When it comes to sex and romance, the most commonly touted Holy Grail is to find “The One”. Implicit in that ideal is not only one partner but also one sexual orientation.
What if, however, the dream includes more than one partner? And intimacy with more than one gender?
That’s something Vancouverite Mark Bentley Cohen explored with his wife, Lianna Walden, and he shares what they discovered in his self-published creative-nonfiction book Confessions of a Bisexual Husband, in his one-man show Bi, Hung, Fit…and Married, as a workshop facilitator and counsellor, and as a bisexual-support-group leader.
Cohen, who turns 52 on Valentine’s Day, will celebrate his 20th anniversary with Walden this year. For the past five years, the couple have been in a nonmonogamous marriage. Thet have two teenage children, and Cohen’s own father came out as gay. Several years before opening up their relationship, Cohen had been secretly having sex with men while wrestling with his sexual identity. His book chronicles the emotional and sexual highs and lows that the couple went through as they transitioned from what was, purportedly, a monogamous relationship to one that allowed each partner to explore other sexual relations, either together or individually, outside their marriage.
The flexible relationship that Cohen and Walden forged challenges myths about monosexuality and monogamy.
In an interview at the Georgia Straight office, Cohen points out that people discuss and encourage growing emotionally, professionally, creatively, or interpersonally but often neglect sexual growth.
“If your sexual life together and your personal sexuality has been kept in a box, it will stagnate,” he says. “We see this quite often in any kind of couple, of any kind of orientation.…I hear of so many marriages—gay, straight—that are stagnant, that are sexless.”
Although he feels that most people are more bisexual or sexually fluid than they would dare to think, falling somewhere in between heterosexual and homosexual, he has observed that bisexuality can seem threatening to a sense of identity stability.
“My conclusion is that it really stems from this desire…to be clear within oneself,” he says. “One of the main issues with bisexuality is the [perceived] confusion, and we want to be clear within ourselves. We want to sort of settle on one side or the other.”
It’s not just straight people who fear bisexuality. The B in LGBT tends to be overlooked and even misunderstood or distrusted in many queer communities. Cohen has heard many tales of biphobic discrimination experienced by gay men and lesbians who have later come out as bisexual. Attitudes toward bisexuality also differ depending on gender. Female bisexuality is often more accepted and eroticized than male bisexuality, which tends to be demonized and distrusted. (Consider, for instance, how bisexual female celebrities outnumber male equivalents.)
Once Cohen did come out as bisexual to Walden, he wanted to continue having sex with men but didn’t want to leave his wife.
“Now that I was out as bisexual and was able to explore my sexuality, the need to leave her was no longer there,” he explains. “This need to leave and desire to be on my own was really a need to just authentically express myself, which didn’t have to preclude her.”
Since opening up their relationship, he hasn’t explored much sexually with other women on his own (they have had threesomes and foursomes), as he feels emotionally and sexually satisfied with his wife. It did take Walden some time to explore sex with other men independently of him. Once she did, he felt it alleviated pressure in the relationship, evened out the playing field between the two, and deepened their bond with each other.
“There’s something unbelievably loving and intimate about a partner saying to another partner, ‘I love you and I want you to be happy, and if you would like to pursue something with this other person, then I would like you to have that too because I want you to be happy, and if that’s gonna make you happy, then I’m happy.’ ”
He does admit, though, that it’s not for everyone. In addition to weathering sexual disappointments and awkward situations, both of them have had to deal with intense jealousy, particularly Cohen when Walden had her first sexual experience alone with another man. However, he says that they both embrace that as part of the adventure.
What’s more, Cohen says that a nonmonogamous relationship has made them appreciate each other much more.
“When you are admitting or conscious of the fact that you’re staying with your partner simply because you want to be with your partner and you love your partner, then you can no longer take your partner for granted,” he says. “And I think what happens in a lot of monogamous situations where there is an emotional attachment is you start to take your partner for granted.…You can no longer take that for granted when you know that some other person might come to the door with his A game and a dozen roses, dressed nicely, and really looking to go out and have a good time with your partner while you lie on the couch eating chips and farting and watching TSN.”
Ultimately, though, Cohen’s underlying message is an age-old universal one: be yourself. Whether it’s career, lifestyle, or personal expression, the search to find what works best, regardless of what society dictates, is one that everyone struggles with in various facets of life.
“It’s up to us to be authentic, whoever that is, whatever that is,” he says.