Discovering your partner is transgender:
Partners experiencing grief and Loss, of their significant other (SO)
S. Johnson BSc (Honours) Health and Social Care, Cert HSC, CertMgmntCare.
[Abstract] Full Text [PDF]
Despite appearing as if this is about ‘death’ it is not, although many of the models can be applied to it. This is about the loss of a partner as experienced when they disclose to you they no longer wish to remain as the gender you have understood them to be.
This was written as a way to understand what can happen during this period of grief and offers some tools to help the partner deal with the feelings associated with their loss. Due to the complexity of this subject I would have to undertake lengthily writing that would serve little value to a distressed partner other than of an academic nature. It has therefore concentrated on the main aspects to make it easy to read.
The way individuals process grief can follow certain patterns, but each person is unique and their ‘TSO’ can be at any stage of transition. If we add children and other players to the scenario it is easy to see how this can all become very complex and confusing. And deserving of specialist help, advice and support!
There is more information on the transgender zone and no doubt we will return to this topic again.
The article offers coping strategies for wives, husbands or partners of crossdressers, transsexuals – transgender people.
It is difficult to discuss this topic without offending someone with labels like husband, wife, partner and so on.
As a wife could come forward and say: “I want to be a man”, and equally, a husband or partner could come forward and say they want to be a woman.
Some labels will be unavoidable.
To keep this information on track the following glossary will be applied.
- The non-transgender partner/family member will be known as the ‘partner’ and the ‘transgender significant other’ the ‘SO’ and ‘TSO’.
- As this information is primarily for the non-transgender partner it will be written as if I were talking to them about their TSO.
- TSO – Transgender Significant Other (After coming out) -SO – Significant Other (Transgender Significant Other Before ‘coming out’) -Partner (in this context) – the non-transgender partner who is experiencing the loss.
- Death – Loss of the person you are familiar with.
The loss of the person you recognise as your partner who you could have been with for decades can arguably be equated to the ‘death’ of a loved one. The person (SO) you once knew seems to have become another person (the TSO). The old person (the SO) despite still being inside of the (TSO) is unrecognizable to you. This stranger, this imposter you don’t know is now in your home or your bed. The person you fell in love with the liar the cheat is dead. Replaced by something else you have no understanding of. You feel betrayed and embarrassed, yet sad, alone and isolated!
These feelings will be real and emotionally draining – especially if children are involved!
[There is some transgender Information on telling children in this library]
It would be quite easy here to slip into what some term as ‘psychobabble’ and add even more confusion to what you already have. This is written for an emotionally distressed partner. It points to the main issues and how you can address them. It is not a substitute for speaking to a mental health practitioner or your GP (Family Medical Doctor).
Grief work is based on Freud’s 1917 essay on ‘mourning and melancholia’ (Freud 1984).The use of the term work is not physical in this context or even cognitive rather it is an emotional activity. Freud believed that when the loved object is lost, all the sexual and pleasure seeking energy is lost also. And should be withdrawn and reinvested in another object. Each memory of the lost person must be recalled and focused on with all the mental energy possible, this is a demanding and painful process.
It can also be rather destructive with a transgender person as they may not wish to be reminded of their past gender.
Unlike Freud who suggests the libido must be exercised by reinvesting it in another, Klein suggests the internalizing the lost object. Where the lost person becomes part of the inner self. The loved object is not gone as it resides within. And many well known theorists draw heavily on Klein such as Bowlby for example and his work on attachment theory.
Klein is useful in this context especially for the those relationships that remain close after transition.
The Stranger you have never known!
When an SO or even a child, tells you for the first time that they are transgendered or they want to have a ‘sex-change’ it is unsurprising that many partners go into a state of shock. This is for the majority an unavoidable condition.
I have always used ‘Grief work’ models to help people try and come to terms with what can be seen essentially as a bereavement. Once the mists clear the partner is left in a state of confusion, fear, denial, blaming and other models and descriptive terms that will be addressed later.
The following information will not only be a descriptive tool but as a prescription to bring about a healthy as opposed to a pathological outcome.
Worden (1982) describes mourning as a series of tasks linked to stages. These ‘attendant tasks’ must be worked through.
The task is to accept the reality of the loss.
The shock of the ‘death’ of a loved one (the SO), even when expected – for example SRS or the Real Life Test Commencement day – can result in the ‘numbness’ which is characteristic reaction in the early days of hearing about the TSO. The person is unable to comprehend the information that the SO is ‘dead’.
The stages by Kubler-ross (1970) are also very applicable here:
her scheme of five stages of coping with death:
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The fundamental objection: that the stages she outlines are not merely descriptive but prescriptive. She explicitly denies the charge: “Our goal should not be to help people through the five stages and reach the stage of acceptance. . .
Typically, the bereaved person will misidentify someone in the street as the lost person; they may expect to find them at home as they used to be when they return. While this could be interpreted as absent-mindedness after a lifetime’s habit, there are other manifestations, such as calling out to the lost ‘SO’, which could be described as ‘yearning and searching’. This is deemed to be necessary before the bereaved person can come to face the fact of the loss and be able to move on to the next stage.
