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Recently, a woman called me stating that she discovered something extremely shocking about her husband after seventeen years of marriage and two children (and admittedly many dismissed concerns). Her husband is a cross-dresser.

According to The American Journal of Family Therapy’s Male Cross-Dressers in Therapy: A Solution-Focused Perspective for Marriage and Family Therapists, by Kristina Dzelme and Renee A. Jones, “An understanding that an individual’s gender is distinct of the individual’s sex is necessary for successful therapy. The gender is the ‘feeling’ of being male or female.”

Many times, cross dressing is an expression of associated gender attributes, not a sexual identification issue. These men want to feel feminine qualities such as softness, tenderness, beauty—and need an outlet in a culture that expects a man to be strong, with limited emotional responses. In 1987, a pinnacle article called Doing Gender was published that expressed, “At birth, society and family begin the pattern of mapping out the appropriate gender role that continues throughout the life cycle” (West & Zimmerman, 1987).

In fact, cultural expectations begin at an early age and remain throughout life. For example, an expectation begins at birth in American culture that boys wear blue and girls wear pink. Women are allowed more freedom to express their male gender qualities and can wear blue or any other color they like, but until recently men have been more timid about wearing pink.

Women can also wear a man’s tailored suit or combat boots depending on her desires to feel the masculine-assigned traits of power, drive, and aggression. But, what can men wear and where can they go to express their feelings of emotional softness or reveal their expressions of “feminized” beauty? In reaction, some men cross dress in the privacy and safety of their home. When or if their need becomes stronger they may “pass,” meaning they move outside of the home into society to express their culturally assigned feminine qualities.

Yet, what can be considered cross dressing in one culture may not be viewed the same as in another. In some cultures, men have worn kilts, tights, and wigs, which were culturally accepted but would be considered “cross dressing” in our current culture.

According to Dr. Anne Vitale, Ph.D, in Notes on Gender Role Transition,“Coming out is a big step but one I definitely recommend if the Significant Other is really interested in trying to save the relationship. Getting in touch with others first by email or by phone followed by attending a support group meeting can go a long way in putting the problem in a workable perspective.”

Overall, cross dressing may be a symptom of men’s need for more softness and expression of their feminine side in a society that has allowed women the ability to express more “masculine” qualities. As I shared with my patient, the best way to cope with this reality is to ask yourself, “What is the worst part of this situation? Then, identify your marital strengths and weaknesses. If husband and wife decide on couples counseling, I help them to assess their communication style. For example, how do they solve other problems?

Cross dressing is a difficult realization in a marriage, but with clear communication, the setting of specific boundaries, and honesty with expectations and limitations the married couple will be able to decide on their level of commitment to the relationship or whether they are unable to remain together.

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