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10 Tips for Couples During Gender Transition

Pride sentiment can help couples gain authenticity, strengthening commitment.

 Deposit Photos, Image ID 183098168
During PRIDE Month, individuals celebrate living authentically.
Source: Credit to Artur Verkhovetskiy, Image Resource: Deposit Photos, Image ID 183098168

Seeking to live with authenticity equates to listening to the call of the heart. A fearless approach to life sometimes includes taking risks towards one’s growth in this direction.

Unfortunately, for many, these risks include the risks of personal and economic peril, as well as relational loss. In a White House proclamation, President Biden recognized this challenge saying, “During LGBTQ+ Pride Month, we recognize the resilience and determination of the many individuals who are fighting to live freely and authentically.”

In addition to memorializing the uprising at Stonewall Inn in June 1969, Biden reminded that Pride has become a “jubilant communal celebration of visibility and a personal celebration of self-worth and dignity,” (Biden, 2021).

Dignity and visibility are particularly relevant when an individual opting to live in a gender-affirmative manner opts to become conspicuous to others. Proper terminology and pronoun designation have been a struggle, for example (BBC News Magazine, 2015). Transgender individuals face a unique set of pervasive challenges related to their visibility and dignity, and those who are undergoing a gender-affirmative transition within a marriage may find that this challenge extends to their significant other.

The Challenges Transgender People Face

Some of the challenges faced by transgender individuals were uncovered in a large-scale survey. According to the U.S. Transgender Survey published in December 2016, transgender individuals experience a greater than average level of challenge in life, including harassment or mistreatment related to their gender identity or expression in the workplace, higher rates of poverty, housing discrimination, being harassed or attacked at school, facing negative experiences with healthcare providers (including being denied coverage for routine care due to being transgender), intimate partner violence, denial of access to places of public accommodation (from government offices to restrooms), police mistreatment/harassment/arrests related to being transgender, and rejection from spiritual or faith communities (Herman, et al., 2016).

The survey also uncovered the harmful effects of ongoing and pervasive challenges. Trans individuals face higher-than-average rates of psychological distress and attempted suicide. While 5 percent of the U.S. population report psychological distress, 39 percent of the trans population does. While 4.6 percent of the U.S. population have attempted suicide in their lifetime, 40 percent of the trans population have attempted suicide. Fortunately, 60 percent of transgender individuals report that their families and friends are supportive, and the majority of individuals self-advocate through available means, such as changing their government documents (Herman, et al., 2016).

Challenges of Transition in Committed Relationships

When an individual opts to come out, possibly including gender transition, it can cause personal as well as relational challenges. As publicized during the transition of Caitlyn Jenner and her subsequent divorce, these challenges often impact committed relationships (BBC News Magazine, 2015).

  • If the person is in a committed relationship, their partner may also experience a unique set of challenges. According to Marshall et al., 2020, “Qualitative studies suggest transition can cause personal challenges for both transgender individuals and partners.”
  • Because interpersonal support is most needed during such a time, it is useful to have strategies to support oneself and one’s partner during this transition. Marshall states, “Maintenance activities help buffer the impact of these challenges on relationship satisfaction and ensure positives are possible from relationships,” (Marshall et al., 2020). Whether a couple decides to retain their commitment or part ways, maintaining respectful communication and seeking personal psychological support are key.

Andrea, a 55-year-old trans female, and Justine, a 54-year-old cis female, know this first-hand. After being married 29 years with a 23-year-old son, Andrea came out to Justine as trans in December 2020. Andrea described her journey through a physical and mental health crisis.

Following a bout of endocarditis and depression last summer, Andrea found herself isolated and lonely in the hospital. Due to COVID visitation restrictions and the solitude of the hospitalization, Andrea said she had time to contemplate her life.

Andrea shared, “Hearing the doctor tell me I would be dead if I waited much longer, and loneliness of not being allowed visitors gave me a lot of time to reflect on my life and reasons why I might be depressed. I then vowed I would seek help for my depression, and the unhealthy ways I was dealing with it.”

As this turning point ensued, Andrea sought professional support. Over time and as she gained trust in the therapist, she questioned and confided more. She explained, “After more soul searching, I decided I had nothing to lose, and opened up to them about feelings I suppressed since childhood.”

