How does coming out as cross-dressing or transgender affect romantic relationships?
Many trans people who come out have understandable concerns and questions about how this will impact on their romantic relationships, either current or future. In my experience, it is often the impact on the romantic relationship, which is more traumatic for the trans person than the process of identifying as trans or in coming out. But the experience is unique to each couple and needs to be managed in a safe space, where feelings can be discussed openly and safely. Sometimes this can be managed by the couple themselves without any external help, but couples often benefit from having a therapist who is experienced with working with gender-related relationship issues to help them explore their feelings and understand what this means for the relationship.
The option to transition is something that often the trans person wants to explore. If the couple affected are older and/or have been together for a long time then it may well be that the relationship can accommodate the transition, especially if the sexual side of the relationship has already waned and thus it may be that companionship is the primary reward of the relationship and this can often continue. But for other couples this will not be so easy, and the impact for their sexual relationship, for attraction and for the future of the relationship needs to be explored and understood in order that the couple can come to a decision about the future of their relationship.
In many cases the trans person will experience a shift in their sexuality when they transition and this can have far reaching implications for an existing relationship. It is not uncommon for a heterosexual trans person to stay heterosexual when they transition and thus they become attracted to the opposite sex. So in these situations the choice to transition may signal the end of an existing relationship unless a mutually agreeable way of moving forward can be found by the couple. Often there are long held fantasies of a sexual relationship with a partner of the opposite sex (i.e. a trans woman would now want to experience a heterosexual relationship with a man where she was previously attracted to women when in her male body). Or else it may be that previously heterosexual trans people find themself still attracted to the same gender once they have transitioned and thus would subsequently experience themselves as gay. And a trans person who is bisexual may or may not continue to be bisexual after transitioning.
There is a lot here for a couple to negotiate as one partner considers or explores the implication of coming out and/or transitioning. Often the trans partner is torn between the longing to hold on to their relationship, suffering extreme grief it appears to be slipping away. And yet it is also understandable and usual that they will want to open up an exploration of who they are and what this means for their individual identity. And the partner of the trans person will have a whole range of feelings about how this impacts on them and will often fear hurting their partner if they say how they feel. It is important that couples are able to talk honestly and openly with each other about what this means for them as individuals and for the relationship they’ve had.
Some couples are able to work through these issues themselves without outside help, but often a safe and non-judgmental counseling space can provide both partners with the opportunity to explore their thoughts and feelings about the relationship moving forward. Sometimes the decision is made without much consultation, where the partner of the trans person decides they cannot continue and so the relationship ends, or vice versa. This can be a devastating experience for the partner and the feelings of loss can be deep and acute. Again, good support from friends or family or from a counselor are invaluable and often essential here.
If the relationship ends, then the hope for both partners would often be to move forward and experience new relationships. To optimise the chances of this happening, it can be important to make space to process the feelings that come up as a result of the relationship ending. Depression and suicidal thoughts are sadly extremely common in the amongst trans individuals, so I would really encourage anyone finding themselves in this situation to seek help, either through a support group or through counselling. Below are a few of the national organisations, but there are many more local support groups.
The Beaumont Society: Support for individuals who cross-dress, are transsexual or their partners
Depend: A support group for family members of someone who is transsexual http://www.depend.org.uk/frameset.html
Mermaids: Family and individual support for teenagers with gender identity issues. http://www.mermaidsuk.org.uk/
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About Priscilla Short
Priscilla Short is a psychotherapist, relationship therapist and family counsellor working in London and Norfolk. Having a strong background in research, Priscilla is passionate about informed, ethical practice and writes widely on a range of topics relevant to our individual, couple and family relationships.