I wasn’t surprised when my partner came out to me as nonbinary. I wasn’t bothered when my partner announced they were going to trek an hour south of our upstate New York home to access hormone replacement therapy. (And asked me to tag along for moral support.)
I wasn’t even fazed when my partner of almost three years began to change right before my eyes. Their soft, feminine features hardened; they struggled not to strain their voice, which could no longer hit the high notes they’d always sung when we attempted a duet from Rent or Hamilton.
Things began to eat away at me—slowly at first, then seemingly all at once. I started to get annoyed about tagging along to far-away appointments. Being my significant other’s support system 24/7 was difficult. What really wore down my patience, though, was a small moment. An off-kilter comment I made that sparked a drawn-out fight culminating in my partner telling me to “recognize my damn cis privilege.”
I won’t lie: I was infuriated. Fuming, even.
Here I was, thinking I was the best, most supportive partner on the planet to a trans person: I changed my language, I read up on trans issues. I went to almost all of my partner’s doctor’s appointments with them. I even sat in as they learned how to administer testosterone shots. (Even though I almost passed out when I saw the nurse unwrap that long, thick syringe.)
The point is, I did my homework. I looked my cis privilege in the eye every day. If anything, I deserved a pat on the back, not a slap in the face.
My rage took me by surprise. But I calmed down, thought about everything, and came to the conclusion that my partner later verified: this journey we’d embarked on together—the love of my life transitioning physically, mentally, and emotionally into their true self—wasn’t about me, even when it felt like it was. And, truth be told, I didn’t deserve a pat on the back for being a supportive partner. I was doing what I could to support someone I love. Which is what we’re all supposed to do, right?
Our life changed a lot after my partner decided to medically transition. I began to question aspects of myself that I thought were static—like my sexuality and my gender presentation. But my life, my day-to-day existence, stayed pretty much the same. I wasn’t at risk for transphobic violence when I walked down the street. I wasn’t suddenly subject to microaggressions or misgendering everywhere I went.
I was part of the story—a main character, even—but it wasn’t my story. I wasn’t the protagonist.
Now, this doesn’t mean my partner has a free license to be rude or cruel. Stressful life changes can explain a hot temper or a rude comment, sure. But they don’t excuse inappropriate or disrespectful behavior.
Like most things in life, relationships are about balance: There are times when we need support from our loved ones and times when we are the ones who need to be supportive. Transitioning, however joyous and reaffirming, is difficult. This means that we, the partners of trans people, often end up falling into the role of caregiver. To be a kind, compassionate partner to someone whose entire life is in flux, you sort of need to de-center yourself.
It’s not intuitive but, in a healthy relationship, your efforts to put someone else’s needs before your own won’t go unnoticed.
Take the time to read up on what you partner may be going through: the National Center for Transgender Equality recommends seeking out resources and information on your own, to take some of the burden of educating off your partner’s shoulders.
And be sure to walk the walk: Correct people who misgender your partner (or any trans people, for that matter.) Ask your partner what they need from you: maybe it’s as big as help coming out to their family, or as small as a hand to hold. Apologize when you mess up. (It’s a “when,” not an “if” type of deal).
And remember, we all make mistakes as we adjust mentally, emotionally, and physically to major life changes. It’s normal, and it’s okay.
A big disclaimer: De-centering yourself doesn’t mean you have to (or should) disregard your own needs. Things will change, and your reactions, however strong or confusing, are valid. It’s important to voice these feelings—but to the right people, in appropriate contexts.
Just as there are support groups for trans people, there are similar resources for families and partners of trans people. You can also seek one-on-one counseling to work through your feelings, which I’ve found particularly helpful in stressful moments. (Sometimes, a neutral third party is necessary to navigate messy feelings.)
Take care of yourself. But never forget whose story is being rewritten, whose life is changing so utterly and completely. Hint: It’s not yours.