“Tough Love” is a HuffPost series about the real-life challenges couples face during the course of a relationship.
Galen Mitchell and Laura Groenjes Mitchell met in September 2005 as freshmen at a small liberal arts school in Minnesota. They were sitting at the same lunch table when Laura noticed that Galen was wearing a T-shirt for an obscure band she liked. When she got home, she found Galen on Facebook and sent a message asking if she wanted to go on a walk through the campus arboretum that night. Galen ― who was presenting as male at the time ― agreed. They ended up talking for hours.
“Conversation came really easily and we just kept talking the rest of the night,” Laura told HuffPost. Now, they’ve been married for seven years and live in Denver with their two kids.
“From the very beginning, our relationship has been built on great communication and trust,” said Laura.
Long, open and honest conversations quickly became the norm for the couple. One subject that came up often was gender roles and how Galen felt she didn’t fit into society’s mold of what it meant to be a man. Early on, she told Laura that she felt she should have been “born a girl” ― or “assigned female at birth” in today’s parlance ― but she never used the word “transgender.”
“I told Laura I probably would have been happier if that had been the case and that I felt like I was closer to ‘woman’ than ‘man,’” Galen recalled. “However, I also said that I would never do anything about it.”
Growing up as a tomboy, Laura related on some level to Galen’s feelings of not quite fitting into stereotypical gender norms. Plus, she felt that these conversations confirmed what she already knew about Galen: that she wasn’t your typical cisgender man.
“She would say things like, if there was a magic button, I would press it to change the way my body was,” Laura said. “But because she didn’t say anything about being trans, or wanting to see a therapist, or wanting to make changes in ways that felt really practical, I just sort of thought of it as, ‘Oh, you know, she wishes things were different, but she’s OK that they aren’t, and she found a little niche for herself in the world.’”
During college, Laura also began questioning her own sexuality and realized she identified more as bisexual than heterosexual.
It wasn’t until 2015 ― four years into their marriage, when Laura was pregnant with their first child ― that Galen came out to Laura as trans and expressed a desire to transition. Initially, the revelation rocked their marriage — What would their families say? Would they still be attracted to each other? Would they be able to have another kid? — but now they say their bond is stronger than ever. This is how they got there.
Growing Up Confused
From the age of 4, Galen recalls wishing she was a girl. She wasn’t particularly interested in baseball or Cub Scouts or any of the other things boys her age seemed to like. In middle school, she learned for the first time that being transgender was even a possibility. But at that time, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were few representations of trans people in the media and pop culture, and the depictions that existed weren’t particularly flattering or relatable.
“All the information at the time said that all the ‘real’ trans women were exclusively attracted to men, and I wasn’t attracted to men, so I thought I must not be trans,” Galen said.
At 17, Galen told her mother she was confused about her gender and wanted to talk to a therapist. Her mom tried to be supportive, but Galen could tell she was uncomfortable and scared. After a couple of weeks, when her mom still hadn’t found a therapist, Galen decided to drop the issue. Later when her mom followed up and asked if she still had concerns, Galen lied and said she “figured it out.”
“Of course, my feelings didn’t actually go away. I was just trying to deny them,” Galen said.
Fast-forward to December 2015. Seeing Laura pregnant ― an experience Galen strongly desired for herself ― brought a lot of repressed feelings to the surface. Something about the idea of being a father, rather than a mother, filled her with dread. As Laura grew more excited about the pregnancy, Galen began to withdraw, which Laura attributed to Galen’s previous struggles with depression. Things felt off between them.
Eventually, it became too much for Galen to bear. So without much planning, she told Laura she felt trapped by her assigned gender. This time, she said she wanted to talk to a therapist.
“I was deeply afraid of what Laura’s reaction would be, but it was simply impossible to hold it in anymore,” Galen said.
Laura was supportive, but still didn’t fully realize how miserable Galen was.
“I remember saying things like, well, I’ll support you with whatever you decide and if you want to present more gender-neutral, then I would support that,” Laura said.
In a second conversation a few days later, Galen went further. “I think I might be trans,” she said, adding that she wanted to transition.
Laura was shocked. Because Galen had never used the word “transgender” before, Laura hadn’t really considered it either.
“It’s not that she knew and was hiding it from me this whole time,” Laura said. “It’s something that she didn’t even want to acknowledge herself. And it got to the point that the feelings were so bad that she finally had to put a word to it and let me know.”
“In retrospect, all of the puzzle pieces were there. I just didn’t put them together until she articulated it more clearly for me,” Laura added.
Outwardly, Laura offered words of love and support ― “I want you to be happy” and “We’ll figure this out together” ― but inside she was wracked with fears about their future.
“I immediately started thinking about the most extreme case scenario,” Laura remembered. “What would that mean for us?” Questions ran through her head: “Could we have a second kid? Would our family and friends accept her if she completely transitioned? Would I be able to accept her? Would I still be attracted to her?”
“I was deeply afraid of what Laura’s reaction would be, but it was simply impossible to hold it in anymore.”
Galen said that she could tell her wife was scared, but that Laura handled it in a calm, loving manner. She feels lucky. Many trans people who choose to come out face much less acceptance from their partner, family and friends, on top of very real concerns about their financial security and physical safety.
“Laura approached things with a lot of care and wanting to understand and managed, at least in her interactions to me, to largely put a lot of her own fears and concerns on the back burner with the knowledge that I was depressed and needing support,” Galen said.
