality (we call this binegativity). My team and I have examined this by collecting data from both members of mixed-sex couples where one member of the couple identified as bisexual. Here I share some of our take home messages from this work and the work of others for promoting sexual and relationship satisfaction within this relationship dynamic.

Be empathetic to minority stress

Minority stress theory suggests that stigmatized minority groups (such as bisexual folks) experience stress directly associated with their social status and identity as a result of living in a heterocentric society. Some examples of the type of stress that may impact bisexual individuals include sexual orientation-related prejudice, rejection, concealment or even internalized negative feelings about identity due to the way one was raised and the society within which we live. Research that has examined minority stress in bisexual populations has suggested that bias and stigma against bisexual people may be even greater than against gay and lesbian populations, in part due to stigmatization coming from both the straight and queer community.

Acknowledge the benefits of minority identity

Although being part of any minority group comes with a host of challenges, there are some positive components to being part of the queer community, especially if one feels welcome. Far less research has examined these positive aspects of minority identity, but the work that has been done has found that feeling good about, and pride toward, one’s identity can contribute to better psychological health and social functioning. Acknowledging these positive aspects of bisexual identity impacts the health and social functioning of the bisexual individual, their romantic partners and the sexual and relationship satisfaction of the couple.

Outness matters

Research has consistently shown that the extent to which someone is open and honest about their sexual identity to people who are important in their lives significantly impacts their health and social relationships. There is no reason to believe this wouldn’t translate to the health of romantic relationships! Interestingly, our research showed that outness to religious communities and friends were positively associated with higher levels of sexual satisfaction for both members of the couple, but outness to family members for bisexual people who were in mixed-sex relationships actually negatively impacted the satisfaction of the straight-identified partner. We think this might be due to the negativity that the straight partner may experience from their family when this disclosure is made or perhaps criticisms that question the validity of the identity or the security of the relationship on the basis of stereotypes about bisexuality. Despite these stereotypes, bisexual people are just as likely as non-bisexual people to be in long term monogamous relationships.

Celebrate bisexuality as a legitimate identity

Feeling truly seen by those you love is incredibly important to overall well-being. Our research has shown that it is also important for sexual and relationship satisfaction. For participants who felt like their partner really valued their identity, saw them for who they were, and weren’t threatened by that identity, sexual and relationship satisfaction of both members of the couple were stronger. When someone identifies as any sexual minority identity, it is an indication they have been faced with being introspective about their sense of self regarding their sexuality. Sure, some straight people may also go through this level of introspection, but they live in a world that automatically assumes straightness, so if that identity fits, they may not have ever faced really thinking long and hard about it all.  

Overall, when there’s an intimate connection to bisexual identity and that is shared with a partner, sexual and relationship satisfaction may benefit compared to those who feel that their bisexual identity is a distant part of themselves or not acknowledged and respected by their partner. Sexual and relationship satisfaction may suffer for people who hold attitudes that their bisexuality is somehow illegitimate or minimized by long term relationship status. Not only did this impact the bisexual person’s sexual satisfaction, but it also impacted the sexual satisfaction of the partner.

This is all helpful for being supportive to bisexual people you love. But being open and honest and accepting with a partner, no matter their identity, can go a long way in facilitating relational growth and promoting sexual wellness.

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