The Psychological Effect on Wives
and Partners of Transsexuals

Diana Aitchison

Co-ordinator, Women of the Beaumont Society
Gendys Conference, 1998



The last three decades of the 20th century have seen a considerable change in attitudes by the medical profession towards transgendered people. That this is a reason for celebration cannot be overlooked, however, those same three decades can be judged as having sadly neglected the needs of those whose psychology has been damaged by close association with a gender dysphoric person.

It is not my intention to censure or criticise the GD community or to select any individual as blameworthy. My concern is that so far, many biological women's pleas have been ignored through lack of comprehension by the caring professions. Too often, GP's have been at a loss as how to deal with a demoralised patient who presents for the same understanding, compassion and care which her transgendered intimate has come to expect for him/her self.

It is estimated that some 100 hundred women per year are delivered into psychiatric care as a direct result of their experiences. Many remain silent, too traumatised to describe what has happened to them. It is my intention to try to describe hitherto unrecognised mechanisms at work within a relationship where Gender Dysphoria is present, which reinforce female disempowerment and which can ultimately destroy their psychological well being.

It is generally recognised that a wife or partner provides a useful role model for a person who is gender dysphoric. However it is not just the way she dresses, does her hair and applies her make-up which is of such interest.

For the purpose of this talk I will refer to all women who are in an intimate relationship with a Gender Dysphoric person as the wife and the GD subject as the husband. He will probably differ however from the average occasional cross-dresser. The subject under discussion will be displaying an intense interest in his partner as a role model for perfecting his female persona.

I have used Crossdressing, Sex and Gender by Vern and Bonnie Bullough for reference purposes.

I have been taking calls from wives, partners and family members on the WOBS Helpline for about ten years. I have spoken with probably more than 2,000 women during this time. Most are shocked and sometimes frightened by the discovery that their husband, partner, son, father or brother wears women's clothing from time to time. In some cases, he has declared his intention to seek gender reassignment surgery. As a participant observer I have met many hundreds of wives. I am the wife of a crossdresser myself and can therefore offer an empathetic approach. My experience over the years closely parallels that of Peggy Rudd whose background is described in Crossdressing, Sex and Gender.

I have noted many times that women invariably describe a similar set of responses to their discovery. The women who are most adversely affected are those who are in an intimate relationship with the subject. Often, after recalling a catalogue of distressing behaviour by their loved one, they query why they stay in the situation.

The Bulloughs conducted a study of transvestites' wives and one group scored low on the scale of self-esteem, a characteristic which they felt held for transvestites wives. Others who scored high on self-esteem appeared to be happier and far less affected by the stress of discovering their husband's behaviour. The Bulloughs suggested that the correlation between the sense of internal control and self-esteem with marital happiness indicated that the least affected wives were assertive women who were less liable to be controlled by powerful persons.

The media image of the Transvestite is of a gentle caring man who is adored by his wife for his feminine qualities. Often he is compared against the drunken womaniser brimming with machismo who beats his wife regularly. It is not surprising then that those in the caring professions often express confusion when a woman is presented who is traumatised and defeated by her relationship with a gender dysphoric subject.

This dichotomy of experience begs the question of Why?' some women are unable to cope or escape their perceived ordeal. Certainly individual characteristics relating to both the wife and the spouse are significant. Not all GD spouses are powerful men. Many wives are assertive women. For many couples however this balance is not achieved. Wives are often browbeaten, tired and at least a little neurotic. Many women would have left their relationship, but find that for some reason they are unable to make the move. The commonest complaint that most affects wives is when the spouse openly and persistently apes, mimics, copies or shadows their wife's actions. Examples such as;

"He watches me putting on my make-up/ dressing/ washing my hair/ painting my nails."

"He copies how I sit/smoke/stand up/get into the car."

"He uses some of my own personal remarks or endearments in a voice which sounds very much like mine."

"He hogs my friends when they visit and tries to be one of the girls."

"He mimics how I take a phone call/answer the door/speak to shop assistants."

Example 1. Mrs. A.

One wife described to me that, just prior to her breakdown, she discovered her husband lying on her side of the bed, dressed in her nightie having adopted what she instinctively recognised as her own sleeping position.

"He had stripped from me the last of my exclusivity" she declared. "I had turned a blind eye to many of his mannerisms although they irritated me to distraction sometimes. If I complained he sulked and ignored me, sometimes for days. I found that it was better to say nothing, just put up with it."

