“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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I’m in a long-term relationship with another trans woman and I’m starting to feel like maybe we are fundamentally incompatible, which is really scary. I am there for her a lot, and I feel like she is rarely there for me because the things I want help with are triggers for her.
She has a lot of medical trauma from transitioning; I’ve started transitioning and am now going through similar things. When I tried to talk to her about it, she told me that the topic triggers her too much. She also doesn’t try to work out her trauma at all—she won’t even talk to our friends about it. I understand and want to respect that but she’s “my person.” She’s always the first one I want to talk to about this stuff, and she’s the person I’m comfortable being vulnerable with. I feel hurt because sometimes it seems like she just doesn’t care enough to want to know what is happening to me and my body—which she sees and touches all the time!It’s like she wants to be physically but not emotionally intimate with my body.
Recently, I’ve been thinking that maybe this relationship just isn’t it for me. Maybe I have to admit to myself that I’m just not getting what I want out of this relationship. I want to be respectful of her triggers and the trauma she’s not ready to process but…I don’t know. What is there to do in this situation?
Trying & Tired
What happens when our loved ones are unable to meet our fundamental needs? What happens when our needs push up against our loved ones’ boundaries? Can intimacy still flourish where such profound conflicts occur? These are the questions that your situation poses, and they go right to the heart of what it means to be in a loving adult relationship. I encourage you to hold yourself with gentleness as you explore the answers, because I suspect that whatever you discover will require significant personal growth—from you, your partner or both of you.
When I read your letter, T&T, I hear you’re coming from a place of compassion for your partner: You, perhaps better than anyone else, can understand and empathize with the medical trauma she has experienced during the process of transition. As we trans women know, transition can be deeply harrowing, even while being affirming, because it forces us to surrender control over the development of our bodies to other people—psychologists, physicians, surgeons, nurses, illegal hormone dealers—without knowing what the outcome will be.
And I think you are right in not wanting to rush your partner to push past her triggers because what we know about the process of healing from trauma is that it must be a choice. It cannot be forced, because doing so would simply be a re-enactment of a traumatic situation. Trauma experts such as Dr. Gabor Maté and Peter A. Levine teach that trauma occurs when the body says “no” (to touch, to stress, to any number of unwanted situations) and that “no” is ignored or violated. The process of healing trauma, then, partially involves creating situations where the body can say “yes.” So you are wise, T&T, in your compassion.
I also hear the disappointment in your letter: Disappointment that your partner cannot “meet” you in your own transition journey because she is also the person who could perhaps understand and empathize with you better than anyone else. And while you clearly understand her reasons for not being able to talk to you about transition, I can only imagine that a part of you must also feel that she is choosing not to do so—and that this choice hurts you.
When I was a student therapist, a supervisor of mine once told me that “where there is disappointment, there is anger.” I wonder, T&T, what happened to the part of you that felt disappointed when you first tried to connect with your partner about your transition, only to have the conversation shut down? Is there anger there, or perhaps a feeling of rejection? Is there room for you in your relationship to feel and express such emotions? Does your partner know what it’s like for you to want so much to share this foundational part of who you are and not be able to do so?
And as for your partner—I also wonder what happened to her emotionally you started wanting to share your transition experience with her. I wonder what happens when she senses or thinks about your disappointment (which I imagine she does). What is it like for her, I wonder, knowing that you so deeply need something from her, only for her to not be able to meet your need? Is it shame, perhaps? A feeling of inadequacy? Is there room for her, in your relationship, to express such emotions?
Perhaps you see where I am going with this, T&T. When romantic partners find themselves in a conflict as profound as this one—profound in the sense that it goes to the core of who you are and what you need to feel loved—it is essential that each member of the partnership is able to be radically honest and deeply curious in order for the relationship to stay healthy. The honesty piece is about being able to express your authentic experience so that you feel connected to your partner despite the pain of the conflict. The curiosity piece is about understanding on a very deep level what your partner is feeling so that they are also able to be radically honest.
What this means for you, T&T, is that even though you aren’t able to talk about your transition with your partner right now, you may be able to talk to her about what it feels like to not be able to share this with her. And for that conversation to go well, you will most likely need to invite her to share what it feels like to not be able to “go there” with you.
This isn’t amateur stuff—conversations like this take a lot of emotional skill, and can be extremely triggering for all involved. You’ll likely need to be careful about not making your partner feel accused or pressured, and she’ll probably need to be careful about not making you feel needy or like you’re asking “too much.” You may want to plan for breaks or come up with a “safe word” for when one or both of you needs to stop the conversation. And if this all feels totally overwhelming, you may want to take this straight to a couple’s counsellor—and not just any couple’s counsellor, but one who is familiar with both trauma and working with trans people.
If you do have this conversation, you just might be able to get closer to the core of what made your partnership work in the first place: That intimacy and nurturance that makes her “your person,” as you say, and that makes you hers. In his book The Road Less Traveled, American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote about love as being comprised of a series of actions one takes to nurture the development of themselves and others. He saw love as being willing to commit to personal transformation so that those we love might also transform in positive ways.
T&T, you and your partner could be on the edge of discovering what it means to love each other. One or both of you might have to transform so that the other, and your relationship, can flourish. For example, your partner might choose to push her own edges and start to process her trauma in order to be there for you. Another option is that you might choose to push your edges and find other people, other support to help you through your transition in order to protect your partner’s process—after all, no one person or partner can meet all of our needs.
Whatever happens, I think that the key is to share the experience and intentionally work through it together. It would be easier for either of you to simply come to a decision alone. It is very difficult to say to one’s partner, “I need your support—I’m not getting it, and this hurts me.” It is equally difficult to say, “I can’t give you the support you need, and this makes me feel ashamed.” What makes it bearable is keeping that conversation grounded in the knowledge that you love each other, reminding each other why you love each other and reassuring each other that you will keep looking for solutions.
And if in the end things don’t work out, if it means that the relationship has to dissolve, then this too can be loving. If love is acting in the interest of our own or someone else’s growth, then stepping away from a partner in order to get what we need—or to let them get what they need—is an act of love.
The sci-fi author and Black queer prophet Octavia E. Butler wrote that, “All you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change.” T&T, your body is already changing, and with it your relationship to yourself. Your relationship with your partner can’t help but change as well. The question is, how will you and your partner shape that change? What choices will you make so that the change can happen in the context of love?
To paraphrase the dub poet d’bi.young anitafrika: We can’t love perfectly, T&T, nor can we love fearlessly. But we can love courageously. We can always choose to love courageously.