An open letter to our trans partner

I am the wife of a trans woman who transitioned during our marriage. I am writing this to support partners as there are significant areas in common for us all but each of our paths on this journey may be very different. I also write to the trans person and just hope you both talk to each other. We want to keep our marriages intact.

There is no clear cut care pathway for partners here so do not be afraid to seek help and counselling. This journey can’t be done alone. Local GPs and counsellors are not specialists, so the more we speak up the more awareness will be raised. This is not a life choice for either of us; something that took me years to understand. I still ask myself: ‘why me’?

I had advanced notice before we got engaged that my husband was cross dressing since childhood. She agonised over telling me but we still got married and have now been together for over 30 years and married for 27. The prognosis for staying together is much higher if surprises and shocks are limited. We decided never to have children and life is a lot less complicated. However, it was still a shock when my partner decided to transition and, before I could understand the implications, she was self-medicating secretly. I went through hell. Women are good listeners and can be sympathetic, but I don’t like dishonesty, hiding or deception. We can detect little signs, and you may think your partner is having an affair if female clothing is found in the house which does not belong to you.

Helen and Betty 1For the trans partner: please remember that this is like a bereavement but with no body and no funeral. If you are going to throw clothes from your previous gender away warn your partner and, perhaps, allow us to keep some sentimental items – even if just for a while, so we can grieve in our own time. Acknowledge this grieving process is just like any other, it HURTS!

Keep open channels of communication at all times and also agree to stop talking if it is getting too much. My counsellor suggested we have a password to use if this is happening, and we then agree to talk later at an agreed time. So far that works for us.

The trans person may be tempted to rush into transitioning (coming out, HRT, ‘real life experience’ and possibly surgery) because it is a lifelong desire to change gender. For the partner, it is a constant ‘in your face’ tornado of selfish wants that completely ignores and threatens the relationship. The effects of HRT on the mind and the body are visibly shocking and can be upsetting for the partner who knew another person intimately. Thankfully, there are now several good books out there and web sites. Bear in mind that by ‘outing’ yourself as being trans, you do the same to your partner and they may be concerned about what others think. The partner of a trans person may worry about peoples’ perceptions: are we a lesbian couple, sisters, sisters-in-law…?

Our particular relationship has been strong enough to overcome this. My partner first attempted a kind of dual life of living as a woman outside work many years ago, but this time around its permanent and that was a big adjustment for me. In transition we now tend to avoid the same haunts we frequented because waiting staff would recognize me and wonder if I have a new relationship as we sit at the same table ordering the same favourite meals. Even in places we have never been to, the ‘couple’ in us still comes out as we say ‘we’ the whole time when talking. I have to be very blunt here and say a part of our success is that my partner is completely convincing and I doubt if I would remain if she was not. Do not ‘carry the monkey’: other peoples’ reactions are their problem not yours. Who to tell and when is up to you. We have now told all our best friends and family, but my partner’s family proved to be the most negative.

For me this is not a linear process either. I have not gone smoothly from timid enquiry, anger, depression, thinking and reading to acceptance. Some days are better than others. Several times I revisit each emotion forwards and then backwards. This is where counselling helps. You are not alone. Also, bear in mind this is no-one’s fault so try not to blame when you are at your most angry to accuse. If you think that is easier said than done, I totally agree as I am guilty of doing that often – even now. I was quite shocked in one professional counselling session in the UK to be told I had in fact married a woman all along! To be told it was all to do with conception, what happens in the womb and the brain was earth shattering. Read, read and read. I have found it quite fascinating, painful and absorbing.

Having gone through more than a woman should for love, my partner wants a Gender Recognition Certificate. In 2014 with same sex marriage legal, the process is still unclear for married people where a partner transitions and, yet, retains the same legal rights. The irony that we already live as same sex couples after surgery is lost on them.

To end on a lighter note; there have been many fun moments, e.g. I now get to buy more clothes than before as she understands the need, but co-ordinating what to wear out can be a laugh. In the end love is more important than gender.

(Photograph is not of the post author but of Helen Boyd and her partner, Betty Crow. Helen is the author of She’s Not the Man I Married.)

Change management tools

These are Trans* Jersey’s top tips for managing the change that your transition will create for those closest to you. They are drawn from business theories of managing change in the workplace but we think that they work for us, too. If you want to keep your personal relationships intact during your transition, you will need to expend some effort to do so. It isn’t enough to shrug and say that it’s up to your friends and family to just accept what you are telling them. It’s not fair to them to dump the news on their doorstep with no support to help them understand it. It’s a two-way process; it’s up to both you and them.

Because gender dysphoria and transitioning is so poorly understood at present, you will need to be a bit of an educator as well as a manager of change within your “team”. Teaching may not be a skill that you currently possess but you can take a couple of short cuts.