Taking A Toll
The first several months of 2016 were some of the toughest of their entire relationship. They were consumed with thinking and talking about all things related to the transition, on top of preparing for the baby’s arrival.
In those days, for the first time, both Galen and Laura wondered if they’d be able to stay together. It’s not that they were arguing and yelling at each other constantly; it was just simply too difficult to predict how the changes might impact their relationship.
Galen felt sure that the transition wouldn’t change her sexual orientation or attraction to Laura, as sometimes happens. She was, however, worried about Laura’s feelings. Yes, Laura identified as bi, but that didn’t mean she’d be attracted to Galen presenting as female. Laura might decide she wanted to be with a man. But within a few months, those concerns subsided.
“After those first couple months, I have never again worried that we would split up because I’m trans,” Galen said. “It really became an ‘us versus the world’ thing very quickly, and Laura found that she was attracted to me as a woman in many ways more than she was when I presented as a man.”
For Laura, who describes herself as an anxious Type A person, the combination of the pregnancy and the transition was overwhelming. But she said it also taught her how to deal with situations that can’t be perfectly planned or controlled.
“The little person kicking around in my belly was a constant reminder of the choices Galen and I had made over the years that led us to the point of wanting to start a family together,” Laura said. “It helped me slow down and see the important thread through all of this: We loved each other fully and completely.”
Making A Plan
Galen’s therapist suggested that she and Laura come up with a timeline for different aspects of the transition: coming out to friends and family, starting hormone treatment, trying on more feminine clothes, experimenting with hair and makeup, etc. Every step along the way, Galen checked in with Laura to make sure she was comfortable.
“For me, Laura was everything that was right about my life,” Galen said. “There were things that maybe I would have changed if I had the ability to, like, press that button and just be a woman. I would have done it with the condition that I was still with Laura, and that’s because I cared about her a lot and I didn’t want to lose her.”
“It really became an ‘us versus the world’ thing very quickly, and Laura found that she was attracted to me as a woman in many ways more than she was when I presented as a man.”
Laura likened those back-and-forth discussions to a “sophisticated dance” they were making up as they went along. Indeed, it was hard, at first, to see Galen altering parts of her appearance that Laura found attractive, like getting rid of her facial hair. Seeing Galen in a dress for the first time took some getting used to.
“My immediate response to everything as a supportive partner was yes. But then I also had to check: Am I actually comfortable with it? And if not, how much do I push back? Do I actually say no, or do I try to delay things?” Laura recalled.
The changes were even more profound than she had anticipated.
“Everything in our life had to go through a transition, and it doesn’t mean that it came out the other end completely different or bad or good. But things changed, and way more things changed than I thought would.”
Their Relationship Today
Today, Laura and Galen said they are closer than they’ve ever been. But they acknowledge their story is rare ― many couples aren’t able to weather such a transition. Laura identifying as bi is one of the factors that has helped them maintain their romantic spark, though they know that was never a guarantee.
“I do identify as bisexual and there aren’t very many of us in the world. And so it’s a pretty fancy numbers game to end up finding two people who end up together where one is trans and the other partner is bi,” Laura said. “And being bi doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be OK with your partner transitioning, but it probably gives you a better chance than someone who identifies as strictly heterosexual.”
The other thing they have going for them harkens back to the early days of their relationship: a solid foundation of open and honest communication.
“I’ve known other couples where this timeline and negotiation of ‘OK, here’s what I want, here’s where my comfort level is, here’s what you want, here’s what your comfort level is’ would not have worked because they were just so fully not on the same page,” Galen said. “And there wasn’t that basic foundation of trust and the wish for the other person to be happy.”
“It causes a lot of internal reflection on what you want and what you need and what kind of life you want to lead,” Laura said. “And I totally respect people who make a decision different from what I did. I’m really glad that I was able to make the decisions that I did, but I think a lot of things had to line up pretty perfectly for that to happen.”
Advice For Others
So what words of wisdom would they offer to other couples in a similar situation? Patience. Lots of it. With yourself and with your partner.
“Know that this isn’t something that your partner is doing to you, and that it’s a challenge the two of you can face together, whether that is temporarily to get them through a certain point, even if you do end up splitting,” Laura said. “But that support from someone who loves them is going to be key in helping them get through the transition.”
“Being bi doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be OK with your partner transitioning, but it probably gives you a better chance than someone who identifies as strictly heterosexual.”
And don’t forget about self-care. This is a big life change for both partners, so give yourself plenty of time and space to process but also to just relax. In fact, in an odd way, Laura is grateful that she was pregnant when Galen came out because taking care of the baby growing inside her forced her to take care of herself, too.
“I knew that if I didn’t take care of myself mentally, emotionally and physically, that I wasn’t doing a good job for this other little person,” she said. “We spent a lot of time talking about things. But we’d also take time where we would physically separate ourselves from each other, and I would take a bath and watch stupid TV shows, or read a book, or work on a hobby, or do something that was just for me and not focused on this big thing that was happening to both of us.”
Almost three years later, the couple can confidently say that they’ve grown, both as individuals and as a pair, because of all they’ve gone through together.
“We’ve both become much more compassionate and caring,” Galen said. “We’ve both really come into ourselves. As much as my coming out was about me feeling more comfortable in my skin, I think it prompted Laura to evaluate aspects of her own gender presentation such that we’re both much more comfortable and confident in who we are as individuals. And we more fully support each other in our endeavors.”
Have you gone through a major challenge or difficult period in your relationship and come out the other side? Email us about it at ToughLove@huffpost.com, and we may feature your story in a future installment of this series.