BOUNDARIES & RECIPROCITY: SPOUSE/PARTNER ISSUES AT CALIFORNIA UNITY
by Melanie Yarborough
At the California Unity conference in 1997 in Long Beach, one workshop was dedicated to couples issues. Panel members included Jane Ellen Fairfax (Tri-Ess Board of Directors) and Frances Fairfax (editor of The Femme Mirror), Pam G, Treasurer of the San Diego Group Neutral Corner and her spouse Janet, and Sharon and Sharlene (member of the wives' support group Pathfinders).
During the course of the workshop, a number of important points about transgendered behavior and its effect on a relationship came out which deserve emphasis.
How do crossdressers inform their wives of their situation? In all too many cases, unfortunately by accident: for example, when unfamiliar women's clothing was discovered around the house. In Pam's case, she told her then-fiancee Janet "This is something I do because I live alone, and once we're married it'll go away".
They may have both wished this were true, and it initially gave a face-saving way out. Yet as they both later learned, it didn't just "go away".
Jane Ellen broke the news to Frances by first doing research on the subject, and then telling her this was an extra side of her pesonality, a feminine side expressed by crossdressing. Jane Ellen was careful to let Frances know from the outset "You're not going to lose me to this". One audience member, Dana, underscored this by saying "It's the crossdresser's responsibility to educate their partner."
The wives initially had many fears when told. The first was that they were going to lose their husbands to this strange new "third person". They valued their husband's masculinity, and were afraid of the loss of it. Another concern was if this would become public knowledge, and adversely affect a family's livilihood or make them social outcasts. And on a more basic level, it was a fear of the unknown: where was this going to lead?
Sharlene candidly admits "When I first found out about it, I wasn't willing to accept it. I was pretty much in a state of denial. I'd ask him how he and his 'condition' were doing". Sharlene also felt the urgent need for someone to talk to on this, but didn't know where to turn. She set an initial boundary of sight; crossdressing was tolerated, but only as long as she didn't have to see it. Janet also observed "It felt like I was in competition with another woman".
Why do some marriages break up over this issue? The panel agreed that it has to do with selfishness, a crossdresser focusing on their own needs and not caring about or respecting their partner's needs. Jane Ellen emphasizes "Crossdressing by itself doesn't break up a marriage, but it can become the lightning rod, the big bad thing that's dragged into everything." Sharlene also pointed out that it's important to have a strong foundation in the marriage to begin with. There has to be a communication level to build on, to be able to address not only transgender issues, as well as other marriage and family matters.
A significant issue addressed during group discussion was "Gender Euphoria", that exhiliarating time when a Crossdresser first comes out. Janet sees that "It seems the freedom goes wild-they want to go out dressed every weekend, then more and more....it becomes an all-consuming need where there's no end". Frances also observes that "He's making up for lost time [of having not grown up as a girl] and is learning a lot about makeup and clothing"- to the detriment of attention to other things in the marriage. For example, if the crossdresser's femme side starts taking the lion's share of the family budget and time, it's a problem.
Kathy Helms, President of Tri-Ess Alpha Chapter, brought up a significant point in the group discussion: Many males can express transgendered behavior in a male way. Men are more visual than women, and accordingly will focus on the more visual aspects of femininity: hair, makeup, wardrobe, breasts. They are also by definition more action oriented than women. They tend to want to DO things rather than BE things. As a result, the more subjective aspects of female behavior are often disregarded in favor of the more visual ones.
Wives can set boundaries, but it's a quintessentially male thing to test boundaries, to see how far things can be pushed. It's crucial that women understand boundary-testing isn't necessarily a male imposition. It's a natural component of masculinity-that same masculinity they value in their mates.
Organizations like SPICE and PATHFINDERS have recently become a part of this debate. Many husbands send their wives to these groups with the hope that they'll get their wives "fixed", to be more accepting. Frances points out unequivocably that "Neither SPICE nor women's support groups are here to turn us into perfect little Stepford wives". The flip side of this is that many husbands keep their wives away from such groups for fear that the wives will become empowered to the point of demanding a stop to crossdressing behavior. Neither approach reflects the reality of such groups. Their role is to provide a forum for genetic women to discuss issues and come up with workable solutions.
Jane Ellen says "You've go to give your wife time, listen to her concerns". An empathetic crossdresser will learn to listen and cut back. However, "There's nothing that says that lack of empathy pertains only to crossdressers. There must be compromise on both sides". Wives need to also be willing to dialogue about it, not to draw inflexible boundaries which can never be negotiated. But, as Sharlene says, "Respect your wife's right to not have to be a part of it".
Janet asked, rhetorically "Why can't a crossdressing husband act like a woman in other ways that matter, like talking, discussing things?". Jane Ellen addressed this in conclusion by saying "The best thing a crossdresser can do is to feminize his soul. They've never learned to listen or to develop those same traits they love in women. If we become more feminine in our outlook, our wives may allow us to be more feminine in our clothing".
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