Relationships in transition

Often times, when a couple experiences one partner coming out as transgender or gender questioning, it feels like the world has turned upside down.  For all parties involved, there’s a sense that the life you were leading, or the life you THOUGHT you were leading, is suddenly all called into question.

In the work I do with people of trans experience and their loved ones, I see certain themes often emerge.  Specifically, fears of 3 significant types of losses come up, and I’ll explore each of them in this post.

Firstly, there’s fear of loss of connection.  I’m writing about this one first, because there are so many layers to this one.  Of course, as humans, we’re hard-wired to crave connection to others, so this fear strikes at the core of many.  Both the trans-identified partner and the cis partner in the relationship experience significant fear of losing the relationship, the connection with their partner.  All kinds of uncertainty arises, for both parties, about what things will be like after one of the partners in the relationship comes out fully and/or transitions. There’s no way to predict the future, to know what exactly will arise in this process; and while this can be understood on an intellectual level, it wreaks havoc on people on an emotional level.  Fears of abandonment, for all parties involved, are felt. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the fear of loss of connection w/the other partner’s family and mutual friends during the transition journey. Weighing the strain of navigating a relationship in transition against the potential losses along the way is no easy task for anyone involved. It’s important for each partner in the relationship to have support in navigating this, whether that’s through support groups,  therapy, or the support of trusted loved ones.

Then there’s the fear of loss of community.  Like the fear of loss of connection, this also has many layers to it.  For starters, let’s look at sexual orientation. People who identify as a sexual minority often rely on a sense of belonging, identification within the LGB community, and that community can become one’s chosen family.  If

one partner of a previously perceived lesbian couple engages in a binary transition to live life as a male; partners often struggle with wondering that means for both partners’ sexual orientation? What does this mean for how they are perceived? If the non-transitioning partner has long identified herself as a lesbian, does she face rejection amongst the lesbian community, now that her partner is out as a man?   How much does this even matter?

Another aspect of this particular fear is a potential loss of one’s faith community.  For both cis and trans-identified partners in a relationship, the ties to certain faith communities may be strained by the act of transitionining and/or coming out as trans. Depending on one’s circumstances, the fear of losing one’s faith community can be particularly devastating, as it can mean a loss of connection, a spiritual home, and one’s identity.

Finally, there’s the very significant fear of loss of communication.  Relationships of all varieties require good communication to be healthy and satisfying for all parties involved. Being in a relationship in which one partner is gender questioning and/or transitioning requires even more consistent open and clear communication, to maintain a strong partnership.  And the nature of that communication often shifts over time, as one partner progresses in their transition journey. And these conversations are not easy, and often avoided or strained. For understandable reasons, as one partner comes out as trans, the non-trans partner experiences a host of questions, concerns, and uncertainties that they probably don’t readily feel comfortable discussing with their partner.  On top of that, it’s hard to find someone else who really gets what this experience is like, so it can be difficult to find supportive communication outside of the relationship. The fear of being judged, misunderstood, or told how to handle this often discourages the non-transitioning partner from ever reaching out to talk to someone. For this very reason, this year, I’ve started a free monthly partners support group in my practice.  In this space, the cis-identified partners can openly share their experiences and support one another through the good times and the bad.

If you’re struggling with navigating the experience of a spouse or partner in transition, please know that support is not only available to you, but immensely important in your coping process. This experience brings up a lot of thoughts, feelings, and self-reflection that can be overwhelming to process by yourself.  I encourage you to reach out to others rather than going it alone; be it loved ones, or mental health professionals like myself. If you’re local to CT, I invite you to contact me to get support in therapy, and/or join my free monthly support group, the SPOT specifically for spouses and partners of trans-identified individuals.