How to Care for Others Without Dealing with Their Crap
Invariably, we will encounter people in our lives about whom we care very much, but whose opinions are hurtful.
As a transgender woman, I have had friends and family members express notions that could be taken as hurtful. As someone who works with the public and loves helping people, there is always that possibility that someone I help does not understand about my being queer or transgender.
It hasn’t happened yet, but I have been bracing for it for years. I figured at least one unenlightened relative, friend of the family, or even an acquaintance through work or elsewhere would say something along the lines of:
You’re Married to a woman? Why go to the trouble of transitioning if you were just going to marry a woman in the first place?
To set the record straight, as I said, this is not something anyone has said to me. However, I have heard it said to others I know. And not just for trans women. I know of trans men who had their relationship with a man questioned in the same vein.
I also know a lot of people-cisgender and straight — who have had their sexuality questioned due to dating or marrying a trans person. A woman who dates a trans man is dating a man. Period.
The fact of her dating him does not make her gay or bisexual (or even pansexual). She could be one of those things but dating a trans man is not proof.
I took up a similar situation — though mostly about trans women — not too long ago:
Being with a Trans Woman Does Not Make Men Gay (or Women Straight)
Deadly misconceptions about gender and sexuality
More Unpopular Opinions You Could Encounter
The uneducated questions and opinions I just listed are fairly well-known, but there is always the classic unapologetically bigoted opinions people you care about might still espouse.
I think I got my family and friends to understand what it means that I am a trans woman — and what it does not mean. However, there are still friends and family of people I know who will claim someone is not really trans. That she is just doing it for attention. That single-case use of the pronoun they is “incorrect.” That trans people are selfish for transitioning and wanting the rest of the world to change how they see and address them.
How to Care for Someone Even When They Don’t Seem to Deserve It (and Why).
A lot of people have probably gotten judgement or worse from friends and family members. Maybe even from total strangers you are trying to help. How can I care for my parent, for instance, when they don’t want to call me the appropriate pronouns and purposely call me by the wrong name? And why would I even want to?
Let’s tackle the why first. It’s simple (sort of). You don’t have to. Or shouldn’t, anyway. If you can do it safely, it might help to treat the other person with respect even if they don’t return the favor.
And maybe you still love and care for that person. You just wish they would stop making it so hard for you to do. Uncle Lou is your mom’s favorite brother, for instance, but he sure can be a jerk sometimes (usually after too many beers at Thanksgiving).
Or it might be your parents, or someone from the neighborhood, or even someone you work for who is giving you a hard time. Maybe you already have a cherished relationship with these people and just wish they would stop saying things that can be taken as hurtful.
For example, I know someone who who is bisexual and who has a family member she loves very much, but this relative never really got on board with this person’s sexuality. They still have a great relationship, and even talk about the person’s partner, but they just have agreed to disagree about her sexuality and not talk about it.
So, you need to decide if it is worth it, but if the judgement is coming from someone whose relationship you otherwise value, it might be. Only you can figure that out.
How to do it: The main thing is to make it a non-issue. The best way to do this is to remove the issue somehow. I might call it selective engagement. In the example I gave, the two relatives realized they would never change each other and just stopped harping on it.
In a lot of cases, selective engagement might mean removing yourself from the situation or at least narrowing your interaction. When my mother was alive, I knew it was time to go home to my own house when she started telling me all the things I ought to do with my life. I would go over and help her around the house. I would take her to dinner. But it was time to leave when she started judging me (fat shaming, pointing out all the things I did wrong, and the list goes on).
It is especially important, if what someone is saying or how they are acting is hurting you, to remove yourself from the situation if you can.
I recognize my privilege as someone who transitioned during middle age, and did not have to depend on parents, a partner, or others for support. I could remove myself, at least to some extent from the situation.
I know there are those for whom this is not the case. For those people, it will be even more difficult to care about others when they don’t seem to care about you.
The specific circumstances make a difference, too. If you know this other person will come around eventually (or is likely to), then showing you care for them might make all the difference.
I am thinking of trans people whose parents don’t understand at first but later come to understand and support their child.
I am thinking of spouses who came to accept their partner for who she/he/they are. Sometimes this led to the continuation of their relationship, sometimes it meant dissolution of their marriage.
And if you reach the point where you cannot accept how people are treating you, do all you can to leave the situation. If you are married and your spouse simply cannot accept you, it might be time to consider separation or divorce.
If you are a minor and you feel unsafe in your home, tell someone — a teacher, any other adult. Regardless of who is doing it, abuse is never ok. However much you might still love those in your household, you owe it to yourself to think of your safety first.
So getting out of the situation is a good bet (in the case of abusive situations, it’s all you can do).
If you are not in imminent danger and can’t completely remove yourself, Though, do as much as you can. Take yourself out of situations that at least have the most potential to hurt.
I was fortunate— strangely enough — when one of my relatives actually removed themself and said they wanted to curtail interaction with me, consigning our relationship mostly to family gatherings (where they basically had no choice anyway).
It was no problem to me. Calling this person’s bluff and mostly excluding them from my life for a while allowed them and me to cool off, helping us both in the long run. Years later, our relationship is much better (not perfect, or even as good as it was, but I wouldn’t put this person in the same category as the kind of family members I just mentioned). Also, I never stopped caring about this person or loving them.
How to Make It Work
There are a few strategies that go with the idea of selective engagement. It is easy to tell someone to remove themself from the situation, but it isn’t always easy to do.
One thing that has worked for me is to remember the why. Why do I even want to continue this relationship when they deadname (saying my old name) or misgender (use the wrong pronouns) me all the time? Lately it has come down to motive. Most of my family don’t usually deadname or misgender me, but when they do it is obviously an accident. They knew me for 45+ years by a certain name and gender and they have had to get used to a new one. It’s been several years since I transitioned, but they don’t get to see me more than once or twice a year, so it is not surprising someone slips.
My why is that they are still my family, I still love them, and actually appreciate them for trying (if not always succeeding) to get it right. I know it is important to them, too; the person who inevitably misgender or deadname looks obviously upset (after usually correcting themself or being corrected by another member of my family).
Remembering my why also helps me do something else. If I remember why it is important to have this person in my life even if they are sometimes toxic, I can also keep in mind the valuable things in our relationship. In the case of my mom, she could be a very loving person as long as I could get past the quirky ways she showed her love. I honestly think she thought she was showing her love by worrying about me and judging how I lived my life.
My mom was also a fiercely strong single mom at a time when that just wasn’t very common. She was an educated woman (Bachelor degree from University of Illinois, circa 1955) when most women weren’t. I’m pretty sure I got my stubbornness from her, but that might not be a good example.
I would engage with her, and have with other members of my family, because of why those relationships are important. I’ve selectively engaged with them out of self-preservation.
And That’s The Idea
That’s the reason I wrote this essay. To help others preserve their own self-worth and — let’s face it — sanity in the face of toxic situations with people they care for or even love.
Remember, if it doesn’t seem worth it, it probably isn’t. And if the situation is toxic enough that you are in danger or feel unsafe, do what you can to safely remove yourself. Don’t be a afraid to ask for help.
If it is worth it, though, and you are not in imminent danger, out is worthwhile to have a strategy for dealing with those you care about without having to care what they think.