Ezekiel and I were talking this morning about being in a relationship with someone who is transitioning. There’s so much out there that says you have to “be supportive,” but this doesn’t really encompass the reality my relationship with Ezekiel. In part, this is because we don’t have enough models. I can count on one hand the really useful resources for partners of trans men, and all of them seem to be spun toward women in relationships with men who are transitioning that they have been with for six months, one year, two years, etc. Ezekiel and I will have been together for 11 years at the end of this month, and we have two young kids.
As I see it, my job isn’t to “support” him. My job with respect to him is so much deeper than that. My job is to support him, question him, push him, love him, help him figure out how to live his dreams, call him on his shit, and demand that he do all of the same for me.
But that’s not all. He’s not doing this by himself. I’m doing it too. We are both insanely lucky because we are falling in love all over again. I know that not everyone is this lucky. But falling in love again or not, a big part of my job is to walk my own path and deal with my own shit. And to do it with Ezekiel, not by myself. That means telling him what’s hard for me, asking difficult question, bringing up what’s not working, and expressing my fears. Not all of that is “supportive,” but it’s not my job to just be supportive of him because he’s doing such a hard thing. It’s my job to do the work together with him because I pledged to do exactly that when we got married eight years ago.
The reality of being with someone who is going through crazy difficult changes is much like riding in an airplane with a small child when the cabin loses pressure. You have to put on your own oxygen mask before you tend to anyone else’s. If you reach for their mask before you own you will pass out before you can get either of those masks on. You simply have to take care of yourself. Women, in particular, are socialized to take care of others before and instead of ourselves, and we have to fight against this tendency in our relationships, whether they are relationships with women or men, cis or trans.
When I see questions from young women with trans partners about how a partner’s dysphoria is making it so they can’t have sex, I want to answer that it is the job of both of you to figure out how to have great sex. It’s not your job to take care of your partner’s dysphoria. That doesn’t mean you have a right to force your partner to do something that makes him uncomfortable, or that you shouldn’t be caring and loving toward your partner when he is hurting. But you do have the right to expect that your partner will be willing to work hard on making sex work for both of you. Your partner also has a right to expect that you are going to listen and work to have sex in a way that meets his needs. Neither of your needs trumps the other.
If you don’t tend to your own shit, sexual or otherwise, you’ll grow a heavy pile of neglect and resentment that can tear your relationship apart. Your partner may be doing some crazy difficult work, and you should be there for him. But if you don’t tend your own needs, you’ll wake up in a year or two and realize that you’ve help this man to become who he is, but that you forgot to grow yourself and your relationship.
Ack! Sorry this turned into a tirade. I should also say that Ezekiel just read this and is both happy and a bit intimidated by my use of male pronouns exclusively, but that’s just how I feel right now.