Coming Out To Your Wife
Copyright © 2007, 2008 by Valentina Simmons
Every day you find another transgendered person asking for information on coming out to her wife, children, or parents. Or that her wife has discovered her. Or just asking what it was like to come out for me, and what their story was about coming out.
Coming out is a big moment in the life of a transgendered person – cross-dresser, transsexual, etc. It is a life-changing but important step in a person’s acceptance of who and what they are, and represents a change in the trust relationship with those they care about.
This article is written for people who are transgendered and are married, mostly for the male to female who has a wife. For the transgendered person I hope it is a starting point on your path to total honesty to your spouse. For the spouse, I hope that it provides some understanding for what your transgendered partner is going through.
(Note: I use female pronouns for the transgendered partner. And I use transgendered person and trans-person as a catch-all for cross-dressers, transvestites, transsexuals, and other labels you might be more familiar with.)
A little terminology first…
Coming out is the act of informing someone that you are transgendered, gay, bi, or whatever secret you may be keeping about yourself.
Being outed is when someone else informs others that you have this secret.
Discovery is when someone else finds out your secret. They may (or may not) inform the person whose secret they have discovered that they know.
I believe that even if you are “discovered” or “outed” it does not mean that you have “come out”. You might deny it, for example. Whether or not it is true is immaterial to the matter – if you do not admit it to the person who discovered you or to the people who were told when you were outed, you cannot count that as coming out to them. Only by accepting it as true can you say you have come out.
Years before I finally came out to her I was discovered a couple of times by my wife, and both times I denied the truth – that I am a transgendered person. I had spent so much time trying to just “get over it” and I thought, finally, this was the incentive – a promise that I could just stop. I went into a decade-long denial, only to have it eventually become too strong for me to deny. I was depressed, and trying to figure out the reason, I would always struggle with this urge to dress and related issues. So I eventually decided to accept it, and it helped my depression. Finally, when I was asked by my wife if I thought about dressing, I admitted to her that I do and I am transgendered. The truth is now in the open, and in my case it has been a godsend.
Why should you come out to your spouse?
Knowing what I now know, I should have come out to my wife years ago. There are lots of good reasons you should come out to your wife if you are married:
- Marriage depends on honesty and trust. If you cannot be honest and truthful to your wife about who you are, what can you really be truthful about? And showing her you trust her is very important.
- You will save yourself a lot of stress. You won’t have to worry if she will find who or what you are or where you’ve hidden your things – it’s all in the open.
- This person has committed the rest of her life to live with and love you. Coming out acknowledges this and lets her know that you
I now realize that there is a bit of an “I know what’s best” attitude that permeates the logic of hiding. The trans-person unilaterally decides that they know what’s right and what’s best “for the sake of the marriage”, not considering the wishes, desires, or opinions of the wife. There’s also an implicit contempt in the ability of your wife to see the truth and an exaggerated belief in how much cleverer you are – after all, she hasn’t figured it out so far, you must be hiding it well. But maybe she already knows, but doesn’t want to believe it, or she doesn’t want you to know for some other reason. We’re not as clever as we think, and at some point you will make a mistake that she will see.
I’ve heard all the arguments as to why trans-people do not come out: (I used to use them myself at various times)
- She will leave me. Maybe, but will it be because of the dressing, you being feminine or a woman, or is it because you’ve lost trust due to your hiding and lying?
- Our sex life will disappear completely. Most of our sex drive is driven by our mental state. If you have a “big secret” or are hiding something, that affects the trust you both have, and it will make it hard to communicate. Transgendered sexuality is a big topic, too big for me to cover here. A good reference is chapter six of the book “My Husband Betty” by Helen Boyd.
- She won’t see me as a man any more.
At the end of the day, whether these are valid or not is not important. These are the costs of hiding it from her for so long. Once again, the real problem is trust.
The Trust Issue
I have two different times when the transgendered issue came up between me and my wife, separated by over 12 years. In the first instance I was discovered when I was not willing to accept myself. In the second, she asked me if I still thought about dressing, and I had accepted myself and finally came out to her. Both times I had to deal with a lot of anger, but less so in the latter case. While I got the standard questions (see later on in this article), the problem ultimately centered on an inherent lack of openness and communication between us.
