Five Questions With… Virginia Erhardt

Virginia Erhardt, Ph.D. is a licensed therapist, a founding member of the American Gender Institute, and the author of Head Over Heels: Wives Who Stay with Crossdressers and Transsexuals. She published her first article concerning the partners of trans people back in 1999 after publishing a workbook for lesbian couples called Journey Toward Intimacy. She is a regular at trans conferences like the upcoming IFGE Conference.

(1) How long did it take you to compile the stories in Head Over Heels? Where did you find partners who were willing to talk about their experiences?

It was about two and a half years from the point at which I began soliciting participation in 2002 and then sent out questionnaires, until the time when I had created “stories” from the SOs’ responses to my questions. During that time I also worked on my substantive, didactic chapters. It took another two years and a few months from the time when I completed the project and signed a contract with The Haworth Press until Head Over Heels was in print.

I put out a Call for Participants to every online listserve and transgender print publication I could think of. I also requested participation from people at trans conferences at which I presented.

(2) I’m curious about your decision to only include the stories of people who stayed, mostly because for some partners, going really is the best option, so I would have liked to see the decision-making process of at least one partner who decided to go. Can you comment a little on that?

I agree that leaving the relationship is the best option for some partners. Actually, I believe it is best for some gender-variant people as well. Unfortunately, I have heard about and even witnessed ongoing emotionally/verbally abusive treatment of the transperson by the nontrans partner. If that situation can not be addressed and successfully resolved, I think it best for the relationship to be dissolved. I wanted, for the purpose of this book, to focus on relationships that offered hope that staying together is viable. When I was entering the specialty of gender therapy back in 1994, few SOs who were attempting to stay in their relationships came into therapy with me. But that began to change. By 2000, I was seeing more and more significant others in my private practice who were considering staying in their relationships. They were willing to try, despite finding that coming to terms and coping with the gender variance was usually disorienting and painful, the struggle over many decisions, including the basic one of whether to stay was often difficult, and the path was rather lonely, in terms of peer identification.

These women asked me to recommended reading. There were a few resources for women whose partners were cross-dressers. Several partners expressed appreciation for these suggestions. More often I heard complaints that these books seemed to sugar-coat the situation, with the SOs in the books talking about how much fun it was to have husbands with whom they could go out shopping like girlfriends. They said that what was missing for them was gritty stories of women like them who were dealing with difficult feelings and were certainly not finding adjusting to this new information fun. I found no print resources whatsoever specifically for partners of transsexuals. This was when I first conceived Head Over Heels.

SOs who decide to leave seem to know on their own how to negotiate the exit. Those who were considering staying, on the other hand, wanted support, guidance, and people with whom to identify who had been through similar experiences. The latter is what I wanted to offer with Head Over Heels — hope — and the examples of others who had stayed and to one extent or another were making it work, courageous women who loved enough to deal with difficult feelings and experiences, and to emerge even stronger.

(3) Thanks for noticing partners have “ego strength” and aren’t the poor put-upon souls other therapists have made us out to be. Was there a partner with whom you first recognized that? What kinds of things did partners express that convinced you we’re not pathetic or just “putting up with” our loved ones’ transness?

I first recognized the ego strength in a partner who, instead of hurling insults at her spouse, had for years made an effort to understand the gender variance, while standing up for her own needs and doing her part to resolve their issues lovingly. A common theme among the SOs with whom I worked was the sexual orientation dilemma. Partners offered diverse solutions. Some expressed willingness to live platonically, as loving friends/sisters; some said they were willing to try experimentation in order that there be some ongoing erotic connection; others were excited about the gender variance adding spice to their sex lives. The SO I mentioned above fell into the experimentation group. Her spouse was going to have genital surgery, but that didn’t particularly phase her, except for concerns about health and safety risks (always a factor with surgery, more so as we age — they were grandparents to boot). She told me that while intercourse had been limited to a few experiences — after all, they did want children — they had found other ways to give each other pleasure over the years. “We’ll go out and get a copy of The Joy of Lesbian Sex, look at the pictures, and follow directions; how hard could it be?”

I was impressed with SOs who overcame the tendency to be extremely concerned about what others would think and stood by the sides of their partners, acknowledging that they were different, and, validating themselves internally, refusing to accept that there was anything negative about their being an unusual couple.

(4) How many partners, or couples, first come to you for you to “fix” the transness – that is, who want you to make it go away? Do you think that’s most couples’ & individual’s first impulse?

Some gender-variant people come to me for that “fix,” but fewer now that so much information is available on the internet. Still there are SOs who have not informed themselves, who want me to fix their partners. Sometimes gender-variant clients whose SOs have “sent them” have a great deal of difficulty telling their SOs that I’ve said that I can’t “fix” gender variance. Recently I saw a client for almost a year, while we explored her gender issues. Once she had achieved clarity about her intention to transition, I spent months urging her to tell her wife the truth. She had admitted to her wife that she was aware of some gender variance, and her wife was OK with her seeing me — probably hoping for a “fix” — but my client just couldn’t manage to speak the whole truth. One time, when she was out of town, her wife read her journal and called her, furious. They’re now separated and will probably divorce.

I must say that it’s not unusual, in my experience, for gender-variant individuals to leave evidence around, perhaps hoping to be discovered, thus avoiding the necessity for disclosure. Disclosure, however, as one would expect, seems to predict a better relational outcome.

(5) Sometimes transness is more difficult because of the rhetoric that comes out of the larger trans community, and, to be honest, the larger American culture, as in: you have to do what’s right for you, personal happiness is more important than compromise, etc. etc. How would you recommend a trans person & their partner figure out the fine lines between codependence and selfishness?

Actually, Helen, I help gender-variant people and their partners draw those lines the same way I do other couples. Learn to identify and express your own feelings and needs and be responsive to the feelings and needs of your partner, not just your own. Listen to each other. Don’t just focus on the facts, on who’s right and who’s wrong. I hear from so many people, “She just doesn’t understand/care how I feel!” “Do you understand/care how she feels?” I ask. Be honest, authentic. This requires maturity. Maturity involves learning to self-soothe your anxiety and to self-validate, regardless of the opinions of others. Remember that opinions are different from feelings. Often they are judgments. Do not be swayed by judgments, and try not to judge. Be empathic, but maintain good emotional boundaries. While caring, be clear about where you end and your partner begins emotionally. While empathizing with your partner’s feelings, don’t take them in, don’t absorb them. The whole thing has to be a give and take, with willingness on the part of both partners to sometimes put the strong feelings and needs of the other first. That’s the only way a relationship will thrive.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your wonderful questions!

If you’d like more information about Head Over Heels or would like to discuss the book, come join us in the Reader’s Chair forum.