For Wives and Significant Others of Transsexuals
A little while back, I received an email from the spouse of a transsexual. She wanted to know if it really was possible to keep a relationship together through transition. She asked some hard and thought-provoking questions, and I felt that I owed her the best response that I could give.
What follows addresses a lot of issues. There is not enough support in our community for wives and significant others of cross-dressers, but the support for wives and significant others of transsexuals seems almost non-existent. This doesn't address all of the issues; particular items that are missing are coming-out issues, repairing broken trust, and dealing with children. I hope that someone, someday, can address these remaining issues in some useful way.
This is one of the hardest of all the issues related to transsexuals. I wish there were some magic I could give you, but there isn't any that I know of. I'm also not sure that I'm the best person to answer this, because I've learned again and again that I've been extraordinarly lucky in this area.
Is it really possible to keep your marriage? Yes, absolutely. People will tell you that the odds are not good, but the fact that you're still there and still working to keep what you have has already improved those odds tremendously. There are no guarantees, but that includes no guarantee of failure and divorce, as well. So much depends on each of you, what you are willing and able to accept, as well as what each of you is able to give up, or to change. As in anything else about relationships, compromise and communication are essential. And compromise really does include both of you; some people have kept their marriages together by giving up transition, although that does require a lot of accommodation; it can't be "shelve the idea and forget about it." By the time it gets to the place where it sounds like the two of you are at, trying to suppress it could be extremely painful. Other transsexuals, including me, have given up the option of surgery. Carol, my partner, simply couldn't answer how she would react to that, and for me, our relationship was worth more than that particular physical change. But there are others who could accept neither of these options, and some of them are still married.
And if it doesn't work out? There will be no judgments, no condemnations from me; just empathy for a lot of deep pain on both sides. Not all of the factors that make this work out are controllable.
I should probably tell you about my own history, at least to set a context for what I say. I've been married twice, and both times I feel that my gender issues may have contributed to divorce, but probably weren't the primary problem. I'm also an abuse survivor, and both my ex-wives were as well. It's not a situation that leads to stable, healthy relationships. After my second divorce, I did a lot of therapy to deal with my issues, and came out of that much healthier emotionally--I liked myself, I was calmer and more tolerant, all of the things that therapy is supposed to help with, except that I still had this one issue that wouldn't go away. It was actually the first time in my life that I had the ability to face it.
It was during that time that I met Carol. At first I didn't want a relationship; I'd heard too many horror stories, and I assumed that I'd have to go through transition alone. But as it became clear that Carol was very interested, I felt that the fair thing to do was to tell her, and let her make up her own mind. So I did. And while it took her by surprise, I wasn't the first transsexual she'd known, either. It took another couple of months of talking before she was ready to see me as Diane, but in the mean time our relationship started getting much more serious. And since that time, we really haven't had many problems.
Why so easy? A lot of things, I think. Carol has known almost from the beginning. She's had to do her own healing as well, so she was perhaps more prepared to deal with a hard issue such as this. We both have a very high tolerance for ambiguity. I think it has helped us both that I went through this without being in crisis mode. It helped that we were able to remain close emotionally and affectionate throughout transition and after. It helped that I'd already dealt with my other issues before we met. It helped that Carol didn't particularly want a "real man" anyway, although she'd always been straight before our relationship began. It helped both of us to keep in mind that there was an end-point to all of this, that the turmoil and change would die down, and that this would not become or remain a dominating issue in our relationship. It helped that we both kept a sense of humor about all of this. It helped that neither of us are rigid about categorizing people.
One thing that Carol has remarked on is how much I changed, and at the same time, how little I changed. In many fundamental ways, I'm still the person that she met and fell in love with originally. There have been moments when it's been hard for her to remember that, and I suspect that this is "normal." Part of those first few months of adaptation for Carol, the time between when she knew and when she "met" Diane, we looked at various aspects of where I was at the time. One day, she looked at my makeup kit. One day she wanted to look in my closet; I showed her my clothes. When I came to one dress, she said that she really liked it, and I answered that I'd worn it to a Christmas party the year before. That ended that session!
