Notes on Gender Role Transition

By Anne Vitale Ph.D.

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T NOTE #11

Couple's Therapy when the Male Partner Crossdresses

Last updated May 21, 2011

Before I go any further, I want to say that I do not consider crossdressing per se to be pathological. Neither does the American Psychological Association. Upon studying the phenomenon for the last twenty eight years, I have come to believe it is simply one of a series of ways certain individuals deal with their gender variant condition. What is problematical, however, is how the crossdressing effects relationships. The range of difficulty couples present with is great. For some couples the crossdressing complicates an already troubled relationship and the situation generally leads rapidly to the divorce courts. On the other end of the spectrum where we find the underlying relationship to be strong, a therapist can be effective and the relationship strengthened.

A situation where the relationship could not be saved: I recently received a call from a woman in Florida with two preschool children. I didn't ask her specifically for her age but she seemed to be in her mid thirties. She was calling regarding an unfortunate situation she found herself in. After 5 years of a rocky marriage, she discovered that her husband was secretly keeping a stash of female underwear and crossdressing pornography. When she confronted him on it, he admitted to being sexually interested in wearing the underwear. Wanting to learn more about the situation and somewhat embarrassed about consulting with her friends, she privately searched the internet where she found my piece on sexism. “Sexism In the Male-To-Female Transsexual” . Although the piece is meant to describe counterintuitive behavior in some transsexuals, it seemed to reflect her situation close enough for her to call for advice and support. The problem, it turns out, was that once she had found out that her husband was a crossdresser, he turned verbally abusive toward her and the relationship had taken a decidedly turn for the worst. She describes her husband as a man's man, showing no outward sign of his crossdressing interest. Further more, she reports that he often spoke derogatively about homosexuality and perceived effeminacy in other men. An almost stereotypical sexist behavior designed to hide his own feminine propensities. There is obviously a great deal of self-hatred and guilt involved here. This is less a couple’s problem then it is a personal one. There is nothing anyone can do to help in a situation like this unless the crossdresser first acknowledges that he is in extreme denial regarding his crossdressing and seeks individual psychotherapy.

More common and workable situations: Much more commonly, I get a call from a man who has recently been “caught” by his wife or girlfriend demanding that he enter therapy. Unlike the angry and guilt ridden man described above, this crossdresser may be cooperating for various reasons. Firstly because he is genuinely interested in saving his relationship and wants to appear to be making an effort to comply, secondly he may be tired of struggling with what has often been a life long secret and thirdly he may be hoping that I would find a way to get his wife or girlfriend to accept the crossdressing. I have --at best-- half a chance at resolving the later wish, but after 20 years of working with this population I have learned that I don’t have a prayer in the world at getting anyone to stop wanting to crossdress, especially at someone else’s request.

If the relationship survives the first few days and weeks after the crossdressing behavior comes to light, the eventual acceptance of their behavior by a significant other is surprisingly common. The level of that acceptance is, of course, relative. The determining factors are: 1) How long the couple has been together (the longer the better); 2) The psychological sophistication of the couple; 3) Whether or not there are any young children involved; 4) visibility of the couple in the community; 5) how well the couple does in redefining their sexuality in light of the crossdressing; and finely--perhaps the most important element--6) how safe the significant other feels about any eventual desires the male partner may have about wanting to change his sex in the future.

Not unlike dealing with other, less socially explosive marital, gaining the couple’s trust by appearing to be a neutral party is important. And like any other more common marital issue, handling the problem in a calm and empathic environment is a good place to start. This is an especially touchy therapeutic situation. Knowing that I can't stop--indeed I don't even believe it is healthy to try and stop the male partner from expressing his femininity, I am all but forced to get the female partner to move the most in therapy.

Knowing that I specialize in gender issues usually helps the crossdresser feel relatively safe. The wife, however, is often embarrassed for both herself and her husband. Indeed it is often very difficult to convince the wife that this is not simply his issue but is really a couple's issue. There is no way this problem can be treated by working with only one of the partners. Once I get both of the partners in the room and treat crossdressing as just another misunderstood human behavior, the less it gets stigmatized as “perverted” and “sick” by both parties. The issues are taken one at a time, usually starting with the anger the female partner has over what she considers years of lying and deceit by her lover. Fortunately other non-crossdresssing issues come to the fore fairly early in therapy. This helps in two ways. Firstly it temporarily diffuses the issue by moving the spotlight into a more familiar and therefore more comfortable arena. Secondly it gives me a chance to observe how the couple goes about working on other problems, giving me a chance to formulate the appropriate therapeutic interventions when we once again focus in on the cross dressing.

Eventually I start to bring the outside world into therapy. First by providing the couple with a short list of recommended reading materials. Two books I recommend most are both by Dr. Peggy Rudd: Crossdressing with Dignity and My Husband Wears My Clothes. I also suggest that they read the work of Julie Freeman. Julie is the long time wife of a cross dresser and writes a monthly column in "The Devil Woman", the monthly news letter of the Diablo Valley Girls. In her columns, Ms Freeman describes the everyday nitty gritty pluses and minuses of living with a crossdressing husband. A selected list of reprints of her "Significant Other View" column can be found elsewhere on this site.

Secondly, I take full advantage of the fact that I live in an area in which crossdressing and its effect on relationships is not a new issue. Many couples in the San Francisco Bay Area have long since found a way to incorporate the male partner's crossdressing into their lives. Some of them have organized into helpful support groups and are more then willing to share their experiences with newcomers as long as the newcomer is willing to initiate the contact. Unfortunately it is common for significant others to balk at meeting other women who are in similar circumstances. Coming out is a big step but one I definitely recommend if the SO is really interested in trying to save the relationship. Getting in touch with others first by email or by phone followed by attending a support group meeting can go a long way in putting the problem into a workable perspective.

In time (sometimes years) the couple finds themselves dealing with the crossdressing in a manner similar to other issues they have previously dealt with in their relationship or marriage. It usually comes down to practical concerns such as how much money the crossdresser can spend on his interest, safety, job security, who is in on the practice and when and where the crossdressing can occur. In time the situation might even prove to be an advantageous one:

As Julie Freeman so aptly states in her column entitled : "Joy in Crossdressing"; "When there is no more hiding, no more secrets, no more evasive behavior, no more "skilled hiding" as one of the crossdressers put it, this can only lead to a more harmonious relationship within the family. Joy is experienced by the crossdresser as he no longer feels he is leading some kind of double life and there is joy on the part of the significant other who is now able to understand the double life her spouse was leading.”

I wish I could end on that high note. Unfortunately, social pressures against crossdressing are still very high. Even if the significant other is no longer looking for a "cure"; or considering breaking up over the issue, far too often I find the spousal acceptance of the crossdressing to be more of a resignation then a celebration. We clearly have a long way to go before anyone can celebrate.

Copyright 1996 by Anne Vitale, Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist, 610 D Street, San Rafael CA 94901, (415) 456-4452, This Note may be reprinted in any non-profit organization's newsletter if Dr. Vitale's name and address appears with it. Other publications must obtain written permission from Dr. Vitale. A copy of any reprints must be sent to Dr. Vitale.