He Said, S/he Said: Untangling a Complex Couple Dynamic

Therapist - May 2006.jpgThis article originally appeared in The Therapist, May-June 2006

My new client sat across from me with her hands folded in her lap. Irene, (not her real name) was in her early forties. She fidgeted, her generous body in constant motion as she tugged at her cropped brown hair.

Irene’s Story

Irene had a problem, she said, and the problem was her husband of five years. When they first married, he had been zany and fun-loving, a joyful addition to her life. A few months ago he had lost his job, and instead of looking for more work, he sat passively in their apartment. Irene sent out resumes on his behalf, and called to set job interview appointments for him. Robert (also a pseudonym) didn’t go to any interviews. He didn’t refuse to go; he simply sat and could not be prevailed upon to leave the house, or even move. As I talked to Irene more over several visits, more details came out. Robert would not go out and get coffee with her or meet friends for lunch. Robert would not pay bills, wash dishes, or put gas in the car. And finally: Robert was feeling suicidal.

Robert’s Story

I met with Robert. He was a slightly-built man with delicate features and bright blue eyes. It was clear he was depressed, but I had a hunch there was more to the story. He hinted at secrets. Over the course of several sessions, I tried to draw him out. He started talking about gender bending. At first, he refused to be specific about what this meant. Then, one day, the whole story spilled out.

He told me that since his early twenties, he had occasionally dressed in female clothing and gone out to clubs in San Francisco’s (predominantly gay) Castro District. With his slender figure and small features, he would have been able to pass as female, but passing wasn’t his goal. In fact, he usually made a point of mixing aspects of masculine and feminine attire and presentation, e.g. painted nails, lipstick, and five o’ clock shadow.

He took on symbols of womanhood (women’s jeans always fit me best) to get in touch with and express his own feminine side. He wasn’t sexually attracted to men. In fact, in his younger days, when he had considered getting a sex-change operation, he had always imagined himself as a lesbian-to-be. The primary reason for going to the Castro District was that this was a safe place to experiment.

Robert had been doing this regularly for about fifteen years when he met Irene. Early on in their dating phase, she insisted that he stop all aspects of his gender bending. He was reluctant, but finally agreed because he valued their relationship. However, this loss of a vital part of himself had gradually undermined his joy of life.

Digging Deeper

I saw Irene and Robert both separately and together for several months. Over time, a clearer picture gradually emerged. Among other things, Irene experienced Roberts gender bending as a form of competition with her own femininity. She had often felt uncomfortable and awkward with her identity as a woman, and she felt that Robert was a competitor in this area. Indeed, she sometimes felt that he was a better woman than she was. A large portion of her ultimatum to Robert early in their relationship had to do with this perceived competition.

Irene also felt unappreciated for all the work she had done to maintain their household and their relationship. With his depression taking him out of the picture as a partner, she had to pick up the slack. Robert felt nagged and thus found it hard to appreciate her efforts. Since stress increased his desire for transgender behavior, the nagging led to a greater drive for gender bending which he was unable to act on. He was caught in a bind. This made him more passive, and made her more angry, and then more cut off emotionally.

Robert said that he wanted to save save his marriage to Irene. He maintained that he was very attracted to her and also very emotionally attached. Irene, wanted to continue the relationship as well, but not with the wan and lethargic man her husband had become. She wanted the old Robert back.

As I continued to work with this couple, it became clear that Roberts gender-bending was really a non-negotiable issue for him. His identity was primarily built around his feminine side. When he had given this up to get married, he had given up his vitality along with it.

In sum, both partners said they wanted to save the relationship. Was it possible?

Plotting a Course

I set a number of therapeutic goals for Robert and Irene and worked with them in both individual and conjoint therapy over a period of months.

In Irene’s therapy, I worked on helping her:

  • Establish exactly what was hard for her about Roberts transgender behavior
  • Understand what she would need in order for the gender bending to be integrated into the relationship
  • Find a benefit in Roberts transgender activities, including understanding the link between the gender bending and his vitality
  • Become more emotionally available
  • Move away from seeing her femininity as being in competition with Robert’s

In Robert’s therapy, I strove to:

  • Bring into consciousness the benefits he was seeking through gender-bending and find out what it was that he needed
  • Increase his empathy for Irene
  • Encourage him to acknowledge Irene’s feminine side and her efforts to be more emotionally available

Initially, simply providing Robert with a forum to talk about the fact that he felt crippled without his transgender activities. Ultimately, Irene was faced with a clear choice: if she was willing to accept Roberts overt expression of his feminine side, she could regain the energetic and fun-loving husband she once enjoyed so much. After some consideration, Irene said she was willing to give it a try.

Almost Home

As Irene moved away from seeing Roberts gender-bending as a threat to her own womanhood, she was able to become more emotionally available. And that meant she was able to be with him as he really was rather than holding out and waiting for an idealized version of her husband to show up. As the pressure came off him to be normal, Robert bounced back from his depression and again became the person Irene had originally fallen in love with. As he became less passive and more capable of effective action in the world, her anxiety decreased and so did her nagging.

Their satisfaction with their relationship, themselves, and each other continued to build over time as each person relaxed more and more fully into their unique and accepted roles. It was a good outcome. Maybe one day they’ll even paint their toenails together.

©2006 Gayle Paul, M.A.

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