The trust issue.
One complaint that my wife has is that before we got married I didn’t let her know I was transgendered and, therefore, didn’t give her an honest way to get out of the relationship. Quite true – I hadn’t accepted myself, so there’s no way I was mentally able to be honest to anyone about it at that point. Even when she caught me years later I still wasn’t able to be honest about it to myself, let alone to her.
Now I’ve been exceptionally lucky in that my wife is trying to accept my transgenderism. Some of it was due to timing, some if it is due to her personality. There are some things I did that made a big difference, though:
- It’s not enough to say “I Love You” to her. If you mean it, show it by your deeds. Talk is cheap. For me it’s meant picking up some of the workload around the house, and trying to find small ways that I could pleasantly surprise her. Cards only go so far – write a love poem! Watch a movie she loves! Just sit and cuddle whenever you can!
- If you’re like me you’ll find that you might have worked hard to hide thing you felt might have given you away, like reading fashion magazines or helping her with her nails. Find those things that she likes to do that you would avoid!
- Talk frankly about your sexual relationship. Be willing to listen, and be very willing to take a lot of criticism.
- Be willing to listen to her worries about subjects you may not care about. Perhaps you are missing something important. At the very least, you are getting a better understanding of what is important to her, and that makes it important to you.
That last point is a big one. People tend to get so wrapped up in their worries and concerns, trans or otherwise, that they ignore potentially important concerns about other areas. This helps you stay grounded in life. Too often I see trans people forget about other issues that they have to deal with because they just stopped listening; the cost is more than your marriage, it is your self worth.
What are the “Standard Questions”?
When you come out to your wife, in addition to anger, there are several questions that you will have to deal with (what I call the “standard questions”). How you answer these, and how your wife deals with the answers, will be a determiner in what happens between you two. These questions include:
- Are you gay or bi-sexual? The vast majority of transgendered people are straight cross-dressers, but the biggest public images of a “man in a dress” is of drag queens and female impersonators, most of whom are gay. It’s a separate issue.
- Do you want to be a woman? The second most common public image is of transsexual women line Renee Richards and Jennifer Finney Boylan, who have gone through what is known as either sexual reassignment surgery (or SRS) or gender reassignment surgery (or GRS). Other trans-women transition from one gender to another without surgery, or with less-invasive treatment (such as hormone replacement therapy (or HRT) or facial feminization surgery (or FFS)). Some do nothing at all but live as women. Again, this is not the majority of transgendered people – the vast majority are cross-dressers who have no desire to become women.
- Were you attracted to me because of my masculine traits? This is a hugely debated topic. There are so many counter-examples, however, that there is no real hard-and-fast rule here. Similarly, there’s the question:
- Was I (the wife) attracted to you because of your feminine traits? Perhaps she was attracted to your feminine side – maybe you are a more compassionate, caring, nurturing male. But maybe not. In my case my feminine side did help to differentiate me from others, but she was initially attracted to my male elements.
- Am I lesbian or bisexual? Wives sometimes wonder if you were giving off a feminine feeling that attracted them, and that it means they desire to be with women instead of men. The truth is your wife’s sexuality has nothing to do with your trans-behavior. My wife is very straight and has no lesbian or bisexual urges at all.
- Why didn’t you tell me this before we got married? This is a hard question and it and has a lot to do with self-acceptance and “the trust issue.” Your wife is saying to you “Why didn’t you trust me sooner?” or “Why didn’t you give me the choice to get out of the marriage when it was easier?” There are any transgendered people hope marriage will make it “go away”. It doesn’t.
It helps to put yourself into her shoes here (I mean figuratively, hon!). You have to understand that you have had transgendered feelings for some time (in my case since I was a little boy). To you, coming out represents an opening of your true self to your wife, and taking a chance that she is going to still see the person she fell in love with.
For your wife, coming out is a big, unexpected change, no matter how much she may suspect. Most wives do not know what this means, and they are conditioned by a society that looks on any trans-activity as abnormal at best. Some wives understand that you are entrusting them with the keys to your soul. But they know you were hiding something from them, and that hurts. And they do look at you as someone different.
