Transitioning After Marriage
There is no denying that coming out as transgender can be pretty daunting. The fear of losing people while still desperately needing to be true to yourself can be an extreme push and pull. Luckily, most people find that the reward far outweighs the risks, and they go on to live their lives to the full.
However, when you have already been married to someone for a certain amount of time and now find yourself in need of coming out, it can change the dynamic. You are changing the rules of the game and, in some cases taking a spouse completely by surprise (although this is not always the case).
The truth is that each and every one of these experiences is entirely unique, and there is no real way to generalize it. There are too many individual factors that play a role. In this article, we will try to cover as many of these factors as possible to paint a picture of some possibilities and outcomes to consider.
Unfortunately, much of the article might come across as gender binary; this is not intentional. When you research the topic further, you will also find that most cases come from older adults who still hold a binary view on terminology, if not gender itself, so there are some binary words that are commonly related to the topic. As far as possible, we will also include gender non-conforming and non-binary elements of the dynamic as well.
Exploring the Two Extremes For Partner Reactions
From Complete Acceptance to Immediate Divorce
The first extreme reaction is usually that the marriage or relationship ends on the spot. This is probably what most transgender people fear when having to come out to their husband or wife. And unfortunately, this is a reality for most couples, especially if they have been married for a long time.
When people have been married for a long time, they often also identify as best friends, and this is when it can be really difficult for them to come to terms with losing their partner. It can also be extremely difficult for the partner to walk away from a marriage. And it might be a case where a partner stays in the marriage only because of the commitment that they made but generally are unhappy and do not accept the situation.
The extreme alternative is that your spouse can be completely accepting and supportive. In fact, sometimes it is your spouse who already knows that you are transgender and can help you to realize who you are. And while this is an ideal situation, it is not often the reality. Obviously, the vast majority of experiences will be somewhere on a spectrum between these two extremes.
Suppressed Gender Dysphoria
And How It Usually Resurfaces
The overarching cause of undergoing gender transition later in life is suppressing dysphoria related to your gender earlier in life.
People suppress their gender dysphoria for a variety of reasons. Some have very conservative and obviously unsupportive families, and they cannot face the ridicule or the possibility of losing these family members.
Others might find that they cannot cope with societal pressures associated with life as a trans person. Shame is a common reaction to realizing you are outside the "norm" and unfortunately, this is a reaction that our societal past has encouraged for many generations. It is something that we are only now beginning to break.
People also suppress dysphoria because they do not understand it. Especially if they are past their youth, chances are that they grew up before transgender rights were talked about the way that it is today. You will likely encounter some people who transitioned later in life who say that they did not know that trans people existed, let alone that they were one.
The internet has made access to this type of information much more readily available and has influenced much of how the world, especially young people, think about most things. Many people who suppressed this part of themselves might only be rediscovering it now, in their middle age, or even later than that.
Coming out as transgender when you have a spouse and two children (for example), is much different from coming out as transgender when you are in your teens or early twenties.
Sometimes addressing dysphoria later in life will start slowly. A male partner will start to wear female clothes at home occasionally. Maybe initially for about an hour here and there, then for longer. If this is unexpected behavior for your husband or wife, it could catch you by surprise, but it generally is not all that major, and many women can overlook it.
For women to dress in men's clothes is not nearly as frowned upon, so a husband or wife might not even think anything of this at all. It is when behavior escalates beyond this that questions will be asked, and the story will really begin to unfold and reach a point where transition needs to be decided on.
Your Spouse and their Sexual Orientation vs. Your Gender Identity
One of the big challenges that a marriage will face when one party comes out as transgender is that the other will need to face their own sexual orientation. Most married couples (not all, but most), are either heterosexual or gay. This means that when a partner decides to transition, they have to face the fact that the partner is now a gender that they are not necessarily attracted to.
This proves to be too much for some, especially heterosexual, cisgender men. It is the main reason for many cases of divorce among this population.
Let us explore this for just a moment. This is not just about things like gender roles; in fact, it goes deeper than that. If the trans person in the relationship opts to pass, they are essentially asking their spouse to present themselves as an orientation that they are not. As you can imagine, this is where the really difficult part of the topic comes in. Is it ever okay to expect someone to live as an orientation that they just aren't? Because we all know that you do not choose what you are attracted to in another. No one can choose not to be gay the same way that no one can choose to be gay.
Those who choose to stay have a huge challenge ahead of them. They have to reimagine their sexual attraction completely. And for many, their spouse will likely become the outlier of what they are attracted to. What often saves this kind of marriage is that people do not marry for sex or sexual attraction; they more often marry for emotional attraction.
