My husband, the woman: The private anguish of having a spouse in transition

After 21 years of marriage, he gave me the news. He is finally becoming himself — but I am more lost than ever

Published March 9, 2015 12:00AM (EDT)

   (<a href='bravo1954'>bravo1954</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(bravo1954 via iStock)

I saw a headline recently reporting how proud Bruce Jenner’s mother is of him (her). While that’s both noble and supportive, what I haven’t seen are stories about the private struggle — the husbands, wives and children who suddenly find themselves faced with difficult choices.

I’m here to tell you one.

Eighteen months ago, I had a home, a good career, beautiful children and a fabulous husband. After 21 years of marriage, my children were graduating high school and moving on to college dorm rooms. My husband and I were finally becoming empty nesters. We talked about the places we would visit and the things we would do. I was secretly looking forward to the time I would have grandchildren to babysit and love on. We had our fair share of ups and downs, but life was pretty close to perfect.

Then one night, about 15 months ago, my husband sat me down to tell me something that would shatter my entire existence. He felt like he was meant to be a woman. He confessed to dressing up in his mother’s and sister’s clothes in high school when they weren’t home. He said he’d always known something wasn’t quite right, but it was only recently he’d been able to put his finger on it. After months of soul searching, he decided his only option was to transition.

I was shocked. I never knew he’d questioned his gender. In all the years I’d known him, there were no clues. Never a single sign anything was amiss. In retrospect, I’m glad he at least had the courage to tell me. I’ve read stories about women who came upon size 12 women’s shoes and makeup kits while unpacking a suitcase after a business trip.

After that night, things changed rapidly around our house. There was a blond wig in his closet. He began buying dresses and matching leggings. Shoes came in the mail, usually in the form of four-inch patent leather platform heels. He purchased a waist cincher and began to talk about waist training. My husband worked from home when he wasn’t traveling, so he had the house to himself for hours every day. I began to notice foundation spilled in his sink, pink nail polish and lipstick in his nightstand. It quickly became clear what was going on when I wasn’t home. Vestiges of eyeliner on his face during dinner proved me right. Shortly before his Facebook page disappeared (and very much without warning), he made a general announcement to the world he was transgender. I soon received a friend request from a woman who looked vaguely like the man I married.

The ensuing months were filled with crying, arguments, questions and confusion. I didn’t know I had so many tears. Who would walk our daughter down the aisle? What was going to happen on Father’s Day? Who would I share dinner with on Valentine’s Day? What was going to happen to our marriage? What about our children’s friends? What would they say and think? On one hand, I was enraged by the revelation. How could he keep this from me all these years? I felt like he was lying to me when we got married and now it was up to me to figure out how to put the pieces back together. I was mad at myself for never once picking up on anything. It never occurred to me that when we were out shopping and he'd suggest an outfit he thought would look nice on me, he might secretly want to wear it himself. Mostly I was devastated. I felt like I was losing my husband to a woman I couldn't fight and refused to even look at. I began to feel like there were three people in our relationship. Even worse, I began to believe our marriage had an expiration date on it.

I had more questions than answers. In an effort to cope, I began to read. “She’s Not the Man I Married” and “Head Over Heels” let me know I wasn’t alone. They even taught me our marriage had a shot at surviving. It was a small chance, but a chance nonetheless. Along the way, I read a quote I could associate with my unwelcome situation: “When a man comes out of his closet, a woman goes into hers.” The truth in those words didn’t take long to become apparent. When the pink razor he began using to shave his body hair found its way into our shower, I lost my desire to shave my own legs. When he began religiously visiting the salon to get his eyebrows threaded every two weeks, mine began to grow wild. I lost the desire to dress nicely and wear makeup; earrings and watches went unused. I felt like I’d lost my place in our relationship. My roles of wife and mother were being supplanted. Our well-meaning son bought him a Mother’s Day gift and began privately calling him “Mom.” How exactly was I supposed to feel?

I soon found myself fighting unimaginable anxiety. My heart would pound, my chest would tighten, my head would swim and I would feel like I was suffocating. Sometimes I felt like my entire body was shaking. The tiniest thing would bring on these attacks. Sometimes I felt nauseated just seeing high-heeled shoes in the store. You have to understand that, for women like me, the concept of shoes, clothes and makeup has taken a whole new meaning in our lives. One evening, my husband came home with a purple suitcase. My luggage was purple. His choosing that color made me feel like he was chipping away more and more at me. Now he packs it with his wig, dresses, shoes and makeup and takes it on business trips with him. Nowadays when he’s away and calls to say good night, I get panicky wondering if he’s lounging in panties and yoga pants while he’s telling me he loves me. I tremble while I speculate if he’ll come home with hastily removed sparkly polish on his toes again. And, ridiculous as it sounds, that purple suitcase still keeps me awake at night.