1) Any teacher will tell you that lesson planning is a large part of the job. For us that simply means planning what we are going to say, when we are going to say it and to which audience we are going to say it. If you aren’t good at this, before any important conversation, write down what you want to say and don’t be embarrassed to use your notes.

2) Use the educational resources developed by others. Do your research to make it easy for you and those closest to you. Point your friends and family to websites, books, blogs, etc that do the educator’s job for you and don’t forget to follow up with them to allow them to ask you questions about what they’ve read.

changemgmtOur tips (taken from a number of business publications including the Acas advisory booklet on how to manage change):

  • Act quickly, the longer the uncertainty lasts the worse people will feel. The anticipatory phase of change can cause anxiety and stress. Communication needs to be built into the planning process for change right from the very start when you decide: the issues; objectives; audience; and message you want to communicate about your transition. Connecting with your team and laying the groundwork for open, honest discussions sets the stage for a connected and collaborative change. Ideally, this first phase needs to be done swiftly so that people hear the same message at the same time and do not hear about your transition through rumour. For more information about how to achieve this, see Trans* Jersey’s page on Transition Management.
  • Involve stakeholders at the earliest stage in planning change. Your friends and family cannot realistically be involved in the healthcare aspects of your transition but you can involve them in all the social aspects. Thoroughly outline the details of your transition and communicate the high‑level types of changes that will be happening to you. Don’t lose people to “denial”. Involve them early and often to avoid some of the darker valleys of Fisher’s Transition Curve. Accept any advice they offer and, if it fits in with your plan, include it. If it doesn’t fit in with your plan, explain why. Don’t be bullied into compromising or changing your plan – you are the manager of your transition and you have the final say in how it will work.
  • Tell the truth! It can be tempting to gloss over the more damaging impacts of change. Don’t compromise your truth to appease other people. It won’t work. You will be unhappy with a partial transition and they will never learn to fully accept your change. Change can be painful so don’t draw it out for those around you. Tell them you are transitioning and then do so!
  • Build on positive feedback – some stakeholders may be relieved or even happy that something’s been done at last. There will be people in your life who always knew that you were different and will be thrilled that you have finally found a way to express that difference and be happy. These people are your champions – use them. Ask them to chat to other friends or family members who may be struggling with your news.
  • Offer reassurance. Reassurance is really important. Your key messages may well be based on your immediate objectives for your transition. However, these can seem like a big step to someone who has not caught up to where you are in the process. Provide context for your transition that makes the changes taking place meaningful to individuals, such as talking about your childhood experiences of dysphoria with people who knew you then. Those people who love us are the ones who have invested the most in our lives. A lot of their fears and worries around our transition are going to be for our health and safety. Make sure that they know it is going to be okay, that you are getting the best advice you can and that you are taking sensible precautions to stay safe.
  • Consult with stakeholders as soon as possible. Early warning of changes to your plan or new things that are happening to you during your transition can help people adjust. Hormone therapy, for example, is not an exact science. Everyone reacts differently. If your hormones are affecting you emotionally, let your friends and family know as soon as possible.
  • Be clear and consistent about the message you are putting across. This refers to good “lesson planning” again. Plan important conversations well in advance. Don’t rush them. You may only get one opportunity to say what you need to say so it needs to be clear, concise and easily understood by the person receiving the news. Try to keep your important communications short and to the point. Don’t “kitchen sink”. People can only be expected to take in two or three key messages at a time.
  • Think about the way you communicate. The more face-to-face communication you have with stakeholders the better. You may not be able to answer all questions during one session so consider using emails or newsletters to respond to queries. Always use plain English. Avoid jargon, it will only dilute your message and confuse your audience. See Trans* Jersey’s page on communicating assertively.
  • Address personal concerns and give stakeholders the chance for questions – constructive criticism can be very positive! Questions are good. It means that your friends and family are engaging with your transition and want to know more. Try to be patient, open and honest with their inquiries. If there are questions that you do not feel comfortable answering, say so but make it clear that it is fine for them to ask any question they wish, you just reserve the right not to answer.
  • Recognise how individuals feel. Taking regular “mood checks” on how people are feeling at different stages of the change will help you plan your communications strategy. Become a good listener and use the Transition Curve to help understand where people might be struggling with your transition. You should be able to work out what messages are not getting through or how to tackle any resistance to change. Be patient and try to help these people move on in their acceptance of the change. Rather than lecturing friends and family about how they should be feeling about your transition, a  better tactic is to ask questions to get them to explore why they feel like that.
  • Plan for stakeholders who cannot accept the changes and want to leave. Despite your best efforts, you may lose a friend or family member in the course of your transition. If you do, accept the loss of that relationship and allow yourself time to mourn that loss. Don’t expend energy on someone who refuses to take your journey with you. Let them go. You never know, they may realise that their life is poorer without you and come back in the future.
  • Provide training where necessary for new duties or procedures. Again, this speaks to the need to educate those around us about our transition. This doesn’t only include the clinical facts about gender dysphoria, hormones and surgery, but also includes educating our friends and family about who we are and how we want to be treated by society now.
  • Keep communicating. Don’t communicate for the sake of it but don’t be afraid to repeat your messages. Remember everyone will be at different stages in coming to terms with the change happening around them. See Trans* Jersey’s page on communicating assertively.
  • Offer strong leadership and motivation. This is your transition and, if you don’t own it, nobody will. Be clear about what you want from it and stick to that goal. To keep your transition in a positive place, inform and educate your stakeholders about the benefits of your transition and the good things that are already coming from it. You want to build confidence. Being open and positive about it will attract support from many more people than just your friends and family for what you are doing. Being shy or, worse, embarrassed and ashamed of your transition will provoke the same reaction in others. Everyone likes to be associated with success so you need to put in the work to ensure that your transition is the success you want it to be. Inspire them by helping them to visualize the future and their new role in your life!
  • Provide counselling where appropriate. For those people struggling with your transition, suggest that they go and see their GP to get a recommendation for a few counselling sessions to help them process the change that is happening. Be prepared to have this suggestion rejected – some people still have a stigma about going to see a counsellor – but make the offer none the less. The counsellor doesn’t need to be a gender specialist. Coping with change is within the remit of most psychologists. Your friend or family member should be able to get this counselling covered by their medical insurance or through the Jersey health service.
  • Set up a working group to work on specific problem areas. Where you encounter resistance to your transition, recruit your champions to help you. Ask them for their advice on how to approach the person who is resistant, ask them if they will have a chat to the resistant person for you to find out what might be bothering them, or ask them to accompany you as a mediator for your conversation with the person who is resistant.
  • Involve stakeholders in reviewing ongoing changes. There are lots of mini-milestones in transitioning where you can involve other people. Friends and family may feel honoured and, therefore, more invested if they are asked to be included at a moment that has significance for you. For example, ask them for their input when you go shopping for new clothes, MtFs might ask female friends and relatives for make-up advice, FtMs might ask male friends and relatives for tips on how to “talk sports”, take a friend or family member with you when you change your name or get your new documents, etc.
  • Celebrate successes. About a year into your transition, you will know who your supporters are and the hard work of managing your friends and family’s reaction to your transition should be behind you so make sure that you do something to thank them, maybe have a “transition anniversary” party or send everyone a personalised card thanking them for their support. Your friends and family will appreciate the gesture and it will be a way of marking the end of your role as the change manager for your “team”.

