In the summer of 2019, my partner and I started sessions with our new couples therapist. We loved each other very dearly, but we were not working together as a couple. We needed some help.
We had gone to therapy before, but our first therapist, though nice, viewed us as a cisheteronormative couple. So, when our relationship began to rupture a few months into therapy, my partner decided it would be best to find a new therapist who worked more with queer couples.
I had told my partner I was definitely not cisgender and was struggling to define myself as trans. She was one of a handful of people who knew this about me, and as an openly queer woman, she probably knew many of our needs better than me. Still, it probably was not a good idea to drop a bombshell on my partner in front of our brand new, queerly-friendly therapist. And yet, that’s how I told my partner I was going to use she/her pronouns: By communicating it to our new couple’s therapist in our first joint session.
For me, it was a liberating moment—one that had been bubbling for many, many years, and one that I knew would not alter the course of my marriage. My partner had spent much of the last decade enmeshed in the local queer community, and having a trans partner was never seen as a challenge or even as an abnormality for her support system. After all, we weren’t in therapy because I was hiding my trans identity and it caused friction. We were in therapy because I couldn’t get through a day without a panic attack, because I was absolutely awful about communicating with my partner about basic things and because the weight of our partnership felt like it was dragging us down rather than lifting us up.
There is a popular narrative that some ascribe to transitioning: That who a trans person was before they come out is dying while they are simultaneously blossoming into the person they were always meant to be. Many cisgender people have written at length about this, and I can understand where they are coming from.
For people dealing with a partner undergoing a gender transition, it can feel like the person they knew and loved is gone. While in the closet, many of us hide true facets of ourselves to fit in with the gender that society has ascribed to us, and only in transition are we allowed to explore them. Relationships are built on mutual trust, and this liberation can feel like your partner has become a different person. But that perspective centres the cisgender experience at the expense of the person having the space to be themselves. Transitioning is not a death; it’s a celebration of life no matter how things change.
This narrative is fuelled when relationships end because of a transition. It’s understandable: Admitting and sharing your true gender identity is hard for so many, and it’s an arduous process to live as a trans person. But that’s not always the case. It is also possible to realize that partnerships are never static, and transition offers a great chance for two people in a relationship to grow more comfortable than ever in their own selves. That was the opportunity my partner and I found ourselves in.
If it were not for a chance meeting, my partner and I would have never crossed paths in the first place. I met her when she was subletting a room in a friend’s apartment the summer before my senior year of college. We ran in completely different crowds: She was heavily involved in our college’s Pride organization, while I was on the crew team acting like a jock and denying my latent gender identity struggles.
I had an instant connection to her and told her that I loved her within a few weeks. She laughed at my strong feelings and thought I was ridiculous. We lasted six months before breaking up. Six months later, we found our way back to each other; we moved in together a year later.
After almost three years of being together, my partner and I eloped when we were 23—on five days’ notice. I was about to move to Brazil for 15 months for work, and we hoped that getting married would get my partner on my visa. We were wrong.
I would not recommend getting married to someone only to seldom see them for the next year, but that’s exactly what we did. We did not start on the strongest of foundations.
During that time, my partner suffered a devastating loss in her family, and I was not able to be physically present to help her. I was also absent emotionally, creating an immediate strain on our partnership. My partner would communicate how much she was struggling and all I could offer were empty words of support. I used the distance as a crutch, abdicating duty as a partner.
That strain only compounded as I remained in an incredibly low-paying journalism job that sunk us further into debt, doing only the bare minimum to get us out of the situation. While my partner drained her savings to keep us afloat and put aside her long-term goals of going back to school and starting a career, my mental health spiralled.
I was certainly not a functioning human being, and being in the closet drained all motivation to address the root problems around me. I used our situation—having full-time jobs, two dogs and a house in a great area—as a reason to avoid dealing with the numbness taking over. My partner kept trying to show me the paths I needed to take to help both of us, offering to help me find a new job and giving me space to take on freelance work to supplement our income—but I didn’t listen.