Furthermore, no matter what the internal circumstances are, your spouse will lose friends and can fall out with their family. If the marriage breaks, then friends will be lost because some will not approve of the spouse leaving. If the marriage holds, then friends will be lost because they will not understand how the spouse can stay.
Family will be more difficult because it is often closer and messier. And this will be worse if the family also questions the orientation of the spouse on top of everything else. "I thought you were straight, now you are going to be with another woman?" or, "I thought you were gay, does this now mean you are het?" are common reactions to a spouse who chooses to stay in a marriage where their partner is transitioning.
In the end, a hard thing to accept becomes that no one chooses who or what they are sexually attracted to, and asking someone to be considered gay when they really are not, is not fair. As is the case with asking someone who is transgender not to be. This becomes even more complicated when you identify as non-binary, non-conforming, or fluid.
There can be a lot of uncertainty about where the relationship stands now. There might be questions about where things went "wrong", or what happened to make you feel this way. Your partner might question whether they did something wrong to make you feel this way. It is important to address these kinds of questions in your relationship when you come out.
The Premise of a Romantic Relationship
The Building Blocks of Love
The underlying premise of any romantic relationship really is trust. While this seems obvious in theory, it is often less so in practice. It can often be overlooked among other important pillars such as attraction.
Unfortunately, however, feelings of betrayal are common among spouses when their partner comes out as transgender. Some have lived their lives unsuspecting, and the revelation can be extremely jarring. It can feel like a betrayal, as if they, too, have been living a lie or as if the marriage was built on a lie.
On the flip side, there are others who are not so unsuspecting and who might have been more aware of your gender dysphoria than you were. Even in this case, however, it can be a huge adjustment to make.
Couples therapy can help, it will be helpful if you already have a secure and good marriage, and it will help if you can really talk to each other about anything. But in the end, the outcome will rely entirely on highly individualistic things. The reason why therapy, either as a couple or individually, can be helpful is that therapists are equipped with vocabulary and techniques that help you navigate uncertain ground and explore how you are feeling in an environment where your feelings can be contained.
Respecting Emotional Pain
While finally being able to admit your gender identity and to live true to yourself can be extremely liberating and can lift years worth of depression, it can be quite the opposite for your partner.
Even in a case where they are happy for you and are fully supportive, there will be things that they struggle with. They loved the person that you were before transitioning, and they are now losing that person. It is something that trans people should be aware of in a marriage and should try to respect. It is essential to have a good support network for these issues. They can be pretty painful for both parties.
At the end, when one partner transitions, they are not necessarily becoming a different person, but they will certainly look and sound completely different, and inevitably, some things will change. So no matter how you slice it, change will occur, and loss will be felt.
There are many different versions of the transition story available out there, and while some of them are inspirational and clearly supportive, there are others that are difficult to read. Sometimes the emotional fallout is so much and so intense in a relationship where a husband or wife comes out as trans later in life that irreparable damage is done, and even if the spouse stays with them, the relationship is never really the same, and the pain permeates much of the rest of their lives.
There is no hard and fast demographic here that stands out, and it affects anyone from gay men to cisgender women. However, there is a disproportionate number of cases where a husband will be the one who leaves when a female partner comes out as transgender. This is most likely due to male stereotypes and not being able to ever think about being with another male or someone who is not obviously female.
Because sexuality for women is more easily accepted, it is perhaps easier for them to stay in relationships where they were married years ago, and their partner is now coming out as transgender. It can also be seen in more pop culture, for example, The Danish Girl (which is based on a true story).
What Happens to your Sex Life?
And How To Preserve It
This is also something that is extremely individualistic for different couples. In the end, as mentioned before, you do not choose your orientation. This can complicate the sex life of a married couple where one person has transitioned.
When sexual orientation is less of an issue, and people can still enjoy intimacy and sex following a transition, then many report that their sex lives are much better after transition because their partner is more confident and feels much better about their body and their gender identity.
Furthermore, the hormone replacement therapy can also influence libido one way or the other. It also tends to change how orgasms feel, especially testosterone. Depending on your natural hormone and neurotransmitter levels, hormone replacement can either decrease or heighten your libido. If you are having trouble adjusting to this, you can choose to switch hormone brands or change the dose. But it might take a while to find something that works for you, and this can also result in a lul in sexual activity.
Furthermore, hormone replacement changes the appearance of genitals and also alters how an orgasm feels. Many trans men describe orgasms after starting testosterone as being more intense, whereas estrogen for a trans woman causes "whole body" orgasms.
These are all adjustments that you will need to talk about. And for most individuals, there might be a need for a google search or two related to how sex for transgender individuals works. You might need to explore things as if with a new partner.
Are you still the Same Person?