“I’m Still Me!”
One of the most common statements that we transgendered people say when we come out is “I’m still me!” I said it when I was coming out, and I know others who did. And it didn’t help.
What we are trying to communicate here and what is heard are two different things, however. We are saying “I was always this way, I haven’t changed.” But think about it – what are we really saying with this? That we’re going to act the same? That nothing has changed? Inside, you may be the same person, but your wife is having to deal with an aspect of you she never had to deal with before. If trust is an issue, this might be perceived as a disingenuous comment, and you might find that she is even less inclined to trust you.
Are there other issues in your marriage?
Having a transgendered partner in a marriage complicates things. If your marriage is already in trouble, it could easily be the thing that causes it to fall apart completely. Even if your marriage is strong, the trust issue and the transgender issue together might be enough to cause it to fall apart. Consider that the trust and transgender issues might be the cause of the other problems. The stresses of hiding a big secret can cause people to find ways to relieve the problem, such as substance abuse or extra-marital affairs. If you have other issues, you have to consider if the trans and trust issues could be the cause. They may not be, but they might be perceived as the cause anyway. So what should I do?
How does someone tell a loved one that you’re a trans-person? It’s not easy, and there are no guarantees as to how things will ultimately work out. The best thing I recommend is preparation. She’s going to have a LOT of questions for you, and in all likelihood be upset at you for a while. Or she may ask a few questions and then turn you the cold shoulder for a while, refusing to acknowledge the subject. She may leave you or kick you out, but that is less common than you would suspect.
Realize that you are going to be both an untrusted person and the main trusted source of information all at the same time. It’s this contradiction that causes some trans-people to get into trouble by assuming that their wives are accepting things a lot more than they really are. Your wife is going to be in pain for a long time. To some of them it seems like the husband they knew has died and they go into something similar to. To some it’s worse than if you had an affair, because at least an affair can end. Some find it humiliating. (Note: It’s not always bad – I’ve known a case where the wife was excited and very happy to have a cross-dresser for a husband so that they could share a lot of things together, but that is a very isolated case.)
The way you deal with this will affect the outcome of this more than you can imagine. Remember, these are first reactions and are not necessarily indicative of how your spouse will truly feel. The most important considerations are being sensitive to your wife’s needs, being compassionate, listening and communicating, and, most of all, be loving.
- Be Sensitive to her needs: She is going to need support, either from you or others. You have to understand that she is going to feel disoriented. The worst thing you could do, for example, would be to be fully dressed when you tell her – it is always best to be in your male mode – then take it from there. For me it was showing my wife my clothes and her asking to see me in them at her speed (which was several days after coming out). Then the next time a little more, etc. It took me four months to get to being fully dressed, with make-up and a wig, but for some that might be too fast. I go by the belief that for every five miles you want to go your wife wants to move a foot. And remember that just because she say’s she wants to see it all now, that doesn’t mean she’s ready to see it all now.
- Be Compassionate: Be understanding of how your wife feels. She’s going through a very tough time. You have dropped a bombshell on her; she needs you to understand how she feels and what she is going through. You need her to know that you understand, or at least are trying to understand the pain she feels. And if she wants to talk to someone else, that’s okay. The worst thing you can do is try to control the situation – it comes across as trying to hide something.
- Listen and communicate: You wife is going to go through a lot of emotions, and so are you. Listen to what she has to say, and say what you feel, but remember to be sensitive, compassionate, and loving all the time. And, again, be ready to take a lot of criticism and abuse, but never give abuse to your spouse. She might feel the need to lash out at you, either to relieve her own pain or to make you feel as bad as she does.I
- Love: If your marriage is like most, you both married because you fell in love. She is going to be questioning how much you love her. You need to make an extra effort to let her know how you feel. Buy flowers. Spend extra time with her. Watch that movie she wants but you cannot stand. You can’t just say that you love her – you have to show her.
Research, or easy steps you can take
(A good reference is the Resources section of this web site.)
Read everything you can on being a spouse of a trans-person. There are now a number of really good books out there that cover a variety of different scenarios. They will help you to understand a lot of what is going on in your wife’s head and in your own as well.