In putting up with it this wife had, like so many others, exposed her vulnerability. By trying to ignore the behaviour she had in fact reinforced it. Her husband would often play mind games by denying that he was actually performing an action which she recognised as her own, even at that moment in time sadly he accused her of being "mental" once too often. She eventually volunteered for psychiatric assessment as an in-patient after a severe breakdown. Her case was brought to my attention by her care-worker, who was at loss to understand what mechanisms she was describing, which contributed to her poor mental health. Significantly, she had lost her sense of identity. She knew her name but little else.

I suggested that she talk to me over the phone and she was willing to do so when she learned that I was a wife too. It was in this way that her care-worker was able to learn about her experience as an unwilling role model.

This still left the enigma; why had she stuck it out for so long?

At this point I will posit that this woman was neither weak nor unassertive; rather, by the time that she became aware of the forces at work against her, she was too involved to break the bond.

This appraisal is somewhat of a reverse scenario of a bonding technique that is achieving a great deal of attention today among horse lovers, and is causing some excitement amongst the counselling profession. Californian cowboy Monty Roberts first demonstrated a non-cruel way of taming a wild horse in a QED television documentary entitled Talking to Horses a year ago. We watched as he took a team of riders and domesticated mounts into the desert. For two days and nights he and his team shadowed a mustang's every move until it submitted to his power and was quietly caught and led into captivity forever. His technique is described as benign and kind and has been applied in human terms to over 40 foster children whom have entered his care.

Certainly Roberts procedures must be applauded; past methods in both horse-breaking and human delinquent terms were based on power and inhumane routines designed to take weeks, and which both animal and human subjects found terrifying. Its application in human terms has been applied for instance where a couple in an intimate relationship work together in a joint business venture and the spouse exerts his superiority over the wife who is in business terms his equal. It is intended to show that there is no need for power games if the spouse is prepared to adopt a position of equality within the partnership. Obviously I am describing a form of bonding in very simplistic terms.

It is however the 'shadowing' technique which interested me as I could see from my own understanding how this behaviour, when over-employed, could reduce a subject to a state of apathy.

Many wives are unconsciously subjected to this technique over many years; in many cases the wives may not even be aware that their husband crossdresses.

If we translate horse and rider into 'him' and his 'alter ego' we can begin to see how a GD wife can be manipulated into submission without any obvious physical coercion being applied. This wife for instance will not bear the physical evidence of being beaten by her husband, no black eyes, cuts or bruises. To the outside observer the couple may appear to be very close. He may appear to be hanging on to her every word, finishing sentences which she has started for instance. Soon, though, it can be seen that he is guiding her conversation and making sure that she does not say anything which he does not approve of. Wives who are in the process of breaking under the strain will start to stutter; sometimes losing the thread of the conversation, thus creating the opportunity for the husband to take over. This is often done in a condescending way, which gives the impression that the wife is inarticulate, shy and introverted. Eventually she will cease to take part in group conversations for fear of being gently mocked, or even openly belittled by her dominant spouse.

Example 2. Barbara.

An extreme example of male dominant transgendered behaviour was outlined by Barbara in a letter which she wrote to WOBS. We have kept in touch and she is anxious that her experience is recounted as an example of atypical behaviour in a transgendered husband, (according to her Mental Health careworkers who had only the media's interpretation for reference.)

Barbara was married for 35 years to a man who was in the RAF at the time of the marriage and who went on to become a Policeman. Crossdressing appeared after four years and the birth of her second child. The husband presented wearing her nightdress in which he had cut an opening in the front and through which he had placed his erect penis. He ignored her shock and discomfort and informed her that she could do nothing about it. Shortly afterwards he started to copy her actions and mimic her, often in a derogatory way. His crossdressing increased to full dress and make up (which she never actually saw) and their sex life ceased.

He never praised or complemented her again. This she told me in subsequent phone calls. In her letter she described his violence towards herself and her son, both mental and physical. The daughter was treated entirely differently and to this day cannot understand why her mother left her father. To her he was a benign and loving father. She did not seem to be aware of his attitude to the others and is now estranged from her mother and brother. During the marriage the husband indulged his fantasies via pornographic magazines and ultimately, videos. Most depicted three-in-a-bed scenarios. He never discussed his needs with Barbara and excluded her from any opportunity to object. Barbara blamed herself for this turn of events for the rest of her married life.