This is a very subjective question and will depend on you as a person. Remember that your spouse, should they choose to stay, likely does not define you according to whether you are a man or a woman or any such shallow context.
It is more likely that they define you by the more profound things. Actions speak louder than words, and the aspects of your personality that they love will probably not change, but that will ultimately be up to you.
That being said, hormone replacement therapy is one of the major aspects of transition that you need to be aware might change how you are perceived by your partner on an emotional level. While it does not change personality, it can have a rather profound effect on temperament. We discuss this further in the next section.
There is an important and fundamental difference between your temperament and your personality, however So even if your temperament changes, your personality should stay the same. If you and your partner are having trouble dealing with these changes, it is beneficial to talk about this and to try and find a middle ground. Open communication throughout this sort of transition will be essential.
Hormone Replacement Therapy
As popular as it for people to say that hormone therapy does not affect mood, it does undeniably affect temperament. If that were not the case, then gender stereotypes regarding emotion would not be so easily supported by real life.
Testosterone makes you cry far less; it can even cut out tendencies towards extreme moods and can make your effect seem far shallower than what your partner might be used to. It is not necessarily about how you feel emotion but about how you show it.
Estrogen, on the other hand, can make you cry easier and result in emotions being expressed more dramatically. It can also increase emotional extremes and make reactions more volatile.
Having said that, not everyone reacts the same way, but there will be changes, and those changes must be acknowledged along with the impact they have on the relationship. It will not be as gradual or as sudden as you expect.
Gender Reassignment Surgery
Of course, transition does not stop at hormone therapy for many transgender people. Surgery is another thing that needs to be considered when there is a preexisting marriage involved.
Sometimes a partner will be supportive of this, but other times it might just be too much for them. It will be something that needs to be discussed in the context of your marriage, as everyone will be different.
You might find that some people are willing to accept that their "male partner wants to wear women's clothes," but it becomes another situation when visits to a gender clinic start and people start throwing things like transition surgery around.
Top Surgery and Beyond
One thing that we need to remember about this is that it will likely not happen early on in your transition. Regardless, it is one of the steps within transition that your spouse may struggle with.
When you start hormone therapy, then it will be about a year before your surgeon would agree to perform any kind of further surgery. So it does give some time to get used to the idea.
It is not uncommon for non-conforming or non-binary people to also undergo some kind of top surgery. A major part of trans issues that people face involves a lack of understanding of what non-binary and non-conforming individuals actually identify as. It becomes even more complicated when considering fluid identities.
Support for your Family
The reality of transition is often difficult for everyone in the family to wrap their heads and emotions around. However, while the person who is undergoing the transition will be in touch with others who are also currently or have already transitioned and will receive counseling and support from the clinic, their families might not have such readily available support.
Many children and spouses of someone who is transitioning will feel alone and left behind because support is not as readily available, and even among their friends, they might not know who they can turn to. Many blogs report that even their gay friends (usually male gay friends) and others on the LBGTQ+ spectrum were not supportive of their choices.
Some people are often surprised that even in a support group, not everyone will be supportive. It is difficult to reconcile such a change with what they imagined was a happy marriage, and the sheer magnitude of changes that can take place over just a few months can be overwhelming. Even for someone who is supportive of your transition.
It can also be difficult for a child within the immediate family. Accepting that dad wants to be a woman or that mom wants to be a man can be difficult for a child. We like to say that children are resilient, but that does not mean that they don't need support during times like this.
Adult children are often far less supportive than younger children, and this might also just be related to the time that they grew up in. And even if younger children are more accepting, they do need help to work through it.
We are not saying that children are damaged by their parent's transition, but any adjustment to a new life change can be hard for a child. Even something like moving houses can be difficult for a child. It is important that their emotions and anxieties around this change are not forgotten.
Being Transgender Parents
We covered this topic in detail in another blog post on this website. What is most important when it comes to your child is to talk to them early on. Address their feelings keep them in the loop of what has been decided about your transition. Make sure that they have someone to talk to about their feelings who is a neutral party (not your or your spouse) who they can talk to about things they are not comfortable coming to you for. Make sure that they know they are not at fault; make sure that if they felt guilty, this was addressed.
Most often, if the child is young, the relationship comes out quite well in the end. Their biggest concern usually is that their parents are happy. Do not make yourself miserable because you want to be a "good mother" or anything like that. If you are miserable, your child will know about it.
Also, remember that your child is very likely not particularly concerned about concepts like "mothers are women" or "dads are male". These are societal norms, and a young child might be vaguely aware of them, but it will not be the crux of their existence.
The most important thing is that your child feels loved and supported and that they know that you are happy and healthy. With an older child, there might be some fallout, but this most often resolves over time.