The Internet is a great resource. Web sites like this one, Helen Boyd’s blog and discussion group (myhusbanbetty.com), The Crossdressers Forum (crossdressers.com), U R Not Alone (urnotalone.com), Transsexual Road Map (tsroadmap.com), and The Gender Education and Advocacy Website gender.org) provide a wealth of information as well as a way to find other transgendered people and supporters to talk with.
There are support groups that you can go to that are receptive to spouses. There is Tri-Ess, which is focused on married cross-dressers exclusively (their web site is tri-ess.org). Another, smaller organization is Renaissance, which has chapters mostly in the northeastern US (ren.org) but is open to a wider variety of transgendered people.
Finding a good therapist or counselor can help avoid problems before they happen. They can also help you before you come out to help you figure out what is the best approach to take, and, afterwards, they can help you and your wife figure out what is the best path for the two of you. Be sure that the person you find is trained in gender issues, however, and is a good listener. How will it work out?
The biggest question of all – how will she take it? Based on conversations I’ve had, and my own experiences, there are several common immediate reactions:
- Anger: You have been hiding and lying. Or you deceived her from the very beginning.
- Shock: You’ve dropped a big, unexpected bomb on her.
- Crying: She is in pain.
- Silence: She doesn’t know how to react.
- Fear: What if her friends find out? Or what if you get hurt? And what does the future hold for us?
You may get one or all of these, in sequence or at the same time. And this will last for a while.
And there will be questions – lots of questions – the standard ones, and other questions (such as “Have you ever been in public as a woman”, “Who else knows”, or the like). Your trans-life history will also be a big topic. Be honest, don’t dodge these questions, and be very, very understanding to her reaction. This is where compassion and sensitivity are so important.
After the initial phase you may see one or more of the following behaviors:
- The cold shoulder: Things get very chilly between you and your spouse. She is looking at you differently, and you are looking at her through fearful eyes.
- Researching: Your wife might need to have some reference material to read. Be sure that you either have read it in advance or are reading it together. And be warned – she will come to you with more questions, some very hard for you to answer.
- Snide comments: She might devalue you a lot, and insult you at every opportunity. Especially hurtful are comments about your manhood and your sex life. Do not, under any circumstance, get angry or mad at her. She is in pain, and people in pain say things they do not mean.
- Sex life changes: Some wives have a hard time seeing the man they fell in love with, instead seeing this non-man who is taking his place. If you have any issues in your sex life, then it will in all likelihood suffer, at least for a while. Do not force the issue, go at her speed.
- Love: In some cases, the opposite happens – the wife sees that you have been living in fear and hiding and they feel so bad that you have felt like this. They want to reach out and comfort you, and let you know that it’s good that you have opened up to them.
Some wives cannot tolerate a man who cross-dresses occasionally; other wives can stay with a husband even after he has had SRS and is physically a woman. It really depends on the strength of the bond between the two of you, your evolution as a trans-person, and the compromises that the two of you make to keep the marriage together.
According to the percentages, it is roughly an even split between marriages that succeed and marriages that end in divorce, with a slight tip towards divorce. That does not factor in the trans issue at all. Empirical evidence suggests that the divorce rate is higher when one of the partners is trans, but whether it is the trans-issue alone or other mitigating factors is not well understood (by other mitigating factors I mean trust issues, infidelity, abuse, or other factors).
My final coming out in brief
When I decided to accept myself as transgendered, I realized that at some point I had to open up about this with my wife. My discovery a dozen years or so earlier had conditioned me to realize that she wasn’t going to be accepting – in fact, I feared that my marriage would end when I told her the truth. I just couldn’t see any other alternative for us. I didn’t want that it to end, and I cried a lot the prospect. I also realized that there was no way that it was going to stop, so I realized that I had to take the risk. It was the only way to make the situation right. I have a philosophy of “plan for the worst and hope for the best” that gets me through hard times, and I was seeing the hardest ahead of me!