Communicating assertively

You won’t be surprised to learn that communication is really important to a successful transition. The tone you should be aiming for in all your communications on the subject of your transition is assertive – not passive or aggressive – but honest and respectful. Here are some helpful tips from AnxietyBC, a Canadian charity that helps people with anxiety disorders.

Assertive communication is the honest expression of one’s own needs, wants, and feelings, while respecting those of the other person. When you communicate assertively, your manner is non-threatening and non-judgmental, and you take responsibility for your own actions.

If you are socially anxious, you may have some difficulty expressing your thoughts and feelings openly. Assertiveness skills can be difficult to learn, especially since being assertive can mean holding yourself back from the way you would normally do things. For example, you may be afraid of conflict, always go along with the crowd, and avoid offering your opinions, and as a result have developed a passive communication style. Alternatively, you may aim to control and dominate others, and have developed an aggressive communication style.

However, an assertive communication style brings many benefits. For example, it can help you to relate to others more genuinely, with less anxiety and resentment. It also gives you more control over your life, and reduces feelings of helplessness. Furthermore, it allows other people the right to live their lives.

Remember: Assertiveness is a learned skill, not a personality trait you are born with. It is what you do, not who you are

To start, ask yourself the following questions to identify what area(s) to work on:

  • Do I struggle to ask for what I want?
  • Is it hard to state my opinion?
  • Do I have trouble saying no?

