This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time, but I’ve put it off because it is about one of the most difficult topics: sharing your true self with your spouse.
My wife and I have been together for 17 years, and I spent most of that time living a life trying to fill the hole I’d created to hide my gender identity. After years of therapy, I was finally ready to share. I spent months trying to find the right time and place to share this; like any married couple, we knew that difficult or surprising news is best received when your partner is feeling safest and open.
Finally, sitting on our front porch, we had the conversation I had been terrified about my whole life.
I’ve written this from the perspective that I know; as someone who had hidden their gender identity from everyone, and for whom this was the first real conversation outside of therapy. Each person’s path is different, and hopefully this will give you the courage to open up with those you love.
The hard truth is that a lot (most?) of these conversations lead to a divorce. Though we’ve all read about the best case scenario where a wife is unconditionally supportive, or even excited about the possibility of being in a non-traditional relationship, this is not a likely outcome. For many women, being married to someone with a non-traditional gender identity is a deal-breaker, and something they just can’t or aren’t willing to do. Even if divorce isn’t the immediate outcome, you may be starting a process that inevitability results in the end of your marriage.
No matter the ultimate outcome, ‘the conversation’ will inevitably lead to changes in your relationship and a lot of big feelings. Even the most progressive woman will probably have a hard time being her best self when learning that her spouse is different in a fundamental way than she knew.
As we all know, there is a lot of bad information and stereotypes about what it means to be questioning your gender identity, or open about a gender identity which doesn’t match your biological sex. And unfortunately, you’ll be battling against these stereotypes (especially with older women or in less progressive places of the country). It can be a really frustrating; the person you are trying to become isn’t necessarily what your spouse imagines, or is afraid of.
As you are opening up and sharing what has always been there, your spouse will be hearing new information that may radically change their view of marriage, family and the future. This is hard for anyone, no matter how supportive or loving they many want to be.
Lay the relationship groundwork
Sharing something difficult with your spouse is always easier if you have a solid foundation of communication, trust, love, and compassion. This is especially true when you’re talking about existential issues like gender and sexuality. If you have underlying issues in your marriage that are unresolved, this conversation can act as the trigger to bring those up as well; rather than honestly sharing, you’ll find yourself trapped digging up old hurts.
If you have the option, I highly recommend you go to couples therapy before you come out to your spouse. A year of couples therapy can give you both the tools and trust you both need to have a really difficult conversation.
Another factor is timing. Unfortunately, you can’t always chose the best time and place, especially if its something your spouse brings up. But, if you have the option, chose a time and place where you both are rested and relaxed. After work at the dinner table with screaming kids is probably not the best time
Be clear about your ask
Often, the first question your spouse will ask is ‘what can I do to help?’ or ‘what do you need from me?’ Consider this question before you have the conversation; deep inside, how do you want your spouse to support you? A therapist can be a really valuable resource for helping you think through what you as a whole person need, and if its any different than how you’ve already created your relationship together.
One of the key decisions to make is whether you want to try and stay together, or are you looking for a separation. If you want to stay together, its also worth thinking about what you need from your spouse to accommodate your identity. Are you comfortable with a slow process, or are you looking for sudden change and acknowledgement of your true identity?
The more clear you can be about your specific needs and ask, the more likely it will be that your spouse can hear what you actually said rather than being consumed by their own fears. Vague answers only invite anxiety and worry.
A perfectly reasonable answer is ‘Nothing for now’. Be open to the possibility that you are learning, and avoid is making big, unfair requests, like ‘stay with me’ or ‘love me for who I am.’ Though you may desire those more than anything, it is putting your spouse in an unfair position – you’ve had a lifetime to wrestle with your identify, while your spouse has likely just been introduced to the idea. It will take them a long time to fully process everything, and big emotional requests can make them feel defensive.
Make it about them
This sounds weird. One of the key messages that people often forget to communicate clearly, and repeatedly, is that this decision is about being a happy, healthier person for those that they love.
The reality is that any change is scary, awkward and filled with uncertainty. Your spouse will naturally think about those downsides, so it’s your job to reinforce the positive aspects and desires for being a known, whole person.
If you can, try to think specifically about the benefits – why will your process make life better? How will it help your mental health? What are the specific issues in your relationship that your transition will improve? This may not be sufficient to save your marriage, but it will certainly help your spouse to understand some of the motivation for your desire to integrate the parts you’ve hidden from them for so long.
You have had a lifetime to process your gender identity, and have obviously reached a point of acceptance if you are considering talking to your spouse about it.
But its really important to have compassion for the difficult position your spouse is in, too. In sharing your gender identity, you have just upended not only their plans for the future, but also their understanding of your marriage up to that point. This is an incredible amount of change and uncertainty, and any spouse would be understandably overwhelmed and need time to fully process.
More than anything, your spouse is likely feeling a lot of fear. Fear that their life as they know it will end. Fear that the person they thought they knew is fundamentally different. Fear for you and what you are likely to encounter as you transition. Fear for your children (if you have them). Depending on your spouse, that fear can come all at once, feel overwhelming, and trigger defensive mechanisms like anger.
The fact that your spouse feels uncertainty, fear, doubt, anger, or anything else doesn’t invalidate you or your experience, and you shouldn’t feel shame about triggering those emotions. But it is a reality you’ll have to deal with, and showing compassion and understanding for whatever your spouse is feeling will go a long way towards rebuilding your relationship.
In an ideal world, the conversation will end with a clear and unambiguous ‘I love you and I’ll always be here as your partner.’ Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. Your partner is going to need time to process, and this will likely be the start of a number of intense conversations before you come to some sort of closure and resolution.
Be patient with your partner, and try to give them the space they need to process without withdrawing. If they are feeling a lot of fear, withdrawing will only feed into the narrative that your marriage is disappearing.
These are incredibly difficult conversations, and require you to confront the very real possibility that your marriage will end. Give yourself, and your spouse, time to carefully consider what this means, and what is best for both of your individually and together.
Do you have any tips on having the conversation? Is there anything you wish you had done differently?