Since gender dysphoria is such a common experience for trans people, it becomes a kind of standard by which we end up evaluating our partners. How a person treats me while I am experiencing dysphoria is a pretty quick indication of whether or not they deserve to be in my life. It doesn’t mean that my partners are responsible for fixing these feelings, but if they can’t offer me positive space and support while I’m struggling, then I know I’m better off without them.
As trans people have come to greater visibility in the last few years, the term dysphoria has slowly emerged as a common aspect of the trans experience. Usually it is defined as a disconnection between one’s body and gender, and in a pinch, this definition certainly works. However, for many in the trans community, gender dysphoria is a complicated and often intimate experience. Consequently, we have come to know it as more than just a vague anxiety related to body and gender identity.
There are two primary types of gender dysphoria. The first, and most commonly discussed, is body dysphoria. This occurs when the shape, dynamic, and function of your body doesn’t fit with how you feel your gender identity should be presented. This feeling can occur in a general sense about a person’s body, but it can also be specifically focused on a particular aspect of the body. Many trans people struggle with their voice, for example, and go to great lengths to train their vocal patterns to ease the discomfort in hearing themselves speak. The anxieties related to different parts of the body usually have different solutions to them, as each of us learn ways to coordinate our unique matchup of body and gender.
The second type of dysphoria is social. This occurs when a person’s body forces them into spaces, social roles, and interactions that don’t fit with their gender. This can be felt as imposter syndrome, where the trans person will feel extreme doubt about their validity in their gender. It can also be felt like social anxiety, where the sufferer will feel extremely uncomfortable with engaging in a social situation and lose the self-confidence they might have when alone or in one-on-one interactions. Almost always this type of dysphoria is dependent on something we can’t change: how others see us. I may be feeling comfortable in my body’s presentation of my gender, but if I find myself in a situation where I am being treated as if I am a man instead of a woman, I feel the struggle with dysphoria arise like panic in my mind.
Everyone, no matter what gender, is in a process of battling their personal demons, and we all bring these to the table when we begin to explore each other romantically. Dating a trans person is no different, except that you can be certain up front that one demon they face is dysphoria.
As with any emotional struggle, remember that it is your partner who is struggling, and not you. It is important to be able to take care of your own emotional health, and to not feel as if you are the only one constantly there to keep them safe. Doing this means you will have the energy to keep helping out, while depleting yourself will end up leaving you both feeling unhappy. Helping another person through dysphoria doesn’t mean creating a co-dependency, but instead, helping to provide tools for them to do the work they need inside themselves to feel happy again.
So what does this mean for you if you’re interested in dating someone transgender or gender non-conforming? Below, I offer a few ways to engage with the topic, and ways to be watchful for when dysphoria may be creeping up on your partner.
Ask them how they experience gender dysphoria and how they process it
Everyone’s dysphoria is unique. Some people struggle with specific parts of their body, some struggle with it in context to certain social situations. Not every trans person has genital dysphoria, not every trans person has dysphoria over secondary sex characteristics like body hair or fat distribution. What triggers dysphoria is unique to each of us, even if many of us hold similar triggers in common. Don’t assume how your partner will experience dysphoria, or how they will best deal with it, even if you have dated gender non-conforming people in the past.
Of course, this is a pretty personal discussion, so it’s definitely not a good first date topic unless they bring it up. But as a relationship progresses, chances are good it will come up one way or another. When it does, they’re going to be sharing something important and vulnerable for them: be compassionate, and be ready to hear out their experience.
Pay attention to common signs and triggers
Often dysphoria is expressed alongside anxiety and depression. These are states that can slowly accumulate, and it’s not always easy to see them growing inside yourself. As you learn more about your partners dysphoria journey, you’ll start to see the ways they express these emotions, and can catch them developing. The same goes for triggers that initiate the onset of dysphoria. Many triggers are routine, and being familiar with them can give you a heads up to offer support for your partner.
For example, a common trigger for me is getting dressed in the morning. Sometimes getting dressed is bad, and sometimes it’s wonderful. Often, I can’t tell the difference until I’m already dysphoric and my morning has been ruined. I’ve noticed that if I start staring too much in the mirror, then it means I’m starting to feel dysphoric, and I need to be distracted and come back to getting dressed in five minutes. I can’t always see my emotions changing, but I can notice if I’m fussing in front of the mirror more than usual. Being aware of this little habit has saved my day countless times.
