Mental Health Transition Support

How to Have ‘the Conversation’ with Your Spouse

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: telling your spouse you are transgendered.

I waited until about 6 months into my transition to tell my wife. Partly this was because I wanted to be really, really sure this is the path I wanted to take before making the ask of her. Partly it was because of timing, and trying to find the right time and place to share something this big.

I’ve written this from the perspective that I know; as someone who was closeted, and for whom this was the first real conversation about their gender outside of therapy. Each person’s story is different, but hopefully this will present some helpful ideas no matter what your background.

Being realistic

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 lesbian relationship, this is not a likely outcome. For many women, being married to another woman 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 trans, nonbinary or otherwise different.

As we all know, there is a lot of bad information and stereotypes about what it means to be trans. 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.

Though you can’t predict how your spouse will react, you definitely can do some specific things to make the conversation go as well as possible.

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 want from me?’ It is worth putting a fair amount of time into considering this question before you have the conversation, and a therapist can be a really valuable resource for helping you think through.

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 new identity. Are you comfortable with a slow transition, or are you looking for sudden change and acknowledgement of your new identity?

Unfortunately, there are a lot of stereotypes and misinformation about trans people, and you’ll be battling against those. The more clear you can be about your specific needs and ask, the more likely it will be that your spouse can focus on what you actually said rather than their own fears of what transness means.

Your ask should be as specific as possible, and focused on actions rather than feelings. Rather than say ‘I need your support’ or ‘I need you to love me’, think about specific things your spouse can do to support you and your transition. ‘Help me find clothes’ or ‘give me feedback about how I look’ or ‘go to therapy with me’, are all things that can give your spouse a sense of agency in the transition.

The thing to 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 will like just make them feel defensive.

Make it about them

This might sound weird, but hear me out. 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 transitions are scary, awkward and filled with uncertainty. Your spouse will naturally think about those downsides, so its your job to reinforce the positive aspects and desires for transition.

If you can, try to think specifically about the benefits – why will your transition 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 transition.

Have compassion

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.

Be patient

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?