The Impact of Detransitioning on Families and Friends
As a psychotherapist who has worked in private practice for a number of years, I have come to realise that the family and loved ones’ response to an individual’s personal challenges can be pivotal. Many different people contacted me with their experiences after the release of the film Trans Kids: It’s time to talk, and as a result I acquired some in-depth knowledge both from people who have detransitioned and from their families. The varying reactions of family members can be strikingly different, and it is important for each family member to process their individual journey whether they are the child, the sibling, the parent, a member of the extended family or a friend of the detransitioned person. The following responses have been reported among family members and loved ones.
Many people feel profoundly disorientated when somebody close makes the decision to detransition. Some might experience a sense of bewilderment to the news as they had finally come to accept the transgender status of their relative and they may feel resistance to the idea that they now have to re-orientate to a new existence. Others might have had a more complicated response when the person was transitioning and now feel a correspondingly complex mix of emotions when they hear of the detransition. Others may have supported the person’s transition and they might subsequently feel a sense of bewilderment, confusion and then subsequent guilt that they enabled a transition that is now being processed as a regrettable decision. Sometimes, when a person feels confused, they can feel overwhelmed and just feel like giving up. This despair can lead to dark thoughts and people often feel helpless in the face of their untrammelled emotion. It is important to note that this sense of confusion is generally a stage in the processing and other emotions soon outweigh the bewilderment.
A profound sense of relief has been the response from some people when they learned about the person’s decision to detransition. Sometimes words just don’t cover it and I have heard reports of parents who have just silently hugged their child for many minutes as there simply was no words to express the depth of emotion involved. This relief can soon be complicated by a range of other equally intense emotions but, if you do feel a sense of relief, then it can be helpful to allow yourself to feel this freely as it might provide you with the emotional strength that might be needed in the months and years ahead.
Fear & anxiety
The road ahead for the detransitioner can feel almost overwhelmingly daunting and friends and family can feel engulfed by fear of the future. It is important to note that, for some people, uncertainty can feel even worse than even negative consequences and so it can be helpful – for some people – to be armed with the facts, even though these facts may be very frightening. Others feel better if they allow the situation to unfold slowly, as they prefer to swallow each issue piece by piece instead of all together. This sense of fear is an understandable response to a difficult set of circumstances, and tenderness, compassion and a focus on the wider perspective of life in its entirety can alleviate some of the intensity of this anxiety.
Guilt & Shame
Parents in particular – but siblings also – can feel a profound sense of guilt when a family member detransitions. One parent poignantly said to me, “I failed in the most important job I had – I failed to protect my child from harm.” Sadly, although we feel that this is our role as parents, in truth it is very difficult to protect our children from harm. Life is often difficult and, as gender dysphoria is often associated with co-morbidities,i there can therefore be a whole array of other challenges for a parent, so it is sometimes impossible to prevent our children from being harmed.
On the other hand, guilt can be productive as guilt often relates to our moral code and guilt can acknowledge our mistakes and propel us to behave better. In this context, guilt might relate to a sense of responsibility over actions that were taken. Although maladaptive guilt (when a person becomes stuck within chronic guilt) can have negative consequences, adaptive guilt can often be quite helpful for everyone concerned.ii If it is appropriate, communicating a heartfelt apology and a sense of commitment and solidarity for the road before them might be the most healing response to take.
Shame is a more maladaptive response than guilt. While guilt relates to empathy and considers other people’s perspectives, shame is a more inner response as it relates to the self instead of others. Guilt focuses on your behaviour while shame focuses on your inner feelings. Some people report feeling engulfed with feelings of shame when their loved one detransitions. This response can cause even more problems and is often rooted within a deeper framework and so effective professional support might be essential in order to prevent further rupture within relationships.
Many family members feel a deep sense of regret about their role in the transitioning of the person. Some may regret their financial assistance while others may regret their emotional support and yet assistance and support are what we expect and even demand from our family and so, it could be argued that apparently supportive behaviour was actually the most loving response you could provide in the face of a lack of understanding of what was unfolding. Although regret can be very damaging as it can lead to endless self-focused rumination and depression, it can also harness our spirit of survival. Sometimes our sense of regret is entirely appropriate, and the most honest response is to acknowledge our regret and try to take corrective action. If we have the courage to regret our actions, we can then have the brain space, untarnished by self-deceit and justification, to consider our future choices and this, in turn, can lead to healthier and more functional decisions.