There came a point at which she wanted to stop the step-by-step approach, and just go the rest of the way. So she watched as I went through the transformation. I put on makeup first; she said that I looked like "Tom in makeup." Then I put on my favorite dress, and the shock hit. She hadn't expected me to look feminine. I offered to change back immediately, but she said no. Instead, we sat and talked, until she could reassure herself that I was still me.
She's never had a problem with me dressing since then. Some wives do have problems sometimes, and want time set aside to be with their man. This is something that may work for you. It may work only for a while. It's one of those areas of compromise, and only the two of you can find the right answer for you.
In fact, outside of areas that I'll talk about later, Carol hasn't had a problem ever since that night I first dressed in her presence. That includes moving in together, and my transition a month later. That was almost two years ago, and we're still very happy and very close.
In terms of how much and how little I've changed, it's worth going deeper into one area. As I said, I'd already dealt with a lot of my issues before I met Carol. Once upon a time, I was a very closed, angry, depressed individual. Although this had roots in the abuse of my childhood, this description fits a lot of transsexuals as well. Carol never knew that person; she has always known me as an open, tolerant, and safe person. As a result, there was less about me that changed during transition than is true for many transsexuals. For them, opening the door to the woman inside has lifted that cloud of anger and depression, has opened a closed person and let the light of living in.
Does this make a difference? Apparently it can. One couple that I truly thought had survived everything, up to and including surgery, broke up recently, less than a year after surgery. The spouse didn't know her partner any more; there were traces of the man she knew, but not enough. They may end up getting back together, but right now it's all up in the air. Could this have been prevented? I don't know the answer. I don't know if anyone knows that particular answer. The only advice I can offer is to keep the communications open, and trying to find ways to keep pace with each other. That may mean faster than you want, and slower than your partner wants; it may be another of those areas for compromise, if things are to work out.
OK, it's time to get into that very sensitive area of sexuality. Where Carol and I have had problems, this has been where they've happened.
I'm normally a very private person, but when it comes to support issues I'm usually very open. Whatever questions you may want to ask in this area, I doubt that you'll offend me. If I need to maintain my boundaries, I will do so, but gently. But at the same time, you and I don't know each other, so I'll walk around this as carefully as I can, while still giving you what I can that may answer some of your questions.
One issue that wives often raise is, "I'm not a lesbian." And that's true; any woman who has been in a relationship with a man and has been even "reasonably satisfied" with it is almost certainly not a lesbian. What can be harder to accept, especially from the person in the mirror, is bisexuality. We tend to like putting things in neat categories, and "bisexual" doesn't fit that way. What it amounts to is finding a balance point between being attracted to the person, and being attracted to their gender. For some bisexuals, gender doesn't matter; for others, gender is important but not limiting.
I mention this because it may very well become an issue for you. Carol has frequently said that she doesn't like men in any way except sexually. (This is part of bisexuality, too; social or romantic attractions may not necessarily line up with sexual attractions.) She has adapted fairly easily to most of my changes.
Although Carol recognizes the lesbian aspects of our relationship, she doesn't see it as a lesbian relationship, or herself as a lesbian. She describes our relationship as "other." It works for her, and it's OK with me.
It isn't talked about much directly, but my feeling is that for a relationship to survive transition, the spouse probably has some degree of bisexuality, acknowledged or not. Someone guessed the other day that there may be around 150 to 250 legally married same-sex couples in the U.S.; these would be marriages that have survived both transition and surgery. There are certainly more relationships that have survived, but those would include non-married couples and couples where the transsexual partner did not follow through all the way to surgery, for whatever reason. But as long as either transition or hormones are involved, it's hard to consider a relationship as still being purely heterosexual.
Hormones. Is that a scary issue for you? I can believe that it would be. It's a hugely important issue for us. You may hear of it largely in terms of breasts, but there's more to it than that. They make subtle changes in the face that make a huge difference in ability to pass as a woman. They cause loss of muscle mass and changes in fat distribution, also with affect on passability. There are emotional changes, including lower aggression and more emotional sensitivity. There are changes that are even more subtle and much harder to describe; there is a feeling of "rightness" or of "coming home," a feeling of being at peace with one's self in a way that simply wasn't possible before. If a person is truly transsexual, hormones will (usually?) significantly reduce one's gender identity discomfort.
