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In looking over John Dehlin’s recent post criticizing the TLC show on Mormons in mixed-orientation marriages, I had a few concerns with his research methodology and discussion. He already discussed in the post the reasons that the sampling is suspect. Peggy Fletcher Stack in her recent article on the TLC controversy and John Dehlin’s contributions to it noted that

The process of finding respondents, known as “snowballing,” while not scientific, is a respected way to study certain issues and populations, Dehlin says. “We worked hard to avoid any bias.”

The snowball sampling makes it fairly dangerous to attempt to generalize the results. This is particularly true because happily married couples with one partner experiencing some degree of same sex attraction generally don’t advertize their situation, just as couples where one of the partners has some degree of indiscreet opposite sex attraction don’t spend a great deal of time advertizing the fact (unless of course one of them has a further problem in which case they become a statistic).

Interestingly, Dehlin attempts to preempt criticisms concerning sampling issues with regards to his blog post by stating that his group has a number of articles in reputable publications in various stages of review and acceptance. This is commendable, but the fact that some subset of the members of his research group managed to use the data set responsibly enough to get a paper through peer review doesn’t necessarily validate his statements on the blog, which itself has not gone through the same variety of review. To determine the relationship between his blog and papers, we would first have to see the complete papers, and see whether the results in the papers are those discussed in the blog, and whether the papers qualify their claims in ways not visible in the blog.

In the following critique, each of the concerns that I highlight will include a quote from Dehlin, and then some of my own comments. Hopefully his published work addresses these issues more carefully than his blog post does.

This finding is significant since many of the well-intended LGBT Mormons (such as those on the TLC show and in North Star) who enter into Mixed-Orientation Marriages and/or celibacy do so out of devotion to their LDS faith — and this religious devotion naturally becomes the foundation for these relationships/decisions.  If these findings hold for modern-day samples, up to 70% or more of these newly-forming mixed-orientation marriages are at high risk of destabilization at some future point, if/when the LGBT partner decides that they are not able to remain faithful to the LDS church.

Dehlin’s concern that many of these relationships are at risk in the event that a partner decides they are not going to remain faithful is a valid one independent of his data. Religious stresses are often a factor in inter-faith relationships, one reason why the church has not historically encouraged inter-faith relationships. Additionally, in this case I think a valid case can be made that orientation challenges can place stress on religious faith as can other challenges with religious implications. However, his nearest survey result doesn’t necessarily have as strong of a bearing on this question. Why? This is a sample containing active, inactive, disfellowshipped, excommunicated and resigned members. Presumably, many of the excommunicated/disfellowshipped/resigned/inactive individuals made some sort of decision that led to their current status, probably having to do (given the sample) with same-sex sexual activities. (I would not want to imply that all did as truly every individual is unique and we all face a variety of challenges, but it seems probable that this is a majority cause.) On the other hand, if someone is active and feels attracted to the same sex there is typically a significant decision that has been made by way of what the person values and prioritizes that itself has significant predictive power and does not imply that they are destined to ultimately follow the same path as those who made the opposite decision. In other words we are dealing with a survivor population, and an analysis of those who didn’t survive (which due to his sampling methodology will be the ones most likely to show up in his sample) may have extremely limited bearing on those who did (as someone who we assume has taken some classes in research methods would understand). Additionally, due to social changes that have happened in the last 30 years or so results obtained for groups of people who began such a marriage at different times may very well have reasons to expect different results—either better or worse than their predecessors. Further, other well-defined groups experience above average rates of marriage dissolution—the poor and interracial couples being notable examples—does he also wish to warn them not to marry if they feel so inclined? His efforts might be better trying to learn how to support rather than discourage his study population, and this will hopefully be a significant focus of at least some of his efforts.

Studies of divorce rates for Mixed-Orientation Marriages (MOMs) range between 50% and 85% (Buxton, 1994; Buxton, 2001; Wolkomir, 2004) — meaning that MOMs in the U.S. are up to three times more likely to end in divorce than are heterosexual marriages.

It may be worth asking whether these statistics are for MOMs where the heterosexual partner was aware of their partner’s orientation beforehand or whether there was an element of deceit going into the marriage. Historically speaking, many individuals (LDS and otherwise) entered marriages without disclosing same-sex attraction; in part because it was poorly understood. It would seem to go without saying that all marriages that are made on misrepresentations are more likely to fail. This fairly correct assumption is also reflected in a set of conventions that often allow for annulment of marriages made on false representations. For example, New York State recognizes “Fraud” as grounds for annulment. Fraud generally means the intentional deception of the Plaintiff by the Defendant in order to induce the Plaintiff to marry. Fraud is also recognized by both Catholics and Anglicans as grounds for annulment. Thus, statistics about MOMs that don’t specifically control for such an important confounder are difficult to interpret, a fact which Dehlin should have mentioned in an effort to use this statistic responsibly. The same critique applies to the statistics in Dehlin’s study of marriage results. If he has controlled for this factor he has not mentioned it in the blog.

We have noticed, for example, that many mixed-orientation marriages end after the children have left home (often at the 20-25 year mark).

This is also a trend in heterosexual marriages, and one may presume that it is for many of the same reasons, although certainly there may very well be reasons particular to any defined group.

Note: Around this time in John’s post there was an image that appeared to show a statistic indicating that non-RM’s have much higher divorce rates in MOMs, which is an interesting twist. Apparently Mixed Orientation Marriages with a non-RM are especially inadvisable.

Dehlin also discusses the Kinsey scale, which can be used to rate homosexual vs. heterosexual proclivities. However, his use of it in the blog left more questions for me than it answered. Maybe these are covered in his papers, but it would have been good to state them here as well.
Regarding his Kinsey scale use, a question that a number of successful mixed orientation marriages pose is: What do you call a man who is attracted to only men, and then meets a woman and develops a sexual attraction to her, but still feels no sexual attraction to any other woman at all, and still feels sexual attraction to many men? Is being attracted to one woman enough to make someone bisexual (notwithstanding the fact that if anything happens to her the set of women he is attracted to is once again empty) or is attraction a little bit more complicated than that? The Kinsey scale deals in generalities, and may not be capable of adequately capturing the distinctions that exist in the lived reality of many in mixed-orientation marriages. An instrument more specifically designed to deal with this group and the situations that frequently arise may be more appropriate. For example, in such an individual does the fact that they are attracted to only a single woman mean that they are only incidentally heterosexual, or does the fact that many of them are sexually monogamous with an opposite sex partner mean they are exclusively heterosexual, and if their partner died would that make them exclusively homosexual or still incidentally heterosexual since there at one time existed a woman that they were attracted to. Thus depending on exactly the questions that were asked in this study, and how subjects interpreted them, the Kinsey scores may be somewhat more difficult to interpret than advertized.

For some a mixed-orientation marriage does indeed mean not feeling a sexual attraction to one’s spouse, and this would clearly involve greater difficulties than when this is not the case. It should also be noted that the church does not encourage people to enter into marriage with an individual to whom they do not feel love and attraction regardless of general orientation. Certainly, one contemplating entering into such a marriage should carefully weigh the decision and fully disclose their situation with their prospective spouse, but if that is ultimately something they feel that they can do they should be supported. I also note that Dehlin puts “lifestyles” in quotes when talking about MOMS. It is generally a good idea not to use typography that appears to question that legitimacy of your study subjects’ life decisions when engaged in purportedly serious research.