Anger & resentment
Some family members can feel a distressing level of anger and resentment about the individual’s decision to detransition. Siblings in particular can feel that when the person was transitioning, they consumed all the emotional energy in the family, but they believed, as dutiful siblings, that this was a necessary sacrifice to make. Then, when the person makes the decision to detransition the sibling might feel utterly furious that even more energy is devoted to the detransitioner and still there is little room for the siblings’ less dramatic personal challenges. Indeed, many siblings report that they were specifically told to take a back seat when the person was transitioning as the parents just didn’t have the emotional reserves for other emotional intensity – and then it was often assumed that the siblings would continue to suppress their own emotional responses when the person begins to detransition. Of course, none of this is fair or appropriate; nobody is more special than anyone else and being told that you are very loved and yet also very lucky and, practically speaking, slightly less important (as you don’t have the challenges that your sibling faces) can feel just too much for many people. Deep harboured resentment can be the result and the repair for these relationships might take many years to fully resolve.
It is not only siblings who can feel anger and resentment, others can also feel bitterly angry as they feel that they have wasted years of their precious emotional energy in learning to understand just how important transitioning is to the individual, only for all those years to feel like a waste, as the person then reverts and almost (but not quite) resumes the road that they had been on before gender dysphoria made its presence known within the family. Yet a deeper exploration of gender dysphoria will show you that it is not necessarily anyone’s fault – when gender dysphoria hits a family everyone can be impacted.
Blame & justification
When a person begins the process of detransition, it often does not take long before people begin to blame each other and anyone else that comes to mind. Some people tend to blame everybody else while others tend to self-blame; neither is very helpful. Exploring the intent behind each decision can allow everyone to come to a deeper understanding of what actually happened. Accuracy is the holy grail here, as an accurate understanding of how the transitioning process unfolded, why it unfolded and whether it could have – or should have – been avoided is crucial to gaining a deeper understanding of our psyche. This requires tremendous honesty and courage. Sadly, some people might not have the ability to access this depth. It is often said that ‘To understand everything is to forgive everything’ and, although this might be too ambitious, yet a deeper understanding of how each person experienced each event can lead to a clearer and even easier path to detransition.
Politicisation & solidarity
Gender politics has been the source of a great deal of heightened emotion in recent years, and it is difficult to publicly explore the issue of gender dysphoria without becoming embroiled in combative arguments on social media. In response, many people choose to become very private about their personal affairs but may feel socially isolated as a result. Relatives and friends have been asked to leave certain online groups when their children detransition and this can cut very deep. We are a social species and we need to feel supported by our community; be it online or in real life. Rejection from the trans community and online debate has led some people to become very politicised as they begin to believe, often rightly, that the politicisation of gender might have unduly influenced the decision to transition. Although gender politics are very compelling and many people find their community within this realm, it can also be exhausting and after the experiencing the extraordinary highs and lows of transitioning and detransitioning, it is essential that people are wary of leaping into further emotional drama. Moving from one drama to another can work as a maladaptive mechanism for the individual to avoid the slower, unfolding of our inner processes. For some, a slower, more private, reflective pace is what is needed while for others, becoming involved in gender politics might work as a way to process the extraordinary events that have happened.
Compassion & acceptance
Within the turmoil of emotion, it is important that self and other compassion is required when a family member or loved one detransitions. Family members need to nurture compassion for themselves and for the person who is going through this. Equally self and other acceptance is another vital ingredient that may seem like a far away goal but is profoundly important for a person to process this situation. Compassion lays the groundwork for a person to develop acceptance. Compassionate acceptance develops when a person can release their expectations of any given outcome. This takes discipline and a great deal of effort, but many people can feel a profound sense of liberation when they realise that they can acknowledge the reality of the situation without necessarily needing to change it or control it.
Love & support
Certain family members may feel ready to love and support the person who detransitions, but others might feel that they need to disassociate from supportive measures as their over-involvement in the past hasn’t turned out very well. ‘Detaching with love’ has often worked for over-involved people and this might be a good approach for some family members as they come to realise that over-involvement can be as damaging as under-involvement. Love and support can come in many guises and it doesn’t necessarily suggest that the family member is fully involved in the detransitioners’ decisions. Detransitioning might be the most powerful inner experience of your loved one’s life and it might not be helpful or appropriate to interfere in this process. Thankfully, even during the most complex situations, love may prevail – as the poet Philip Larkin tells us, ‘What will survive of us is love.’