Hormones will have a huge impact on sexuality. Is this in any way predictable? Maybe, maybe not. All I can tell you about is my own experience and things I've heard from others; there are no studies to back up any of this except on the issue of orientation, and I don't find those studies to be reliable.
Some people report a blossoming of sexuality. My feeling is that most of these people were probably close to being asexual before hormones. Some people report a complete loss of sexuality. I don't remember anyone saying this who was involved in a relationship; in my experience, this has come entirely from people who are not involved in relationships, and I do think this is significant. Some people, including me, have felt a huge change in sexuality, and I'm fairly sure that every person who has said this has been either in a relationship or otherwise sexually active during the change.
What kind of change? Like trying to describe a color to someone who cannot see it (something I also have experience with, on the receiving end, unfortunately), I don't think there's any way to describe what sexuality feels like. What the change feels like to me is a change toward what I've always understood female sexuality to be like. It's less directly physical, more difuse, more oriented towards touch and communication, slower to build, slower to drop off. There's no more "grunt, roll over, snore." It has been a visible change, too; Carol is very much aware of it.
As I said, I think the fact that I'm in a relationship has an interaction here. This kind of sexuality is an incredible change from what I used to feel, and it is definitely connected with love and affection, much more than male sexuality. Would I have been able to detect my new sexuality if I had not been in a relationship, particularly after a lifetime on testosterone? I really don't know.
As I've mentioned, Carol did have some problems related to all of this. The easy one first: For quite a while, particularly when the surgery question was still open, she was concerned that I might want to experiment with men. I was fairly sure that this wouldn't happen, and in fact I've had no interest in that area. But there was no way that I could tell Carol that this would happen; it was simply a period of uncertainty that she had to cope with. The only proof is in the living of it.
Some might disagree with this, but I tend to think that hormones don't have a significant affect on sexual orientation. I also think that the distribution of sexual orientation is different for trans people than it is for the general population. You do see changes in people's expression of sexual orientation, but in many of these cases I think there was an underlying bisexuality to begin with, along with some social expectations or conformity. The people who have their first real sexual awakening with hormone therapy fit into this picture differently; perhaps it's fair to say that their orientation has been dormant as well. (And perhaps not!) But it is certainly true that there are a large number of us whose orientation never wavers.
(When speaking of trans people, I find it safer to talk about orientation in terms of "towards men" or "towards women." Saying that one is straight or gay implies a fixed gender identity that trans people don't have! In the usual sense, I used to be straight and am now rather queer, but I certainly haven't felt a change in my orientation.)
The more difficult problem that Carol and I had is also difficult to discuss delicately. Perhaps it is sufficient to say that there is a strong connection between testosterone and male sexual capability. Break that link and there are.... consequences. It hasn't been a complete loss, but nothing is reliable any more. It came as a huge surprise to me that Carol felt my loss more keenly than I did. It was another huge surprise that she had such a hard time dealing with my loss. It's something that we spent a lot of time talking about, and those talks weren't always easy. But we have adjusted, and as with other things, it hasn't been a continuing issue or source of turmoil.
That leads fairly directly into perhaps the most difficult of your questions. What happened to the male spouse you love? It's interesting that you phrase it that way; there is a significant difference between "male" and "man." This is one reason that I spent some time above relating my own history to you; the man that I "thought I was" or that I "tried to be" disappeared by stages. And yet, a lot of those changes were due to dealing with anger and depression. Underneath that pain was a kinder and gentler person. A man? A woman? Or just me?
This is also why I mentioned that Carol said that so much had changed about me, and so little. Fundamentally, transition changes one thing, and one thing only. Yes, it's huge, and it expands into every area of life. But the other things didn't change. I still have the same job and the same friends. I still listen to the same music, read the same books, enjoy and cook the same kinds of food, express my love and caring in the same ways, and so on. The man went away, and a woman took his place, but through all of that, I was the same person.