Stage 2: The task is to experience the pain of grief.
With awareness of the actuality of your TSO comes pain, anguish and often anger.
A period of depression could result which can become quite serious – it is advised you visit your Medical doctor if you feel PTSD symptoms!
Post traumatic stress Disorder
PTSD was first named and recorded in the diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders commonly known as ‘DSM’- the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1980. Lukas and Seiden paraphrased the entry as follows:
People suffering from this disorder re-experience the trauma in one of the following ways:
- They have recurrent recollections of the event
- They have dreams about the event
- They suddenly feel as if they were reoccurring
Experience mumbling and reduced involvement with the world by:
- A lessening interest in important activities
- A feeling of detachment from others
- A flat emotionless feeling
Have some of the following symptoms
- Sleep disturbances
- Guilt about surviving
- Trouble concentrating – Loss of memory
- Exaggerated startle response
- They avoid some activities that arouse recollections of the trauma
The partner’s Anger is sometimes projected (blaming) on to the people with the community the TSO mixes.
You may feel that the transgender community or local gay bar made your TSO like this, your SO was fine until she or he went to a fancy dress party and so on.
In this period guilt is also a common experience. The bereaved partner feels guilt possibly because of their feelings of anger and possibly because of things done or left undone, said or left unsaid, before the SO ‘came out’ or after they have left the home. Fully experiencing this pain, can be physical as well as emotional, and is necessary before being able to move on to the next stage.
Stage 3: The task is to adjust to an environment in which the SO is missing.
This may be a time of great anxiety, particularly for a partner who may have to take on the role of the SO – becoming the breadwinner for example – a role for which he or she may feel ill equipped. Added to these demands, the partner has to adjust to the loss of a sexual partner just at a time when he or she may most need the comfort that physical intimacy can bring. Loss of self-confidence and feelings of helplessness are common, This anxiety and helplessness must be overcome if the person is to be able to approach the final task.
The task is to withdraw emotional energy from the SO and reinvest it in the TSO or another relationship.
Withdrawing emotional energy or ‘letting go’ of the SO means not being obsessed with the memory of that person. An investment has to be made in someone or something. This has often been interpreted, as finding another SO, or relocating the lost SO emotionally and moving on.
While recovery and reorganization have subtly different meanings for different writers such as Bowlby and Parkes they are of one mind in that failure to work through the tasks of mourning and reach a stage of recovery and reorganization can lead to pathology. A great deal of bereavement counselling uses these four tasks to structure the counselling process,
These tasks and stages have not gone uncriticized.
Although still working within a Freudian psychoanalytic framework Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut (1996, 1998) have suggested a different model to the Worden one described above, which they believe sets up too rigid expectations of how people should grieve and can become prescriptive. They have put forward a ‘dual process model’ which focuses on the coping process and which they claim is more flexible and more sensitive to cultural differences. This model is set out in here.
Everyday Life Experience
Intrusion of Grief
Breaking Bonds and Ties
Denial/ avoidance of restoration changes
Attending to life chances
Doing new things
Distraction from grief
New roles/ identities/relationships
Stroebe and Schut argue that you cannot neatly package grief work into stages which need to be worked through before going on to the next stage. Their model encompasses both loss and restoration-oriented coping They claim that the Worden model gives much less attention to the restoration-orientated aspect of coping, which they say can cause a great deal of anxiety and distress. Examples of restoration orientation include:
(1) mastering the tasks that the SO had undertaken (e.g. the finances or cooking)
(2) dealing with arrangements for the reorganisation of life without the loved one (e.g. it may be necessary to sell one’s house)
(3) the development of a new identity from partner of the SO, to parent or being a son or daughter again – For example when looking at yourself in the mirror do you see a husband or wife or a parent or daughter?
The SO that life was shared with unlike death is still there and this can cause problems.
Who does the partner share these experiences with? Chances are the majority of doctors and mental health practitioners have little understanding of this area.
The first problem that the partner faces is the social isolation (social death) of being involved with transgender person. It is likely that others you tell in your family may wonder why you never knew that your SO was cross dressing, or they may take the high ground by saying how ‘they would have known if they were in your shoes’ which can be frustrating. Transgender people are very good at concealing their activities. As any partner that has dealt with this is well aware, it is very common for a partner to not know their SO or child is cross dressing.
Goffman’s (1968) book, Notes o the Management of Spoiled Identity describes the term stigma as the attribute [of human beings] that is deeply discrediting.
An example of the courtesy stigma is that all deaf people are stupid, but it equally applies to partners and TSO’s. When one member of the family has a stigmatizing illness other members are at risk of acquiring courtesy stigma. Covering up in public or with family can also quickly creep into the situation – ceasing to go to public places such as restaurants and churches, being embarrassed to talk to acquaintances.
People that could be almost complete strangers that have little or no understanding of the partner’s situation may approach the partner and say:
“Well I don’t see why you and you lovely kids should put up with it – they should be locked up people like your husband – you poor dear!”
