Hurt and Angry

Friday, December 13, 2013

Question

Dear Patrick:

     Do you know of any couples who tried non-monogamy, decided it didn’t work, and went back to being monogamous? I am a trans-man whose girlfriend talked him into this experiment. I thought I would be okay with it. Maybe before I transitioned or after a few years of living as a man full-time, I might be able to cope. Instead, I find that I am becoming insecure and even depressed. I hate the fact that my partner never has affairs with other trans men, only cis-gender guys. She says she doesn’t want our private business out in the trans community, and I guess that is a good idea. But she seems oblivious to the fact that her sexual preferences make me wonder why she is with me. If our sex life is as good as she claims it is, why isn’t making love with me enough?

            She wants to get married, and I have resisted becoming engaged because I feel that we have to resolve this before making a legal commitment. Do you think compromising on this issue could work for us?—

 

Answer

For the benefit of other readers, “cis-gender” is a term for people who do not experience any conflict between the bodies they were born with and the gender that was assigned to them at birth.

            Compromise in this area is notoriously difficult. Either you get to have sex with other people, or you don’t. You can set up ground rules to try to reduce the stress. It sounds like your partner is attempting to do this by keeping her adventures outside of the small and gossipy trans community. But this particular boundary of hers is not making you feel any better. A couples counselor might be able to help you and your partner talk about your options and work out a better agreement.

            It sounds like the larger issue here is your own self-image. The thought that your partner wants cis-gender men makes you feel less-than. This leads to questioning her credibility when she gives you positive feedback about your sexual prowess. So you are trapped in a situation where you feel threatened and diminished, yet you are unable to accept any reassurance or validation.

            A pattern like this could re-establish itself even if she quit sleeping with other guys. Since trans people must live in a society that constantly questions and denies the reality of their identities, we tend to feel vulnerable. It takes a lot of energy to constantly insist that you have a right to self-definition, no matter what your body looked like when you were born. If you felt better about your own manhood, you would be less vulnerable to negative interpretations of others’ behavior. Instead of telling yourself, “She wants other men because they are better than me,” you could tell yourself, “If I wasn’t a real man, my partner would not want me, because she clearly desires men. I must be doing great.” You could take compliments in the bedroom at face value and feel quite lucky that a girl with such a high libido wants you for her primary squeeze.

            Once we make a decision to accept medical help to change our apparent gender, trans people may forget that they need to take other steps as well. Simply taking hormones on a specific schedule will create physical changes, but it won’t do the whole job. What else could you be doing to build up and reinforce your masculinity? Being a man is more than having a clerk call you “sir” or seeing an “M” on the driver’s license. What is it that draws you so powerfully toward maleness? What do you want to get out of moving through the world as a man?

            You can get your power back by making changes that have nothing to do with your partner’s sexuality. There are good psychological reasons why the road from boyhood to manhood is culturally narrated as a quest. One crosses that divide by surviving an ordeal that demonstrates self-control and physical bravery. This is sometimes done alone or sometimes with peers. The quest requires advice or input from elders, men who are mentors or guides to the mysteries of masculinity. Doing some reading on this area of anthropology could give you some important ideas for self-help.

            This Jungian jargon may translate into something mundane like, “You need to join a bowling league” or “get rid of that lesbian mullet” or “get a pair of steel-toed boots.” The action you need to take might be more substantive, like pursuing a new spiritual path or getting a different job. Your quest may also, ironically enough, not take you in the direction of enhanced masculinity. Many men find that their lives are flat and meaningless without some kind of relationship with the Anima, a feminine archetype that guards the gate to wisdom and spiritual fulfillment. The goal is wholeness, not conformity to social norms that may not benefit your growth. If you need to become a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, for example, nobody else has a right to judge you.

            It sounds like you want me to tell you that it would be okay to ask your partner to be monogamous until you are finished with your transition. My experience as a couples counselor makes me doubt the wisdom of this strategy. If she agreed to this demand, she might very well come to resent you so much that it would damage your bond as a couple. There’s no guarantee that you would ever change your mind. Meanwhile, she is limiting her freedom, not having the kind of relationship she believes in, losing time while you hopefully come around to her way of thinking. I have no idea what “completing transition” means. Most trans people find that we continue to evolve with and into our genuine selves, just as cis-gender people do. We are not muffins that need to be taken out of the oven after 20 minutes of baking at 375 degrees.

            The challenges of non-monogamy will still be there, even after you have made progress toward the body that you hope to achieve. If you want a monogamous relationship, you might be better off starting from scratch with a partner who shares your desire for fidelity. Of course, that would mean that you could not change your mind, either. What if you get a full beard, a flat chest, and lots of muscles and then decide you need to sleep around to explore your new body and a more integrated sexuality? So far, you have focused on what your partner’s experimentation means for you. But you haven’t said anything about your own need for sexual novelty or new skills.

            I hope you can see why I suggest that the real issue here might lie in your relationship with yourself. That doesn’t mean the topic of monogamy is off the table. As I said above, it might help a great deal to have someone facilitate a conversation between you and your girlfriend. A lot is going on here, and if she loves you, she will want to hear how you feel. Unfortunately, we can’t always take care of the people we love by giving up things that are important to our core values. The bias in our society (and in couples counseling) is toward monogamy, so many people would agree with you that it’s no big deal to ask someone else to stop having sex outside the relationship, I strongly disagree. Non-monogamy is as valid a choice as monogamy, and asking someone to give it up is a very big deal indeed.