Over the last 18 months, however, my partner and I have begun to repair this—all while I’ve worked on becoming my authentic self in all facets of my life.
Transition, by definition, is a process. There is no beginning, nor is there an end.
The first time I tried to tell my partner I thought I was trans was just days after her loss, while I was living in Brazil. I weaponized my own trauma at a time of immense grief for my partner, using phone calls and other conversations where she would open up to me about the grief overpowering her to shift the conversation to my gender identity. When she rightly pushed back on this, I proceeded to shove those feelings deep down while showing that I was a partner worth staying with.
It took more than two years for me to be able to express those feelings again, when we were restarting couples therapy. It took even longer for both of us to unpack them without resentment for what had happened. By the end, my partner definitely had to help kick me out of the closet so I would stop hurting myself emotionally—and hurting us, by extension.
Admitting who I truly am was the first step in solving the crippling anxiety that was pervading every aspect of my life. No longer obsessing over my identity everyday felt like a constant static was finally shut off. I could finally see how my actions were affecting my partner and how she wasn’t getting the support she needed at times.
Without that distraction, I was finally able to just exist as a partner. I wasn’t stuck in some liminal space where I was balancing trying to be who I thought I was while also being supportive to those around me. I finally had reason to treat myself well, which was the first step in treating others the same way.
Since I came out, we have both noticed that change and have allowed ourselves to reconnect. My partner and I are fighting less, enjoying more of each other and growing our life together in a way that did not seem possible at our lowest moments.
Still, being honest with myself has not magically fixed everything in my marriage. In fact, it has made it harder in a lot of ways. For instance, I want to begin medically transitioning soon, but the process of doing that would sterilize me, and carrying a child is something my partner has always dreamed of doing. In addition to banking genetic material, we have been doing intrauterine insemination each month, which is a costly process. If we cannot conceive now, we will likely have to wait a few years and try in vitro fertilization, which is much more expensive with even more hurdles to jump through. The stress of changing timelines to start a family to fit my transition has been immense, to say the least.
Two years ago, this struggle would have likely broken us. Instead, we can now focus on helping each other. We can communicate our desires for our future without resentment standing in the way. Having openly discussed our needs and wants in therapy, we are equipped to tackle any roadblocks as partners, rather than as two people trying to advocate for themselves independently. No longer does our relationship feel like an unequal arrangement where only one of us can have future success. We both can work together to achieve shared goals while respecting each other’s desires. It also helps that my partner and I are doing alright: We both have stable jobs. We recently bought a house. We have health insurance through our employers. We are lucky.
I am also lucky that my partner identified as queer when I met her. I don’t think that’s the reason she is staying with me, and I don’t want to give anyone else that impression. She’s staying with me because we love each other and I know that whether I was trans or cis we would be different people five and a half years into our marriage. We are not the same 23-year-olds who impulsively ran to the courthouse. We are two people who have struggled and ultimately worked together to have a shared vision of what we both want to be going forward. We may not achieve all of our goals, but we know they can change and that they are the result of a shared desire regardless of who we once were. We want to grow together.
In many instances, partnerships and relationships do not survive transitions; as people grow and change, relationships must fundamentally change with them. I have many trans friends who have kept partners, lost them completely or moved into a new kind of relationship or friendship with their old partners. I think my marriage was able to survive because we finally found a way to address our issues that catered to both of us in an empowering way. No longer were we operating on an inherent imbalance; we could both move forward together on a shared road.
A lot of that rested on my partner’s ability to let go of her past resentment. She did not have to do that, but she wanted to do that. Letting go helped process her own past trauma, with the added bonus of healing our partnership. Transitioning afforded us that opportunity, as it showed to her that I wanted this partnership to work no matter what; it gave me the language and space to fix many of our ongoing issues. Now, as new hurdles continue to pop up, we have the tools to address them as a pair. Finally.