Courtesy stigma can be neutralized to some extent by the family learning about and discussing these issues openly. This also offers a certain ‘knowledge shield’ if confronted by ignorant others.
Many partners may want to talk to others that knew the SO as they once were. This can be distressing for the TSO as they may now want to be referred to in their new gender role. A partner may see their TSO as selfish as the TSO has had time to adjust – albeit in secret – to this state of affairs. Whereas the partner now has to not only grieve but learn about what this condition is and at the same time ‘hold the family together’. It is therefore advisable that the TSO changes gender roles more slowly to enable the partner to adapt and work through any problems, this may take a year or longer!
- Talking about your feelings with other partners of TSO maybe helpful –
see our panic guide
- It maybe possible that the parents of the TSO may want to discuss the SO with the partner as it is likely they are grieving too! Together an open discussion about the TSO and the SO could get quite upsetting for the TSO therefore on this occasion the TSO may prefer to be absent from this initial meeting as they may feel victimized. It should be a supportive environment and all efforts should be made to avoid blaming and shaming each other including the TSO.
This method of continuing the lived life of the SO ties in well with the work of Klass et al (1996) who also believe that grieving is not about breaking bonds, but about ways of continuing the bonds. This takes us to the next section continuing life with the TSO as you new SO.
[Note: The following is based on the work and research of S. Johnson (Transgender Zone). It is therefore unlikely at this stage that mental health professionals will be aware of ‘TT’ or shifts used in this context.]
The term ‘transgender transference’ – in this context – is where the SO becomes the TSO, then and after the grieving process is at an end the TSO replaces the SO, as the lover and parent.
This sounds a lot easier than it actually is in practice, but we have all come across cases in the media where wives and husbands have coped and are now happy.My Husband wants a Sex-Change is one such example.
The new TSO relationship may become one of the following:
- Single Role – SO is lost, TSO lives and behaves as chosen gender, may require partner to review their sexuality – do they see themselves as lesbian with an male-to-female transvestite for example?
- Duel Role – TSO occasionally cross dresses. ‘SO’ returns most of the time – examples. TSO takes two roles and the sexual relationship continues as before. However, the partner may experience a form of ‘anticipatory grief’ (Lindmann,1944), that the new TSO may ‘run off’ and find someone new or decide the have a sex-change once the partner has got used to the new set up. The TSO and partner must rebuild trust if it is clear that either fear the other is unsatisfied with the arrangement.
- Open Role – The TSO has total psycho-sexual inversion, is not longer sexually attracted to the partner may remain as ‘sister/brother figure’ or companion. Uncle or aunty to the children. May live with or near family. Access to children is granted.
- Closed Role – The partner or TSO decide the relationship cannot survive in any shape or form. May be seen as the ‘martyr’ role. Doing what is best for all players and having limited distant contact – Transgender Zone research has shown the majority of transgender people feel if they went to court for custody of their children they would not be granted it.
It is unwise to attempt to hide the TSO from the children. Especially if it leads to a closed role on the parent’s part. As the child may blame themselves. When informing younger children it may have to be repeated over and over again. It is also important to reassure children:
“Mummy is sorry she was cross with you, I am just a little sad about daddy.”
- To express feelings
- To be involved
- Opportunities to reflect and remember the SO – which can be a painful process for the partner!
Klass, D., Silvermann, P.R. and Nickman, S.L. (eds)(1996) Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief, Taylor Francis, London. Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and Loss, Vol 1 Attachment; (1973)Vol 2 Separation: Anxiety and Anger; (1980) Vol. 3 Loss: Sadness and Depression, Hogarth, London.
Freud, S (1984) On Metapsychology: the theory of psychoanalysis: Beyond the pleasure principle’, ‘The Ego and the Id and other Works, Penguin, Hammondsworth.
Goffman, E. (1968) Stigma: Notes o the Management of Spoiled Identity, Penguin, Harmondsworth.
Kubler-Ross, E (1970) on Death and Dying, Tavistock, London.
Klein, M (1940) ‘ Mourning and it’s relationship to manic depressive states’, International Journal of Psycho-analysis, Vol. 21, pp. 125-157.
Lindmann, E (1944) ‘The symptomology and management of acute grief. American Journal of Psychiatry. Vol. 101.
Parkes, C.M.(1988) ‘Bereavement as a psychosocial transition: process of adaptation to change’, Journal of Social Issues.
Stroebe, M.S and Schut, H. (1996)’ A model for coping with griefand it’s practical applications for the bereavement counsellor’, St.George’s Hospital Medical School London.
Stroebe, M.S and Schut, H. (1998)’ Culture and Grief, Bereavement Care, Vol. 17 No.1, pp. 7-10.
Wordon, J.W. (1982, 1991) Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy: a handbook for the mental health practitioner, Springer, (1st edn, 2nd edn), New York/Routeledge, London.
Citation: S Johnson – no unauthorized copying or redistribution permitted without the express permission of the Transgender Zone