Witnessing a love one suffer is difficult. Being around someone struggling with dysphoria can be heart-wrenching, especially if you like them as they are and/or are a “fixer”.
Many of us want to fix others. I think that is one reason why some people become social workers and psychologists. However, this is a healthy outlet for the need or wish to fix others.
An unhealthy wish to fix others is to get into relationships where the partner is seen as someone who needs fixing. One problem… is that any relationship based on one person trying to fix the other is doomed to failure.
– Allan Schwartz
To avoid unhealthy relationship dynamics, here are 5 tips on how to support someone struggling with dysphoria:
i) Know that you cannot make dysphoria go away. You can support a trans person’s efforts to manage it, up to a point, but you cannot resolve it for them. Dysphoria is complex, often includes several elements of a trans person’s relationship to themselves, and sometimes requires medically necessary interventions and/or legal and/or social transition to improve the person’s quality of life.
[Picture by Austin Neill on Unsplash. Description: man facing a microphone.]
ii) Hold space and validate your loved one. Witness their rants, their grief, and anger. You’re providing a safe place for their feelings, which are often rational responses to transphobia and systemic oppression, but are often framed to them as evidence of unstable mental health, or met with gaslighting and/or unjust barriers. Challenge the urge to offer advice or replying with platitudes to make yourself feel better or demonstrate how great you are compared to violence, unethical medical practices and public policy. Simply hold space and validate.
iii) Support their social transition, from pronouns to non-disclosure. If they have asked you to use certain pronouns or a chosen name or avoid certain words to describe them, etc. then do those things. When they’re visibly trans or gender non conforming, if you are or are assumed to be cis, your validation of their request towards someone refusing can be more powerful than anything your loved one says. It’s unfair things sometimes unfold this way, but validation and supporting their transition is a great use of this privileges.
[Picture by Pexels. Description: grayscale of a finger nearly touching its reflection in a mirror.]
iv) Treat them as people of their physiological age. This flows from points i and ii in a way. Often our well-intended loved ones want to figuratively bubble wrap us, believing their can shield us from transphobia. This is not possible, nor healthy in the long run for trans adults. Do not infantalise them, instead support their efforts to develop psychosocial tools that nurture resilience. You cannot be everywhere with them all the time, nor should you be. They know the full extend of the world’s transphobia, it’s the story of their lives.
Expect things to shift over time. As trans people become more confident in their identity and/or bodies, whether medical transition is part of their journey or not, things are likely to shift. This may include a reduction in desire to have people know their medical history. Some will find that “picking their battles” is the best way to maintain better mental health. Others will no longer need to come out as their authentic sex/gender as it will become more obvious, and select or low disclosure may become their preference for a number of personal reasons.
iv) subsection for minors.
Most of these tips are aimed at people in adult to adult relationships. But if conversely you’re an adult (be it parent, teacher, or other) in a platonic relationship with a child, deal with the child of however old they are in the moment.
If they’re pre-Tanner Stage 2, the extent of physiological changes that should be discussed start and end with hair and nails. Both of these can be altered at any time, and enabling a child to decide their hair and nail style helps to build their self-confidence, promotes bodily autonomy, as well as teaching them the importance of consent in an age appropriate way. Do not ask them what they intend to do down the line, or if they inform you, do not hold them to it or against them if they change their mind.
If the child is at or beyond Tanner stage 2, and you’re a legal guardian to a child expressing dysphoria about their bodies, it may be appropriate to set up an appointment for them with a trans affirming pediatric endocrinology team. Similarly to enabling a child to grow out or cut their hair and nails, if they begin hormone blockers, should they change their mind later on, they will not have incurred permanent irreversible changes to their bodies. The process will have reinforced their sense of bodily autonomy, and built their self-confidence.
It isn’t appropriate to ask a five year old, for example, if they intend on pursuing a medical transition down the line. If a five year old expresses a desire to transition, support them in doing what is appropriate for a five year old, not who they might become years later. Trans youth have to be able to provide informed consent to begin any sort of medical treatment. A trans affirming, competent health professional will decide when they are capable of doing this. Prior to this, transition largely occurs at the community level by way of a social transition. It may include the adoption of a chosen name, a shift in gender expression or hobbies, all things which can change (“back”) easily if the child so wishes. Do treat a child as a child. Empower them to learn the skills and confidence to grow into resilient, empowered adults, but do so in age appropriate ways.
Regardless of their age, remember trans people are not their dysphoria. It is a part of their life, but they are whole people, multi-dimensional, and they will feel safer and valued among people who love them wholly.
[Picture by Ol Klein from Unsplash. Description: A man with tattoos putting on a sweater in dim blue light.]
v) If you’re dating/being intimate with someone struggling with dysphoria: mirror their dysphoria back to them. For example, if they’re dysphoric about their chest, rather than try to convince them there’s “nothing wrong” with their chest (spoiler alert: yes, there is, that’s why they’re dysphoric about it), echo back that it’s hard to have a/their chest when it doesn’t work for the person.
If the next day/week/whatever, the person from our example feels less dysphoric about their chest, maybe even okay with it, then follow their lead and again echo that better feeling in that moment towards that body part (without, again, going ‘overboard’ and suggesting there’s nothing ever wrong with said body part.)
In effect, carry over the validation piece mentioned in section ii. Validate and reflect back to them how they feel by demonstrating a similar relationship to whatever is causing distress when it’s causing distress. This may be constant or fluctuating. This promotes the sharing of vulnerability, and can go a long way in helping a trans person manage their dysphoria around physical and sexual intimacy.
[Picture by Aaron Ang from Unsplash. Description: man sitting while holding a book looking at a lake.]
My closing thought is in effect an extension of my first point. Sometimes, it won’t matter what you say or do. It’s common over time for trans people struggling with dysphoria to become less and less able to share their bodies. It isn’t a universal experience. But some of us start off with greater ease of sharing our bodies/taking cloths off, maybe also partaking in certain intimate acts, yet progressively over time, this gets reduced or halted all together.
Prior to resolving my dysphoria, I was more confident at the beginning of a relationship that my partners seeing my non-reconstructed body wouldn’t “undo” their perception of my body as male. I began by taking off my binder/top and underwear easily. But even when I was with someone who was awesome at mirroring my dysphoria and gave me no reason whatsoever to doubt that they saw me as a guy, steadily over time, my brain did it to itself: it convinced me that the more they saw my non-reconstructed body, the less they would see it/me as male. I often started retreating from physical affection by cutting down on the types of intimate act I’d be comfortable having done to me, than I’d start keeping my underwear on, eventually I even shied away from cuddling and hugging while clothed.
I used to worry it wasn’t just with a given person I’d experience this but that it would be with anyone going forward. I’d fret about it until we broke up. Suddenly I had the bittersweet realisation I was okay with sharing more of my body again. I failed to find a way to manage this prior to genital reconstruction. But in sharing with others, I learnt I wasn’t the only one who struggled with this issue. I imagine it’d have made a difference for some (if not all) of my exes to know this too.
Dysphoric people may not be able to verbalise such an evolution in their dysphoria. But if this happens, don’t assume you’ve necessarily done something wrong.
As with any relationship, the most important things are open communication, nurturing the sharing of vulnerability, and validation. Doing these things will enable not only improvement around difficulties linked to dysphoria but all aspects of your relationships.