Tips for People Undergoing Transition and Their Partners

Andrea’s suggestions for those undergoing transition within marriage are integrated in the first three tips below:

1. Seek a nonjudgmental therapist.

Andrea reminds us that, “any therapist who's any good will not judge you and is there to help.” Ideally, a good therapist helps a client to find their own answers through nonjudgmental reflective listening, unconditional positive regard, and skillfully phrased curious questions. Carl Rogers’ person-centered humanistic approach posited that such a relationship fosters growth, and unconditional acceptance from the therapist encourages genuine self-expression in the client. This in turn grows authenticity in the therapeutic relationship. What the client feels begins to match what is expressed, supporting congruent communication on tender topics out of session.

2. Authenticity with your partner may create relief within.

Research on authenticity reveals that it may help individuals to experience congruence between what they feel inside and what they present to the world, alleviating the crevasse of suffering fed by secrecy and self-alienation. “While not easy, and I still have a long way to go, my life is so much better now,” Andrea shared.

3. Your feelings and mental health are important.

When asked what wisdom she’d offer regarding her transition, Andrea encourages, “Reflecting back, I would say I learned not to ignore your mental and psychical health, thinking it will get better on its own. Your feelings are valid, and you're not a damaged person for having them, and there's no shame in seeking help to work through those feelings.”

How about the partner of the person going through such transformation? When one learns something new about an intimate partner, it’s not uncommon to experience the gamut of emotion, especially as one learns to assimilate the new information. “Getting overwhelmed comes with the territory, and I have long been a ball of anxiety,” explained Justine. “I'm relatively new to this journey, but three things have really helped me keep things in perspective.”

Justine’s suggestions for partners are shared in the next three tips below:

4. Step by step.

Justine offered, "To help control the chaos in my head, I have embraced one of my beloved aunt's mantras: One step at a time, one day at a time. It's simple and a bit clichéd, but it helps me not to jump ahead and overthink things. You don't need to solve it all in one day. In fact, you don't need to solve anything. So much learning and healing can happen organically with the transition. Just be present in the now. (And some deep breathing helps!)"

5. Seek support.

Justine found support essential. She said, "Hook up with a support group, ideally in person, but Zoom will work, too. I can't stress this enough. Just as a longtime friend can help hold you up in rough times, so can a support group of people who are going through the same experience. In COVID times, I found two Zoom support groups for spouses/partners of transgender/gender-fluid individuals, and they are invaluable to me. We can share information, perspectives, support, raw emotions, and even a few laughs. I found one group via PFLAG and the other through Facebook. I truly don't know what I'd have done without those groups."

6. Remember the being you love.

Justine remembered what was important and offered, "I remind myself that my partner is the same 'soul' I fell in love with so long ago. It's made me realize how much emphasis our world puts on physical appearance—and how unimportant that actually is when all is said and done. As my therapist told me, 'Nobody but you is paying your bills.' My partner is kind, gentle, compassionate, encouraging, funny, smart, and talented. I cannot imagine a life without her in it. I remind myself what matters most: She is my heart. She is my person."

Healthy couple's communication and adopting the emphasis on unconditional self, other, and life acceptance from Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) may also help couples during this transition:

7. Unconditional self-acceptance.

Accept yourself as the fallible and feeling human you are. You are multifaceted and continuing to evolve, so allow yourself this leeway.

8. Unconditional other-acceptance.

Accept your significant other as they are. Recognize that each person wants to express who they are genuinely, be “seen” as they see themselves, and valued completely within their authentic self-expression.

9. Unconditional life-acceptance.

Accept life as life presents itself.

10. Communicate and listen to your loved one.

Fostering authenticity, speaking with care and listening for understanding go both ways. Remember the person you love, and do your best to listen in an emotionally validating way. As you communicate, regard each other with loving intent, kindness, and respect.


BBC News Magazine, June 3, 2015, A Guide to Transgender Terms :

Joseph R. Biden, June 1, 2021, A Proclamation on LGBTQ+ Pride Month 2021, White House Briefing

Personal interview of “Andrea” and “Justine”, 6/20/21

James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). Executive Summary of the Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.

Ellen Marshall, Cris Glazebrook, Sally Robbins-Cherry, Serge Nicholson, Nat Thorne & Jon Arcelus (2020) The quality and satisfaction of romantic relationships in transgender people: A systematic review of the literature, International Journal of Transgender Health, 21:4, 373-390, DOI: 10.1080/26895269.2020.1765446

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