He told her sister early in the marriage that she no longer wanted contact with her (unbeknown to Barbara) and they remained estranged for over 30 years. The spouse balked at any attempt by the sister to see Barbara and told her that she was mentally ill. The strain on Barbara was great indeed and she became dependent on anti-depressants and tranquillisers. Her husband threatened to kill her if she mentioned one word of his crossdressing to the Doctor. She had to say that she was depressed by other factors which did not implicate him. He presented as a caring and loving husband in the presence of the GP and other professionals but was cold and distant when they were alone. All through the marriage he remained patriarchal and made it clear that Barbara was to obey him. Much of his behaviour was fetishistic and he took to wearing women's underwear permanently. He made sure that the children were never aware of his behaviour.

By 1994, some years after the children had left home, Barbara broke down. She remembers being trance-like and vacant, possibly from increasing her medication. Her GP recommended reducing the dosage and she became tearful and distressed. He advised her to see a psychiatrist as she had stated that she had lost the will to live. She had difficulty in remembering who she was. In time she could start to recount her past life and the cruelty to which she had been subjected. She was helped towards an awareness of her own right to leave the marriage. Her husband remained defiant and denied all knowledge of her allegations. Although she did not return to the marital home he sent messages that he would 'get her' and she remains in fear of him. She has signed over her right to half of the marital home and he persists in telling everyone that she is 'mental and always has been' and that everything she says is a pack of lies. She is back in touch with her sister who is very supportive but will not make contact with him and he is unaware that they are now in touch.

Barbara is still too frightened to confront him and will live with feelings of injustice forever. She now has evidence that he is covertly taking hormones and is extremely clever at covering up the outward evidence of his duplicity. Barbara is concerned for her grandchildren who adore their grandfather but who may one day have to face the truth, as will her daughter. Her son has no contact with his father and very little with his mother. His dysfunctional childhood contains too many bad memories.

Today Barbara befriends by telephone other women who have had similar experiences. Most of the women that I refer to her are in their late fifties and above. The subject was never talked about in their day and it was instilled in them that marriage was for life, and they had to make the best of a bad job. None of these women had any inkling of the meaning behind their husbands actions and remain bewildered and shocked that they have stayed in their marriages until they suffered nervous breakdowns. Some of them were unaware of their husband's crossdressing for more than 30 years although they were subjected to the shadowing procedures for much of the time. All of them were aware that they were being copied but did not know why. They soon became repressed and introverted to the extent that they behaved in an obedient and submissive fashion even though they felt unhappy doing so.

Not all wives who recount these experiences are middle-aged. The controlling and powerful effects of shadowing and mimicry are as evident today in much younger wives. Fortunately, they can call the Helpline and we can talk through the mechanisms at work and discuss strategies for avoiding the extreme effects on the wife. In some cases however the wife is already too tired and weary to fight back, especially when there are young children to consider. Some are calling from phone boxes so that their spouses do not discover that they have made a cry for help.

Far too often, the advice that women are given is 'just walk' . . . ? la Oprah Winfrey. This instruction however does not even begin to touch on why these women can't just walk'.

Traditionally, women have been confined within unhappy relationships for economic reasons. Many previously stigmatised complaints such as unfaithfulness, drunkenness, gambling can now be talked about openly but the vast majority of women who try to express the debilitating effects of living with this particular spouse find that they cannot convince others of what is happening to them. Even if they pluck up the courage to tell a best friend, they frequently feel that they risk ridicule and rejection.

In conclusion, there is an obvious gap in the understanding by the caring professions of the effects of transgenderism on particular wives. I will hypothesise that these women are not unassertive and of low self-esteem when they enter the marriage. Women are often at pains to point out that the positive aspects of their personalities are reduced by their experiences as an intimate. Such is the power of the effects that they cry out for understanding and an appropriate therapy to help rehabilitate them. They feel that, up until now, their voices have been somewhat ignored. Perhaps it is possible to open a dialogue where those who care can be informed and educated so that a programme can be prepared and implemented professionally in the same way and with the same sense of importance as that which their spouses enjoy.


Bullough. Vern. L, & Bonnie; Cross Dressing, Sex and Gender, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Aitchison, D., (1998),The Psychological Effect on Wives and Partners of Transsexuals GENDYS '98, The Fifth International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England. London: Gendys Conferences

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