Take a deep breath
Then breathe again. Again and again until you recognize that you, from your head all the way down to your feet, are still connected to the Earth. You must remember that you’re firmly attached to the ground because there is a flood of considerations heading your direction and you must brace yourself.
You may have seen horror stories after searching Google and checking out online support groups. It might seem impossible that you can make it through this revelation as a couple, or, even as amicable colleagues. Tear your eyes away from those and breathe.
Pull oxygen into your lungs and expand your rib cage. Otherwise you’ll drown. Focus on the everyday, not that huge gaping chasm where the future you imagined once lived.
You have your work to worry about.
You have your children to worry about.
You have your spouse to worry about.
No one’s world stops spinning because something has happened to change it, and life is full of changes. Remember that, too. Nothing stays the same. You aren’t the same people you were when you met, you won’t be the same people in a decade or more. This is another change to weather and you can weather it.
You can’t control this, but you can control yourself
Your spouse is transgender. It isn’t a choice they’ve made and they aren’t doing this to hurt you, your children, or anyone else. You’re scared and so are they — they’re terrified. This is a truth they’ve hidden deep inside themselves and they know you could turn around and walk right out the door and never come back. They know it is your right to do so. They’ve processed those fears and come to the conclusion that it is better to be themselves and lose everything than it is to live a lie any longer.
Even a year after my wife began to transition, it’s still hard to process holding inside myself something so strong and painful that it would be better to lose everything than to keep it hidden.
Their identity is outside of your control and so is their need to transition. It’s terrifying to be out of control. It’s like you were taking a trip to Las Vegas for a fun getaway and they’ve hopped into the driver’s seat and turned the car around. Now you’re going to Washington DC to speak to Congress and there’s nothing you can do about it.
But there are things within your control.
You choose how to respond to the news and you choose how to move forward each day.
You are hurt because your spouse, with no malice in their heart, has still hidden something from you and perhaps even lied to you. You are afraid because you don’t know what this means for your future. You are angry because this is not the way life was supposed to be and why does everything have to be so hard? You may even be confused because you live in a place where no one talks about LGBTQIA+ issues.
You can choose to handle this with decorum and real love in your heart, even through the hurt and fear.
You love this person, that’s why you married them, and they are still the same person they were a week ago. No matter what the future brings, you owe it to them and yourself to keep the lines of communication open. Hold back the anger and judgement until it can be examined. Apologize if you said something hurtful in the heat of the moment because none of us are perfect.
Our society isn’t kind towards the LGBTQIA+ community and that lack of kindness seeps into our pores and settles within our hearts. Even members of the community and allies have internalized phobias to work through. You have a choice whether to give in and let those bits of prejudice and hatred consume you or to face them head on, no matter how uncomfortable, so you can grow, learn, and change.
Communication is the only way you’ll get through this together
Your marriage is a living, breathing, changing thing.
It is a decision for two people to live as one in their every day lives and the eyes of the law. It’s a joining. It’s a choice both of you have made. A healthy marriage is a series of negotiations and compromises made everyday and a promise that, as you look out for yourself, you will look out for your spouse too.
Transition is a deeply personal thing. For two people functioning as one, it can feel like the scale has tipped dramatically in one person’s direction, leaving the other alone and floundering. Both of you have needs, and this is why you need to Communicate.
The capital C is there for a reason.
There can be no relationship without compromise and no compromise if only one or no one speaks up.
If there is an LGBTQIA+ literate/allied couples counselor available in your area and you have the ability to pay, you should consider seeking their services. Ideally, there’d be three neutral parties involved. One for you, one for your spouse, and one for your marriage because your marriage is like a person in and of itself. But we don’t live in ideal times and the burden of communication might fall on both your already heavily weighted shoulders.
Remember once again that you love this person and that is why you married them, that is your common ground. That is the neutral zone. That is your oasis.
Mourn the future you thought you’d have but don’t become stuck in it
From the time we’re little, we’re asked to imagine the future. What will you be when you grow up? Our parents stack their expectations on us. We add our own to that pile. We come up with hopes and dreams. Some of them fall off like cherry blossoms in the spring while others stick to us and become a part of our drive. Maybe even a part of our identities.
Your future is going to change now. It feels unfair, and that’s because it is. It’s unfair to both of you. It’s so, so, very unfair. In a perfect world, your spouse would have been out, loved, and respected already. This wouldn’t be so sticky and difficult. They never would have had to hide from anyone, especially not their spouse.
Cry for that future you thought you’d have in the way you’d cry over any circumstances that took it away from you. Wrap yourself up in a ball and sob, then stand up and take a step forward.
Your path forward isn’t going to be easy and it is going to be filled with a myriad of conflicting emotions. All of those emotions are valid. It might seem easier to focus on the future you’ve lost instead of the one you can’t see, but to get through, you’re going to have to move.
You can ask for time and set boundaries, but you can’t deny what your spouse needs
Gender dysphoria is a beast cis-gender folks cannot understand. Your spouse’s body doesn’t feel right to them and they may hate the things about themselves that you love most. Losing those things, even if they are physical things, can feel like you’re losing the person you fell in love with. No one falls in love with just a body or just a brain. We fall in love with the whole person.
The beautiful baritone voice you adore, the one that spoke your vows, the one that welcomed your child into the world and sang him to sleep? It might be the thing that sets off their dysphoria and self loathing.