Is this what you want to happen? Is this something that you could accept? Only you can answer that, and the only right answer is the one that is true for you. Is this what you see happening? That's actually a lot harder to assess, and it's not only because you are so close to the situation.
All of us get to go through puberty, at least once in our lives. For many of us, it's pretty stressful and unpleasant. We really haven't had a chance to find out who we are, and even as we're searching, our "self" is changing in ways that we don't understand. It can be a period that seems to last forever, but in fact it does last long enough for us to do the exploration that we have to do, and to learn at least a few of the things that we need to know. It happens at an age when we have the luxury of making a few mistakes, and people around us are usually tolerant of that to some degree.
Transsexuals get to go through puberty a second time. It is a very different experience than the first time, because it is something that we've longed for, and because it happens in a very compressed time scale, with a lot of growing and learning that has to happen in a relatively short time. It also happens at an age when the people around us expect us to be much more settled into our lives, and when mistakes or appearing "out of character" are much less tolerated.
It may help to remember that puberty is a developmental process, whether it happens at 12 or at 50. For a transsexual, it is also a time when a tremendous repression gets lifted, and there will be the wide variety of feelings, of experimentation, of searching for new experiences, that we all went through the first time. As I said, it happens rapidly and in a compressed time period. Your spouse is both a mature husband and a teen-age girl, and yes, it's confusing!
Just as with teen-agers, who generally grow out of their angst and confusion to become mature and responsible adults, your spouse will pass through this stage. Who will she be when that is done? Just as with teen-agers, she will not be the worst or most difficult things that you are experiencing right now. She has to find herself, and if you stay with her through transition, that is the person you will find yourself living with. There may be more of the person that you've known all along, and less of the man, than you expect. Right now is probably not a good time to predict, for you, or for her.
Yes, these changes are real. I once told myself that I wouldn't want to be a woman unless I could be beautiful. Well, I'm not beautiful; trust me on that. I once could not imagine ever wearing flats, or slacks or jeans, and yet those are the clothes that I live in these days. The clothes are important, for a signficiant period of time, and for significant reasons. When we are trying to reach the woman inside, sometimes clothes are her lifeline. But once we finally connect, the clothes are no longer necessary for her to feel alive. At that point, we can begin to settle into dressing habits that are more comfortable and natural, as well as more appropriate to our age and our lives. Again, it is a developmental process, and it has to follow its own course.
This is how it happens with many things. There are male and female stereotypes. You may or may not be happy with the female stereotypes, and you may or may not follow them. But the important point is that you know them, you've lived with them all your life, and you know how to break them when you want and still remain both yourself and a woman. All of these are things that your spouse must learn for herself. In anything, you cannot break the rules safely until you understand those rules and know how to follow them. So when you see your spouse falling into those stereotypes, remember that it's "just a phase." She'll grow out of it, more than likely.
How do you cope? Is it worth staying around for all of this to run its course? I can't answer that; as I said at the beginning, there is no magic to make everything right, or even to know what "right" might mean. You have your wants and needs, and those are valid. You have a right to decide whether those wants and needs are being met, or whether you expect that they will be met again in the future. You have a right to decide what you're willing to accept and to give up in order to get there. Taking care of yourself and of your needs is crucial not only for you, but also for your relationship.
The other difficulties? Going out in public is a hard one. It's scary for us, too, and one of the things we have to learn is that most people really don't care. There are also difficult times. Carol has been rather protective of me, sometimes more than I wanted, sometimes to the point of confronting people who are making those comments. But this is Carol; this is her way of dealing with it. And there are times when she doesn't want that to happen, when she doesn't want to deal with reactions. Once again, communication becomes crucial; she lets me know if she feels that way, and even if I'm in a mood where I don't care if I'm passing, I'll make sure that I'm passing as well as I can, for her sake.