With no one else to talk to, I found an online support group full of the most wonderful, supportive women I’d ever encountered from all over the world. Some of them were in their 70s, others in their 20s. They were wives, girlfriends, mothers of grown and small children alike. Some had been married for decades, others just a few years. They were struggling with husbands who cross-dressed, were considering transition, or were in the middle or hormone therapy. No matter what their situation, they all understood how I felt. They suggested I find a good therapist. When I did that, she referred me to a psychiatrist. She helped me deal with the never-ending anxiety. I now subsist on a steady stream of antidepressants and Xanax.

My husband constantly asks me what I'm so afraid of, as if he's asking me to go skydiving or cliff jumping. Let's start with everything. I am suddenly afraid of everything. I was a confident, fearless child of the women's movement. I could face down any man in any meeting and still make it to soccer practice by 6 p.m. Now I suffer from a crisis of the unknown. After decades of being together, I don't know who will be sharing my bed at night. What will she look like? What will she sound like? What am I going to feel being next to her? Before you start lecturing me about "it's the person on the inside that counts,” let me assure you, I’ve considered that. But just stop and ask yourselves, when you married Stephen, did you plan to share your life with Stephanie? Were you dreaming about a retirement spent traveling the world beside Michael, or Michelle? Could you suddenly change all your pronouns and accept Hannah when you said "I do" standing beside Harry?

I’ve also debated where God has been in all this. You see, I have faith in God. I always have. I don’t believe He makes mistakes. Whether you agree with me or not, I’ve never thought being transgender (or lesbian, or bi, or anything for that matter) was a choice someone consciously made. It is who they are. I don’t think it’s something that can be prayed away or “fixed” in therapy. Oh, I’ve prayed. I’ve prayed every day for God to take this away. But I also believe that when we pray for something, sometimes the answer is no. I’ve considered this has been His plan all along: matching me up with someone who would need me in ways I could never have imagined.

Can I walk away? No. Can I stay? Today I don’t think I can, but my answer changes all the time. I don’t just love this man, I adore him. After all these years, he still makes my toes curl when he kisses me. Every day he makes me laugh. He holds me when I cry. We have always been there for each other. To this day, my favorite thing is falling asleep on his shoulder in front of the TV at night. I believe him when he tells me hurting me like this is heartbreaking for him. This man whom I have admired for so many years is also fighting depression and has confided in me he’s thought about taking his own life. He’s also hurting and struggling with the turmoil he’s brought into our lives. He isn't a deceitful monster. Like me, he's stuck between what he wants and what he can have.

Thankfully, he doesn’t dress in front of me or the one child we still have at home. But time is running out for my indecision. He’s started to ask when we can talk about his transition. From what I understand, to have gender reassignment surgery in the States consists of lots of therapy, living as the other gender for about a year, and about $100,000 in surgeries. I know he has a friend who bypassed all that by going to Asia and getting all the surgeries done at once for 30 grand. Needless to say, I’m terrified to hear what he has to say. I don’t even invest in the occasional lottery ticket anymore for fear he’d disappear to a foreign country and return as someone else.

Fifteen months later, I still don't know what's going to happen to my family. I desperately hang on; one day I feel like throwing him out, the next I try to convince myself it won't be so bad, all the while grateful for every moment I have left with him. I've begun to envision the remainder of my life, sitting alone in front of the TV in a beat-up old bathrobe with no one to keep me company but the cat. I know how pathetic it sounds, but if someone had told me 18 months ago I would even be involved in this conversation, I never would have believed it. Now I know anything is possible, no matter how absurd or pitiful it sounds. Facing a life without him is more than I can bear to contemplate. But I don’t know if I can live with the changes either. No matter which way I turn, I know I’m going to lose him. I’m not facing a choice. I’m battling with an ultimatum.

I'm not suggesting it's wrong to stand behind these individuals straining for their place in society. Like so many before them, they are blazing a trail toward the future and we should be proud and supportive. I also don’t claim to represent every significant other in a similar situation to mine. I am just one of many, hiding in my closet, aching for my voice to be heard, too.

By Diana Matthews

Diana Matthews is the pen name of a woman who wants to protect the privacy of her family.

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