The one thing I decided to do was plan it out. I knew when I wanted to come out, so I thought I had time. I started reading books on spouses of transgendered women/cross-dressers. I found web sites. Through this I found Helen Boyd’s blog, and that interested me enough to buy a copy of My Husband Betty, which is a great book focused on transgendered relationships from the point of view of a spouse. Research was an important part of understanding who I was and how it would affect others around me.
One of my online contacts had information about a place that did makeovers for transgendered people like me (the place was FemmeFever in Long Island, NY, but there are others around the countr). I called a couple of times and scheduled an appointment. Karen, who did the makeover, has helped a lot of trans-people deal with all sorts of issues and was a great help to me. It was the first time in my life that I truly saw myself as a woman in the flesh, and it unleashed a torrent of thoughts and feelings about me. We discussed my plan of coming out in a year from that point. She thought it was a logical approach.
T-minus one year. Or so I thought. There was only one flaw in my plan – no one told my wife.
A few days after my makeover, by luck, my wife and I were taking a walk in a beautiful park not to far from our home. We were sitting on a bench, and my wife, with some distress, decided to ask me if I still thought about dressing. A million things went through my mind in that second. My 1-year plan! But if I deny it and come out a year later, that will probably be worse than having it all fall apart now. I wasn’t ready to be on my own now, damn it all! I wanted to just disappear and have the question go away. But I couldn’t, and it never does.
I was finally guided by the thoughts of Viktor Frankl (“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”). I was in that space at that moment. I chose to tell the truth and said yes. So there I was – finally being honest to myself and my wife, but the cost would be the 23+ years of marriage and love we had.
Or so I thought.
I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who was playing the scene from a dozen years ago back in my head all the time. My wife had thought a lot over the years about it, and had done some research on her own. She realized it was not going to go away. She also realized that the anger she had shown me when she discovered me years earlier only resulted in my hiding it from her even deeper. She wanted to know how I truly felt so that she could decide how she wanted to deal with the rest of her life. Keeping it hidden tied her hands as bad as it tied mine!
This isn’t to say that she wasn’t upset – she was. Very upset. But I had decided to be as open as I possibly could be. I started to do lots of little things around the house. If she needed me to do something, I was there, unquestioningly ready to help.
And then there was the first magic moment – a few days after I came out. I took our youngest to a concert, and when I came home my wife shut the door in our bedroom and gave me a card and a present. The card said “I love you – and I don’t want you to be alone.” The present was a dress. She asked me to put it on, and I did. It was a new start for us. And she even took me shopping a few days later.
Then she read My Husband Betty and came with a lot of questions a few days later. That was a hard day, because what came out was that she was angry that when it would have been easy for her to leave I wasn’t honest to her (before we were married). A lot of anger. But that subsided for a scary reason: our youngest came to us a couple weeks after I came out and told us of a suicidal depression he felt. Suddenly coming out was a backburner issue, still there but on simmer. But coming out did help in that just when we needed to be open communicating to each other we were able to. And our youngest child’s issue put my trans in perspective for her, making it less threatening.
For me, coming out to her went from my personal fear to helping to save a life. I do not wish this scenario on anyone, but my point is that you will find that living a life of openness provides much better rewards than living a life of secrets and lies.
Now I do not paint myself as a saint – far from it. A side-effect of years of lying and hiding is how hard it is to break that cycle. I have had lapses, and I still find myself hiding things sometimes. I wonder if my habit of not bringing up my trans-ness is due to being considerate of my wife or because I’m too used to not talking about it. To me that is a big cost – I feel like a dishonest person. I hate it, but I was, and probably still am.
And there’s the legacy of pain. My wife’s philosophy these days is that one of us is always going to be sad – either her because of my desire to be feminine or me because I cannot express myself. But she has stated that she wants to always be there for me. And our love is so much stronger than ever, and we are closer than ever. But it’s still early in our relationship. I think we’ll make it, but the future is so uncertain. If you read Helen Boyd’s second book, She’s Not the Man I Married, you see that this is not a unique situation.
My story seems to have a happy ending, and it shows that there is hope when you come out. We are adding more stories to the web site, some with happy endings, some not, but all from the heart. I do not believe in sugar-coating the coming out process – it is not easy or taken lightly – but I feel that coming out to your spouse is one of the most important things you can do in your life.