As spouses, we can ask for time to grieve. We can ask them to take smaller steps. We can set boundaries around little things, like whether or not they’re allowed to wear our clothing, but we can’t tell them what to do. If their voice keeps them up at night crying, no matter how much we love it, we have to let them change it. If they need to change faster than we can process it for the benefit of their mental health, we must step back.
Our love is not a weapon we can wield to shove them back in the closet. We can’t put conditions on their transition.
All we can do is ask for compromise and understand if it isn’t possible.
Your life is in transition too
This is your spouses’ transition, yes, but at the same time you and your perception of yourself will change. And it’s hard. As a spouse, you have the double duty of supporting your partner through this frightening time, while also fording the waters yourself even though you can’t see what’s on the other side.
Transition changes how others see you.
Transition changes how you see yourself.
Transition changes the dynamics of your marriage and all the relationships you’ve cultivated as a couple.
Things are scary out there. You may worry about you and your spouses’ safety. You may worry about your children’s safety and well being at school. You may worry about losing your family, your friends, your social standing, and/or your church. Your core beliefs may be challenged by this transition.
Your partner has spent months and years facing these fears and has come to the conclusion that transition was better than the alternative of self-disgust and depression.
Now, you are faced with all of these fears and on top of it, you’re on an accelerated timeline. Life must go on, your partner needs to transition, and you have shared obligations. There’s also pressure for you to put on a smiling face and not falter in your support.
Some believe you should never voice your fears to your spouse. You should never say what you are worried about. You should never tell them about the stress you’re now under. Your spouse’s transition has nothing to do with you.
Find someone outside the home, they say. Your spouse has it hard enough already, their mental health is already delicate, and they don’t need the burden of your pain and fear as well. If you explore support boards like the Reddit sub “My Partner is Trans” or venture on to Twitter, you may run into this attitude as I did.
If either you or your spouse believes this, your relationship will fail. I’ve seen it play out before and it’s an ugly thing.
Marriage is two people acting as one.
Your hurts belong to your spouse. Their hurts belong to you.
You can function as an individual. They can function as an individual. But your marriage cannot function if you’re proverbial ships passing each other in the night. You must both be active participants in the transition and you both must be responsive to each other’s needs.
If one partner refuses to bend, the relationship is no longer healthy.
You will have to explore your own identity and what sex means now
Your heterosexual marriage is either about to become a same sex marriage or your same sex marriage is about to become a heterosexual marriage. Or, a third option, it will become something we don’t even have a word for yet because our language has yet to catch up with our identities.
Sex might be uncomfortable. It may stop completely. You might find yourself okay with sex one moment, and not okay with it the next. Your spouse’s body is going to change and if they choose to go on hormones or undergo surgeries, things are going to work differently, too.
Whatever you feel, it is valid, and you should explore those feelings.
Your sexuality is going to come into question and you’re going to have to challenge your perception of yourself. You’ll have to put your life under a microscope and decide whether your sexuality is fluid or rigid, and then you’re going to have to communicate.
How important is sex in your relationship? Can you meet each other’s sexual needs? Are either of you open to polyamory or threesomes? Are you willing to explore different ways of having sex? Are both of you willing to communicate and respect each other’s bodies and wishes even if things change during sex?
All of these questions you’ll have to answer if you’re going to remain a couple.
Love isn’t just a noun, it is a verb
Children are born with love the noun and as they grow and they learn what hatred is, what prejudice is, it becomes a verb — something they must choose to do. Romantic relationships are a choice we have made to treat someone else with great respect and regard for who they are as a person. Even with this respect and regard, we are not free from prejudice and hatred. We must make the effort to continue to choose to love.
For some, choosing to love means choosing to let go. It’s okay to say you cannot walk this road. It is okay to say you need space, that this wasn’t what you chose when you got married. Sometimes the most loving thing a couple can do for each other is to step away before either hurts the other more. Transition, like the birth of a child, will widen any cracks that existed before and shine a spotlight on any weaknesses in your relationship. Sometimes two people who love each other have to admit that they can no longer function as one.
But the relationship doesn’t have to fail.
For my wife and I, choosing to love meant staying together and working through the hurt even if we didn’t have the money or ability to go through counseling together. It meant me having to stretch my boundaries to allow her to grow into herself, and her slowing down to meet me somewhere in the middle of both our comfort zones.
It meant patience and forgiveness on my wife’s part while I took care of my mental health. It meant me taking steps forward while my brain signaled for me to turn back and run.
It’s been work. It’s still work. There are cracks that weren’t there before, but like kintsugi we’re filling them in to create something even more beautiful.
There is so much more I could say
And perhaps I will. I can’t recommend any specific support groups because I find many to be problematic and that’s the subject of a future article. But, if you’re new to gender fluidity and transgender identities, or just in need of solid information, I urge you to check out PFlag and other advocacy resources for medically accurate and research backed information. This information is geared towards parents, but it’s invaluable. Gender affirmation saves trans lives. Lives like the spouses we love so much.
Note: This is geared towards cis spouses of transgender individuals because that is my experience. I’ve read stories of transgender and non-binary spouses whose spouses also came out. I’ve read stories of a member of a poly group coming out. Their needs and experiences are also incredibly important, but not something I can speak to. I hope if you are not the cis spouse of a transgender individual, this can help you too.