Passing is one of the hardest aspects to get a handle on. Very little of it relies on clothes and makeup. Hormones have their influence on the body. There's the voice, which for most of us is the hardest of all, but which can be learned and retrained. There are all the behavioral aspects, and different communication patterns between male and female, but these can also be learned. One thing that is hard for people to come to terms with (true not only of transsexuals but also of our friends and family), and that is the role that self-confidence plays in passing. If we're doing a reasonable job with the other aspects, self-confidence, or more to the point, self-consciousness, can still make or break. And there's no way to get past that point except through practice. You may be able to support or coach or guide your spouse through some of these changes, but some of these things simply have to happen on their own.
How do we know when we're passing, or not? It isn't always easy. Some people are going to stare at a woman, regardless. If your spouse is tall and large, as I am, some people are going to stare because of that. Neither one of these means that anyone is getting read; it simply means that you're being stared at. Probably the most effective guage of passing is to watch the reactions of teen-age girls and of toddlers. These groups are usually the most aware of other people's gender presentation, the most curious, and the most obvious about their assessments. If they're not paying attention, then things are going well.
I understand not wanting to get stared at, directly or by association. I was very much afraid of losing my privacy in public places, and--probably because I am not beautiful--that loss really hasn't happened. And most people aren't going to pay much attention anyway.
Still, comments will happen. As much as possible, I deal with them by ignoring them. It isn't always easy. I have to remind myself that the people who are making those comments are being rude, and that such behavior doesn't deserve the dignity of a response.
And to get back to the self-confidence issue, it's something that is important in so many ways. It means a great deal to me to have come to terms with who I am, so that I no longer feel ashamed of being transsexual, or feel that I have to hide it. It's not that I push it in people's faces; far from it! I simply like being who I am, and what has always been true for people in general now works in my favor: If I like who I am, that comes across in my presentation. I believe that people are more comfortable around me because of that, whether they're aware of it or not. In its own way, that makes the passing issue fade into the background. It just took a long time to reach this point.
Lastly, your family and their difficulties with all of this.
There can be many reasons why family members have a hard time accepting, and some of those may turn out to be very familiar to you. They may fear that you will get hurt, and that is a valid and reasonable concern. Carol's daughter worried about this. The only way I know to deal with this is to acknowledge it and talk about it openly. There will be times during your spouse's transition that you can't know what the outcome will be. And yet you stay. Why? Because it would hurt more to leave.
That comes from a lot of things, from loving and caring, to all the time and energy and the parts of yourself that you have invested in your relationship, in your home, in your life together. It's simply recognizing that even as you see it all change before your eyes, it still means a lot to you.
It hurts to see all of that change. Even though there is little enough of certainty in this life, it hurts to see something you thought of as constant and reliable slipping away. And your family sees that, too. To the extent that they care about you, they will also worry about you and for you.
It's important to remember that they know your spouse as a person, not just as your husband. Suddenly he's not the person that they thought they knew. Whatever else they may feel, they feel a loss, and a loss needs grieving. There is an aspect of death and rebirth in our transitions; this applies not only to us as transsexuals but also to our relationships with everyone we know.
That may be true for you as well. It may not seem to be the right term, to grieve for the loss of someone who is beside you every day. On the other hand, it is true that things will never be what they used to be, even with the best possible outcome from all of this. You have losses, and losses need grieving.
Grieving does not mean that it's all over, only that some things are truly past. Other things may not be gone, including a renewal of your relationship.
Yet another reason for family rejection may be simply that they cannot accept, for reasons of their own. There is little for this but patience and hope and love. Sometimes they will come around, and perhaps that happens when they are ready to overcome their feelings of loss. Periodically letting them know that you are still there and still care will leave them an opening for return.
The only thing to do with all of these things is to give them time. Time and patience and love, and information when they ask for it. Share with them how things are going, for better and for worse.
In so many ways, time is key for all of us. This is a transition, and a period of growth and change, for your spouse, for you, for others touched by all of this. Transition will come to an end, and life will go on. What matters for you, as well as for your spouse, is to find the path that is right for you. Only you can decide what that means. But to find that path one must also know what is possible, and I hoped that what I have said will help with your journey and your choices.
My best wishes for both of you.
For additional support for spouses and signficant others, see When You Love The One You're With...
Copyright © 1997, 2001 by Diane Wilson. All rights reserved.