Back to contents
Number 13: Spring 2018

The Couple in Transition

Damian McCann


This paper provides an overview of the particular challenges couples face when a partner decides to transition. It examines the complexities relating to gender and sexuality and the ways in which these are played out within the couple relationship in the context of transitioning. Factors which enable partners to transition together with those which result in breakdown of the couple relationship will be explored. The importance of partners and families accepting and supporting a loved one through the transitioning process is emphasized. The paper also addresses the important contribution that psychotherapists can make in helping those struggling with the transition to find a more considered outcome. 


It is generally recognized that there is a dearth of research and theory relating specifically to the intimate partner relationships of trans people. In this paper I will attempt to provide something of an overview of the particular challenges couples face when one of the partners decides to transition. I will also consider the clinical implications when working with such couples and the ways in which the theory underpinning couple psychoanalytic psychotherapy may be applied to our work with couples in transition. 

Transgender experience, according to Carroll (2006) refers to the many different ways in which individuals experience their gender identity outside the simple male and female binary. Gender dysphoria and gender identity disorder, as we know, are terms used to label and define those with a persistent cross gender identification, or discomfort with one’s sex, often accompanied by a desire to make one’s body congruent with their preferred sex. However, the danger in reducing and applying such labels to trans experience is that it effectively shuts down the space available to navigate between that which is considered pathological and, that, which falls into the area of difference. Indeed, transgender couples are believed to be pioneers in the navigation of intimacy, stability and excitement outside the heteronormative gender binary. 

In order to honor and reflect this expanded frame of reference, I will utilize the broader definition of trans as an umbrella term that includes all gender non-conforming people, although I recognize that many transgender and transsexual people may not be comfortable placed under this more inclusive trans umbrella. Nevertheless, my motivation for moving in this direction is to counter the tendency within our own profession to push towards the center at the cost of privileging difference, confusion and uncertainty. Indeed, it is as if psychotherapists themselves share the same anxiety as some of our patients or clients who struggle to stay within and manage the site of discomfort, confusion, uncertainty without the tendency to foreclose. In that regard, I am reminded of a young trans man who I saw some years ago in the context of his family whose wish to transition totally dominated the sessions. It was as if we had all been taken hostage by the force and speed of the young man’s need to transition so that attempts by me to allow other voices into his narrative only served to reinforce his determination. Paradoxically, it was only when he had everyone on the same page that he could then allow himself to really take in the meaning of his decision that then provoked a psychic collapse that allowed for a more integrated transition. To some extent, we as therapists are on the same journey towards tolerating and welcoming difference in our consulting rooms and into our thinking, so that we may be better placed to serve our gender variant and gender non-conforming individuals, as well as being responsive to their partners, who themselves may be struggling to manage and contain the transition.