Sunday 17 December 2017

Dear Mary: I've found out my husband is a cross-dresser

Illustration: Tom Halliday.
Illustration: Tom Halliday.

Mary O'Connor

Relationship counsellor and psychosexual therapist Mary O'Conor offers relationship advice in her weekly column.

Question: After a few decades of marriage, my husband has revealed to me that he is a cross-dresser. This has brought our marriage to the brink of separation. However, we have decided to try to work something out. I was wondering if you could recommend a counsellor in  our area who has previous experience of dealing with people in this situation.

Mary replies: You have had two very big shocks. The fact that your husband is a cross-dresser and that he has kept this secret from you for all this time. The effect that cross-dressing has on a partner is not an area that is spoken about very often, yet it can have huge repercussions, as in your case. Some women find it easy to accept - I recall some years ago a client joking that she knew which one of them would prefer to be wearing the wedding dress at their forthcoming nuptials - but in my experience, they are in the minority. Mostly it is a huge transition for women to even imagine, let alone see, their partners or husbands in women's clothes, complete with hair, make-up and nails.

I don't know whether your husband came out and told you his secret, or whether you discovered it by finding his clothes or perhaps you came home unexpectedly and found him dressed. In either case, it must have been very difficult for him to tell you, as well as for you to hear, although he probably felt some relief that the truth was out. What you do from here on in is what is important. It is not something that he can simply give up, because the urge to dress is very strong and the men who do it speak of a huge feeling of happiness and wellbeing when they dress. In my experience of working with couples in this situation, it has largely been a question of compromise.

The compromise may be that he only does it when you are out of the house or that he tells you when he is going to dress, so you can decide whether to leave home for a few hours, or perhaps that he goes somewhere else entirely to do it. However, I don't know of any clubs for cross-dressers in your particular area, so that may not be an option for him.

It is indeed painful for both of you at this time and it's not the sort of thing that one can readily share with friends or family. I'm glad that you have decided to try counselling, which I hope will help you both. Most qualified relationship counsellors will have come across this subject at some time, so go to the IACP website to get details of a qualified counsellor in your area.

It would be a good idea to speak with the counsellor first to outline your needs and to satisfy yourself that they would be suitable for you. There are lots of very good accredited counsellors where you live and so it is a question of finding one that you feel is right for you. In the meantime, try to remember that he is still the same person that you knew and loved for all these years when you didn't know about his cross-dressing - there is just this one aspect of his life that he was either too ashamed of or too afraid to share with you.

My wife will not discuss our lack of sex

Question: My wife and I have been married for 10 years. We have one child in primary school. Both of us are in our mid-forties, have good jobs and are good parents. I am generally happy with my life and have mostly a positive outlook. However, there is one part of my life which is leaving me feeling very empty. The reason I'm writing this letter is because my wife is completely detached from our marriage. There is no intimacy whatsoever.

We have gone to counselling where I sat and listened to an onslaught of criticism and negativity from my wife for at least a few months. When it came to talk about intimacy, she quit. If I bring the subject up, she responds by saying she wants to split up, but she hasn't yet. I'm completely bewildered. I know she is going through the menopause, which is a difficult time, but that doesn't explain her extreme joylessness when it comes to our marriage. It's very difficult to plan a positive future with this volatility. Do you have any insight or advice?

Mary replies: There seems to be a certain amount of passivity on your part regarding your relationship with your wife. You 'sat and listened' as she gave you a hard time in the counselling room for a couple of months. That is a very long time to be criticised. You then allowed her to end counselling on her terms, i.e. walking out when she didn't want to discuss the sexual side of your marriage. She also seems to be dictating the terms regarding whether to separate or not. Why are you not making your views known? Perhaps she is pushing you all the time in the hope that you will be the one to leave.

She certainly sounds like a very angry lady and yet you haven't mentioned any reason why she should be so, apart from menopausal symptoms. During menopause, there are changes in hormonal production which could certainly account for mood swings and decreased sexual desire. Has she been to her doctor to discuss the effects of the menopause? If not the doctor, then acupuncture can be a great help in treating menopausal symptoms.

However, I feel it is something more than menopause. It isn't anybody's business what goes on sexually between two people, as long as they are both happy with what they have. This is not the case with you and you will have to decide what you want to do about it.

If things don't change, you are in danger of having a totally sexless marriage for the foreseeable future. You have gone down the counselling route, without success, and I am reluctant to suggest going to a different counsellor at this late stage. So it is time for you to take charge of things and arrange to have a heart-to-heart with your wife.

Explain that nothing can be gained if she ends up fighting with you and threatening to leave, although you will have to admit that this is always an option. Say that you are really anxious to help get to the root of what is going on between you but that you need to know if there is something other than the menopause which is causing her unhappiness.

Tell her how it is for you, never knowing what is going to happen between you and that you cannot go on living in this way. It is also not fair on your child, as children pick up on tensions between parents even when they are quite young, and this in turn makes them feel unsettled and worried about the future.

Then listen carefully to what she has to say and see if there is anything that you can do to make things better between you. From what you say, she had quite a litany of things that she was unhappy with during the counselling, so ask yourself if there was any bit of truth in what she had to say. If so, take responsibility for it and undertake to change your behaviour.

If not, then tell her why you feel she is being unfair to you. Tell her also that you miss the good times you had together - you did have good times, didn't you? - and that you feel quite lonely.

There is no point in even talking about the intimacy until things are on a better footing between you, and anyway, if you bring it up at the beginning you will be accused of always going on about the lack of sex.

But you will have to be much more forceful than you are being at present - if you feel strongly enough about wanting to save your marriage, then you will have to show her that you do.

You can contact Mary O’Conor anonymously by visiting or email her at or write c/o 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1. All correspondence will be treated in confidence. Mary O’Conor regrets that she is unable to answer any questions privately.

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