Tips for communicating assertively:

  • Many people find it hard to ask for what they want, feeling that they don’t have the right to ask, or fearing the consequences of the request. For example, you may think, “What if he says no?” or “She would think I am rude for asking”.
  • When making a request, it can be helpful to start by saying something that shows that you understand the other person’s situation. For example, “I know you probably have had a lot on your mind lately.”
  • Next, describe the situation and how you feel about it. For example, “This presentation is due next Friday and I am feeling pretty overwhelmed, and worried that I won’t be able to get it done in time.” It is important to talk about your feelings, and not to make accusations to others. For example, it is better to say, “I feel resentful when you show up late to meet me” than it is to say, “You are always late! You don’t care about me!”
  • Then, describe what you would like to see happen. Be as brief and positive as possible. For example, “I’d really like to figure out how we can share more of the work responsibilities.”
  • Last, tell the person what would happen if your request was honoured. How would you feel? Sometimes, you may want to add what you will do in return. For example, “I would make sure to help you with the slides for your presentation next week.”
  • Many people have trouble expressing their views openly. Perhaps you wait for others to give their opinion first, and will share yours only if you happen to agree. Being assertive means being willing to state your opinion, even if others haven’t done so or if your opinion is different.
  • Being assertive means that you “own” your opinion; that is, you take responsibility for your view. For example, “My personal view is that it was unfair for her to ask that of you.”
  • Being assertive also means being willing to consider new information, and even changing your mind. However, it does not mean changing your mind just because others think differently.

Tips for saying no:

  • Saying no can be difficult for you if you are usually more passive. However, if you are not able to say no to others, you are not in charge of your own life!
  • When saying no, remember to use assertive body language (e.g. standing straight, eye contact, speaking loudly enough that the other person can hear).
  • Before you speak, decide what your position is. For example, think about how you will say “no” to a request, such as, “I would like to help you out, but I already have quite a bit of work to get done this week.”
  • Make sure you actually wait for the question, and don’t say “yes” before the other person even makes the request.
  • Take care not to apologize, defend yourself, or make excuses for saying no when it is not necessary.
  • If saying no right away is too difficult, practise telling someone, “I need to think about it” as a first step. This will help break the cycle of always saying yes, and will give you a chance to think about what you really want to do.

Remember: Everyone has the right to say no!

Practise your new assertiveness skill:

  • First, think of a couple of past scenarios when you avoided giving your opinion or preference, saying no, or asking for what you wanted. How could you have handled the situation differently? What would be an assertive way to communicate in those situations?
  • Practise saying your assertive statement out loud to yourself, to get used to it. For example, “Actually, I thought the movie dragged on a bit”, “Unfortunately, I can’t help you out next weekend”, or “I’d like the dishes done before nine o’clock”.
  • Next, think of a situation that is coming up in the next week in which you could use your assertiveness skills. Begin with a scenario that is easier, for example, giving your opinion or saying no to more familiar people, and then try it in more difficult situations.
  • Try it out – how did it go? Notice how the other person reacted. Would you do something differently next time?

Remember: assertiveness is like any new skill, and requires time and practice. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you are feeling nervous, or not getting it quite right. Reward yourself when you do speak up!

Note: Sometimes people who are not used to us being assertive may need some time to adjust. Just because people may not initially respond in a positive way, doesn’t mean that being assertive is wrong – they just need to adjust to the change!

Myths about assertiveness:

  • Myth #1: Assertiveness means getting your own way all the time. This is not true. Being assertive means expressing your point of view and communicating honestly with others. You may often not get “your own way” when you are assertively giving your opinion. But telling others how you feel, and trying to work out a compromise, shows respect for both yourself and others.
  • Myth #2: Being assertive means being selfish. This is false. Just because you express your opinions and your preferences does not mean that other people are forced to go along with you. If you express yourself assertively (not aggressively) then you make room for others. You can also be assertive on behalf of someone else (e.g. “I would like Susan to choose the restaurant this week”).
  • Myth #3: Passivity is the way to be loved. This is false. Being passive means always agreeing with others, always allowing them to get their own way, giving into their wishes, and making no demands or requests of your own. Behaving this way is no guarantee that others will like or admire you. In fact, they may perceive you as dull and feel frustrated that they can’t really get to know you.
  • Myth #4: It’s impolite to disagree. This is not true. Although there are some situations where we don’t give our honest opinion (e.g. most people say how beautiful a friend looks in her wedding dress, or we only say positive things on the first day of a new job). Much of the time, however, other people will be interested to know what you think. Think how you would feel if everyone always agreed with you!
  • Myth #5: I have to do everything I am asked to do. False. A central part of being assertive is setting and keeping personal boundaries. This is difficult for many people. With our friends, we may worry that they will think we are selfish and uncaring if we don’t do everything they ask. At work, we may worry that others will think we are lazy or inefficient if we don’t do everything we are asked to do. But other people cannot possibly know how busy you are, how much you dislike a particular task, or what other plans you have already made, unless you tell them. Most people would feel badly to learn that you had done something for them that you really didn’t have the time for (e.g. writing a report that requires you to work all weekend) or that you really dislike doing (e.g. helping a friend move).

Final tip: Although it is important to test skills out and use the trial and error process, we can learn a lot from observing others. Ask yourself who you feel comfortable interacting with – what do they do (lean forward, smile, etc). Try to identify some of the things that other people do that make you feel good interacting with them and then try doing those things yourself.