“I was born in the wrong body.” While it takes a lot of courage for a person to come forward and say these words under any circumstance, for an individual ready to be honest with their spouse about their true identity, saying these words is undoubtedly even more daunting. For some spouses, learning the truth about their partner’s gender identity solves a lot of mysteries, answers a lot of questions, and explains a lot about their partner’s behavior. It can be a turning point for any marriage -- whether the spouses are homosexual or heterosexual, whether the spouse is transitioning to male or to female – but does it have to mean divorce?
Hearing those words from your spouse can shake you to the core. While the announcement is life changing, your decision on what to do next doesn’t need to be immediate. You are entitled to ride this tidal wave of emotion, and not every wave of emotion will break at the same time. You will be flooded with questions, and most won’t have immediate answers. Many of these questions will be about who you are, as much as they are about the person your spouse is outwardly and the identity they are ushering into the world.
Some spouses go immediately into compassion mode, comforting their partner and saying everything is going to be OK. Others need to be alone for a while to gather their thoughts and process this news. Others might explode with anger or burst into tears. Others will feel betrayed, feeling their partner kept such a big secret while they were married and probably before they were married. Often, transgender partners are in denial about their truths and don’t make this realization until years into marriage. Regardless of the initial reaction, once the emotional dust cloud settles, both you and your partner can start to move forward, together or alone.
The word transition often implies a gradual and steady change versus an abrupt one. You will soon learn that everyone who is transgender doesn’t necessarily follow the same path. As your spouse investigates his, her, or their options with doctors and psychiatrists who specialize in gender identity and seeks advice from other people in the trans community, so too can you. There are resources and support networks for spouses and children of transgender people, online, and in most cities.
A trans female partner might choose to start slowly, buying women’s clothes that fit and learning how to apply makeup. A trans male partner might change his hair or clothes too. Both might change their behavior to mirror traits in their true gender they want to invoke but before felt that they couldn’t. You may or may not agree with the choices they make or their interpretation of gender.
Beginning hormone therapy is often part of the transition. For example for trans women, this includes blocking the natural production of testosterone and injecting steady doses of estrogen. This process will have physical and emotional effects on the recipient. The spouse will gradually see their partner physically come into focus as the person they’ve known themselves to be on the inside. As this happens, the spouse begins to part with physical characteristics of the person they believed they married. It is common to go through the 7 Stages of Grief during this process.
While many people on the transgender journey get gender affirmation surgery, not everyone does. This decision can have a dramatic impact on whether a couple stays together. Presenting as the opposite gender, undergoing hormone therapy, and getting gender affirmation surgery each has a profound impact on the body and soul. It is important for both spouses to understand all of the changes that come with every decision. And a bridge not crossed today, might be crossed in the future.
From a legal standpoint, your marriage will remain valid after your partner transitions if the marriage was valid at the time it was entered. Since the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing marriage for same-sex couples, states are no longer allowed to restrict marriage according to gender. Anyone already in a valid marriage must receive marriage-related federal and state rights and benefits.
For those who choose to divorce, it’s no different than any other marriage; “Irreconcilable differences” covers it in terms of grounds for ending the union.
Among the looming questions that heterosexual spouses of transgender people face is “does staying with my spouse after they transition make me gay?” For gay couples, the opposite is true. Some partners come to the conclusion that they love their partner regardless of their gender, but otherwise remain bound to their existing sexual orientation. Others discover they are pansexual, and attracted to others regardless of their gender. Some concede the best way they can support their partner is as a friend, not as a lover or a spouse.
When children are involved, the best thing to do is work together, preferably with the support of a psychologist, to introduce the news to the children and usher them through the process with you. Some couples also work with parenting coaches to plan their dialogue on how to best communicate the news to their children. The age of your children might play a factor into how they cope. In many cases, younger children who are not hard-wired into conventional gender norms have an easier time accepting the news.
If you are planning on getting a divorce, you cannot cite your partner’s transition as a reason to deny custody rights or visitation. The court will rule in favor of the best interests of the child. If both parents, and in turn the court, agree that the transition will not affect the transitioning parent’s ability to care for their children, then gender identity cannot be a determining factor in the custody arrangements. For more information, download Protecting the Rights of Transgender Parents and their Children, co-authored by the ACLU and NCTE (the National Center for Transgender Equality).
Even among high-profile transgender celebrities, no two stories are alike. By the time Caitlyn Jenner made her debut on the cover of Vanity Fair, she had already divorced her wife, Kris. One of the featured guests on Jenner’s television series, I Am Cait, was author Jenny Boylan. Jenny’s wife since 1988, Deirdre, stuck with her; the ups and downs are chronicled in Boylan’s best bestseller, She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders. When Laura Jane Grace, lead singer of the band Against Me!, revealed her transgender journey in the pages of Rolling Stone, her wife Heather vowed to stay by her side. By the time Grace’s memoir was published, Heather had asked for a divorce.
Divorcing a transgender partner does not mean a marriage has failed, nor does sticking with such a partner mean the marriage will succeed. Some couples choose to look at their marriages as “successful” during the time they were married; success being happiness while in the marriage no matter how long it lasted, instead of soldiering all the way to the finish line when one partner dies. Couples that face such a transition will also face many other challenges that life throws at them. Such is life. So long as there is love, compassion, and care for everyone in the family who is affected by the change, everyone in the family can heal, grow, and reach the happiness and peace they deserve.