Every once in a while, one of the partners in an online support group will get up the courage to ask, “But really, why do you stay?” It’s usually asked by someone new to the group, new to transness, who is looking at the prospect of having her husband become either a part-time or full-time woman, and who honestly can’t imagine herself staying, and can’t come up with one good reason why any woman would. I know I’ve told several women friends they could date CDs, and that’s about all they hear before they change the subject. It’s rare to find a woman who would even be open to dating a CD, much less finding one who would want to.
But it’s good for partners especially to cut through the sentimental stuff about love and soul-mates – not because that stuff isn’t true – and get to some of the more pragmatic issues at stake. I really appreciated having one of the older women on the list admit that her partner transitioned close to their mutual retirement age, and that neither of them had the funds to live separately, anyway. She added, as well, that after a few decades’ worth of marriage, her and her partner’s extended families had become her own. Thatâ€™s a practical answer, one I believe more than the ones full of love. (Iâ€™m not much of a romantic: I’ve read way too much sociology.)
Deborah Feinbloom said in the 70s that we must all either have low self-esteem or be latent lesbians, of course. For me, that was a little too clinical, a little too cold an analysis, but over and over again I hear things from partners that make me wonder. Not about the lesbianism, but about the self-esteem. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that, either. That women donâ€™t believe they can live in the world on their own might explain women who stay with alcoholics, abusive husbands, cheating spouses. But it still doesnâ€™t explain us, the partners of transpeople.
I just read an essay called “Explaining stable partnerships among FTMs and MTFs: a significant difference?” by Frank Lewins on the differences between the FTM and MTF communities when it comes to relationships, and the writer came to all sorts of conclusions that had to be sought out – while avoiding the obvious one. In study after study he cited, transpeople with female partners turned out to be the ones who were in relationships. It didn’t matter if they were FTM or MTF.
I wonder, often, what that means about women. There is socialization: women are raised to value relationships and family more than men are. Women do tend to put relationships and family before career and status. Maybe there is a maternal instinct: women who love too much are not unlike partners of transfolks, who in some ways need to be protected, taken care of, and encouraged. I’ve never denied that one of the important, albeit Freudian, aspects of a relationship is the way two people might parent each other. But I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s the whole of it, either.
I am pretty sure that a lot us simply don’t want to be single (again). We don’t want to live on what we can earn ourselves, because we’re still getting that 69 cents on a man’s dollar. Some don’t want to be single parents, and others are just plain used to their partners. Grayson Perry’s wife was quoted as saying something along the lines of “perverts are very loyal” so we know a little bit about why she stayed – loyalty weighed in as a stronger “pro” than the “con” of being married to a man who others view as a pervert. (It’s also obvious by her comment that she came armed with a sense of humor, too.)
But I still worry about the economics, and the fear, and how much of both motivates the partners of transpeople to stay. I worry because I know Iâ€™m one of those open-minded souls, who doesnâ€™t mind taking the path less traveled. But others arenâ€™t, and yet they stay, too.
Once I get past the “because Betty loves me and I love her, and we’re soul-mates” stuff, I end up back at “because I can.” All relationships, I think, are moderated by how close the relationship comes to what the person expected, and how much they get out if it vis a vis how much they put into it. I spent my whole life dating men for whom I had to put in 85% to their 15%. Betty puts in a lot more. She can talk. She likes politics. She values having a smart wife whoâ€™s a writer. She understands, as a basic premise, that relationships are full of compromise, unexpected joys, and most of all – friendship. For her, no matter how difficult I am, at the end of the day she knows she’s lucky to have a friend who is her lover – as am I.
Sometimes the obvious answer is the closest to the truth, even when it isn’t the whole truth: I think the only real secret of any successful relationship is that both people want to be together more than they want to be apart, and they do whatever it takes.