Trans Widows & Counselling
Thanks to improved awareness and resourcing, there are now multiple counselling and support services for individuals contemplating gender transition, at whatever age. Some services also offer support to family members and loved ones affected by an individual's transition. But the experience of many partners seeking help is that these primarily offer, after an acknowledgement of the trauma and loss involved for many partners, re-education and encouragement of acceptance.
For many partners this is of limited help, and can compound their feelings of anger and isolation. Many partners do not feel positively about gender transition, and do not want to stay with their partner; it is estimated that around half of relationships break down at this point. Finding a counsellor who was non-judgemental of my situation and my negative feelings about my husband's decision, proved difficult. One tried to convince me that I was simply in denial of a factual truth about his womanhood; another appeared bewildered by my unusual circumstances. And it is very difficult to find peer support, as partners who do not accept transition and do not stay in the relationship, tend to hide in isolation for fear of criticism or being labelled transphobic. Many seek peer support online, in informal networks, and report experiences of unhelpful counselling from various sources, which questions their decision not to stay with their partners, or their definition of their own history and experience. Such experiences are ultimately damaging and isolating and can be a deterrent to seeking further help.
When my husband announced his intention to transition after 20 years of marriage, quite unexpectedly, I was very fortunate. I accessed counselling through a workplace scheme, and was allocated to a counsellor who skilfully and rapidly formed a very productive therapeutic relationship with me. From the outset she worked with my situation as ‘a loss, not a rejection’, without judgement or any drive to educate me about my misconceptions or state of denial. She held and contained my rage and distress and I never felt that my feelings were invalid or shameful. She repeatedly reminded me that ‘I feel as I feel’, and that accepting these difficult feelings was a starting-point for change.
It was a revelation to have my feelings accepted. They were feelings I had learned, as a partner of someone planning to transition, amidst a media storm of positive messages about transition, that I was not meant to feel, or share. I was shocked and felt profoundly betrayed and lied-to. I was overwhelmed with anger at what I perceived to be my husband’s selfishness, terrible timing in my children’s lives, and lack of consideration for our feelings. I felt revulsion at the physical aspects of his planned transition, and shame at this secret, and that I had not at any point in my marriage suspected it. Perhaps worst of all, I felt a fool, ashamed and embarrassed that my circumstances were so ‘weird’, and that perhaps there was something wrong with me. I felt utterly lost and at times mad with grief and rage.
A gentle, key message from the counsellor was that my husband ‘believes he is a woman even if you don't' . While accepting my feelings of disbelief and scepticism that my husband was in fact female, she reminded me that my husband's erratic and at times reckless, boundary-pushing behaviours following his announcement might be driven by his absolute conviction that he was a woman, and had no choice but to rapidly pursue this.
From our first session, the counsellor explicitly named my grief; we talked about the experience as a living bereavement. My husband had in my eyes disappeared, behaved in ways that made me feel he was a completely different person, and seemed to break away from me, our history, our marriage and the family, as soon as he had dropped the bombshell.
We revisited together the Victim/Persecutor/Rescuer triangle, and she gently challenged my victim role. She also challenged my rage at the unfairness of my situation, and – to our mutual amusement despite my distress – my notion that life was or should be fair!
Much of the counsellor’s work, I imagine, was similar to any work with people experiencing loss or divorce, exploring assumptions and unhelpful thinking, and the non-linear nature of bereavement.
She showed me the revelation that I can be okay even if my situation is not okay. That I can choose that, and that by choosing ‘being okay’, it doesn’t mean I condone another person’s behaviour.
I was not chastised for 'misgendering' him as other women in my position report when seeking counselling support from trans organisations. I was allowed to call 'him' 'him', as that was my lived experience and the reality of my personal history and self-definition.
I was not re-educated; I fully understood the thinking on transgenderism, and what the experience is like for individuals coming to that decision. My counsellor did not take a stance of needing to correct my thinking or outlook, nor needing to keep me in my marriage.
And crucially, she helped me notice that my life was otherwise wonderful and full of positives and possibilities. And reflected with me that whatever happens, I can cope with it. She reconnected me with my sense of being a good person, a good mother, and good at my job and at no time strayed into judgement or correction of my beliefs about my husband’s transition or status as a woman.
There is growing interest in the support needs of partners of transitioners; people in this very isolated and unusual position need non-judgemental and sensitive support, whether they accept and want to stay, or are unhappy and unwilling to join the transition journey. That is how I survived what is a life-changing, devastating experience for many people and reached peace in my new life.
If you have also been affected by any of the issues in this story, please view our Resources page.