Be aware in new social situations
Walking into new social situations and meeting new people can often feel uncertain or downright scary when you’re trans. We never know how things are going to go, and it’s all too easy to imagine that we will face non-acceptance. It can take a while of patient watching and slow interacting before things are deemed safe. If you’re dating someone transgender or gender non-conforming, it’s good to be aware upfront when you’re going into a new social situation together. They may feel wary or start out being a bit shielded until they can see that things are safe. If they don’t know anyone, don’t abandon them, especially in those first fifteen minutes! For those who experience social dysphoria or imposter syndrome, these moments can be overwhelming, and having a little help early on can give them the opportunity to get their ground and feel secure enough to let down. For a lot of us, being out socially can be exhausting, and being able to safely crash after is important.
Speak up against microaggressions
It’s often easier to stand up against direct violence because it’s clear what is going on. Microaggressions are harder. Common microaggressions against trans people look like intentional and repeated misgendering, dead naming, treating the trans person the same as other people of their assigned gender, asking personal questions about their bodies or sexuality, and pushing them to the margins of a social interaction or refusing to interact with them at all. This happens a lot for trans people, so after a while, it’s easy to fall into the habit of just letting it happen in order to move forward with our day. If you see it happening to your partner, your partner is being mistreated. Standing up for them is the same as defending their emotional and social safety. It doesn’t mean you have to get into a fight. Simply call out the treatment as wrong, voice the appropriate pronoun or perspective, and be willing to walk away if it doesn’t stop. Much of the time, standing up doesn’t change the person committing the microaggressions, but it will mean the world to your partner who is receiving the discrimination.
Use unsolicited compliments and encouragement
Encouragement and compliments can do wonders for someone struggling with dysphoria. Especially for those who are in the process of changing their presentation or undergoing medical transition, encouragement can help to stabilize their uncertainties while things are evolving. Don’t use comparative compliments like “You look just like a woman/man,” or “you pass really well today.” Not only do these reinforce gender stereotypes and unhealthy beauty standards, they remind trans people that they are not always included or accepted by society.
General compliments and encouragement like telling someone they are beautiful or that they are capable to make it through their struggle is a delight. Specific encouragement is even better. Telling someone that their outfit looks really good on them, that you like the way they’ve done their make-up, or that they handled a situation really well is incredibly validating. Receiving genuine and honest compliments is something that a trans person can rely on later when they are struggling with dysphoria. The memories of those compliments become tools themselves in the fight against dysphoria.
Provide the space for your partner to ride it out
There are times when dysphoria may become a brick wall. Everything grinds to a halt, and it feels impossible to go forward. Sometimes when this happens, there’s nothing to be done but to wait it out. I’ve heard a lot of discussion about things that help, ranging from showers in the dark and lying in bed with the covers over your head to dressing up or obsessively spending time on gendered body care. Usually these are survival mechanisms. Give your partner space for all this while they work through their dysphoria, but also encourage them to not get trapped in the survival mode cycle. Affirming touch like cuddling and even just being present can help during this time.
Remind your partner of their tools
The way to not get trapped in the survival mode cycle is to begin reaching out for emotional tools. Some of my favorites include making visual art, singing, dancing, journaling, and making gratitude lists. I also really enjoy walking through nature or through the city if it’s nighttime and there is no one around. Do things that help your partner feel positive about being in a body where gender doesn’t need to come into the equation at all. Keep in mind that if their feeling of dysphoria is especially strong, they may not have the impulse to start an activity on their own, and it may be extremely helpful to have you join them in the activity for a bit if you’re up for it.
Some other wonderful tools are intentionally positive self-talk, ‘reframing the narrative’ so that what seems bad at the moment ends with hope for how things can get better, making and eating a healthy meal (maybe with a little splurge treat too), and sitting in front of a mirror for a short while saying ‘I love you’ to yourself. Seeing a therapist is also a wonderful tool, but sometimes not a timely one. However, a therapist can really help a person figure out new tools and build the habits to employ those tools.
When it’s a crisis, ask what they need and what they want
Finally, memorize phrases like, “Do you want to talk about it, or do you want to be distracted from it.” No matter what is happening, your partner has all the keys. They are the ones experiencing dysphoria, and though they may need help, they’re the ones who will be able to best evaluate what that means. Let them guide you towards the best ways to help.
Another great question is, “What are the things you need, and what are the things you want?” Silence makes things feel entrenched. It is important for trans people to be able to communicate and feel heard about their dysphoria. If you can start the conversation about your partners dysphoria in a way that gives them all the options to define what’s going on themselves, then you’ve opened up a safe space for them to begin to walk back out of the very dark, very daunting realm of gender dysphoria.
Sophia Cy is a writer, an artist, and a dancer. She can be found on Instagram and twitter @soheressophie.