Elizabeth K. (not her real name) was confident she had secured a good Catholic husband that would never leave her, unlike her father had done. “My perceptions were correct,” she said. “He has appealed the annulment twice, all the way to Rome, and still does not accept it.”
The problem was that her husband had always secretly wanted to be a woman.
Today, Elizabeth heads up the hospitality ministry at St. Matthew Church in North Carolina and is a certified Catholic Life Coach at Abounding Joy Ministry. She weathered many storms during her childhood and 30-year marriage, but has come out strong, tapping into God and rising above the pain. But years ago, while running three businesses from home (two marketing companies and a Catholic bookstore), raising five children mostly alone, and caring for her disabled husband, she felt like she was drowning. Her husband began having migraines, had a heart attack and then for nine years, suffered grand mal seizures. Most difficult was her husband’s growing expression of wanting to be a woman.
After meeting in college and dating for six months, they became engaged at church right before the Blessed Sacrament. “I thought, this is going to be the Catholic marriage that my mother never had,” Elizabeth said.
With big college loans from four degrees, a teaching certificate and three years of seminary, they decided to delay children for four years using Natural Family Planning. Once they were married, however, it was obvious that despite being affectionate, her husband had an unusually low sex drive.
“Our honeymoon was a disaster,” she said. “My gut told me we had a real problem, but I knew nothing about gender identity disorder and thought my role was to be understanding. I knew he was not a typical male, although he looked masculine. He was sensitive and compassionate and artistic, and much of that was wonderful.”
His sensitive nature had set him up for ridicule as a child from his father who bullied him. “There’s a normal healthy spectrum of masculinity but some are outside that and they need help,” Elizabeth said. “Some kids don’t have sufficient hormones or healthy gender modeling.”
In order to try to resolve the gender confusion, they went to counseling several times. Back then few counselors had even heard of gender identity disorder, let alone know how to effectively give counsel. But they were able to affirm that sacramental marriage is between one man and one woman and that God endows each of us with an identity of beloved son or beloved daughter. Our gender is written by God into the DNA of every cell of our body.
Four years into the marriage, Elizabeth became pregnant. She had been promoted to the top of a telemarketing company but wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. She babysat and found other ways to make money at home.
Praying to Stay Home
While working as a medical social worker, her husband began getting sick. A doctor determined that his adrenal glands were shot, and it would take 10-12 months to recover. He would never return to work, however, 26 years later.
Elizabeth went back to work as a division manager and corporate sales trainer, but it was too much for her husband to handle the children at home due to his illness. She found a way to work from home with her original company and formed her own company doing sales and marketing in Catholic publishing, which she did for 20 years.
Amid all the busyness, Elizabeth tried to block out her husband’s troubling inclinations, but they kept resurfacing. In the meantime, he asked God to remove the desire from him, and prayed novenas and Rosaries but was not able to overcome it.
When some of the children were still in high school, her husband started acting out more. “You’ve chosen marriage and children, so you don’t have a right to act on those desires,” Elizabeth told him.
“I think it’s our responsibility before God to do our best to help others and invest in love and prayer,” she said. “I set him up with a good Catholic therapist, but he would not accept anything he said. I went through the Unbound healing ministry program with him, but I could see that his walls were like concrete—there was no emotion at all.”
When he changed his name to a woman’s, grew out his hair long and started wearing women’s clothing, Elizabeth went to four priests, one of whom was a canon lawyer. “I knew in my gut that this was a beautiful friendship, but it had never been a true marriage,” she said.
Elizabeth filed for divorce but was determined to still love. “There will be landmines for sin in our path ahead—selfishness, bitterness, unkindness and anger— but let’s make an agreement to help each other to avoid sin,” Elizabeth told him.
Initially, when their Church community heard of the divorce, some bad-mouthed Elizabeth, assuming the “career” woman was abandoning her marriage vows. When the truth came out, they apologized. “They were angry with me because of the perceived injustice,” Elizabeth said. “I said, ‘Thank you for wanting me to do the right thing. You were right to want that, but you were incorrect in your assumptions.’”
At that point, Elizabeth was portrayed as the saint and he as the devil. “I had to defend him,” she said. “He was not thinking right. He was kind to me every day of our marriage. He was a suffering soul and I would never want to trade places with him.”
Of their five children, some are supportive of their dad living as a woman, some are upset, and one is non-committal either way. But all treat him with kindness, something Elizabeth tried to instill in them. She challenges the angry ones to try to heal and forgive, “or you will take the bitterness into every relationship.” She has told them, “There will always be those who disappoint and hurt us. Most often people are sincerely trying to do the right thing. It’s our choice whether we will be offended and bitter or realize that we also have hurt others and we all are in need of forgiveness.”
On the day of their divorce, they went in separate cars to church to pray for the next chapter, then drove to court. Elizabeth has gotten on with her life and sees her responsibility now to remain compassionate and simply to pray for him.
“I have come to a degree of healing I didn’t think possible. Part of that healing is asking the Lord to help me continue to love him as a brother in Christ, even while not accepting the disorder. We can’t approve of disordered actions. Love can only be found in truth. Christ wants to bring all of us into order and abundant life. It helps me to picture Jesus’ eyes looking at him with profound love. It’s easy to look on the surface and see the face of the offender but love requires us to look deeper to see the suffering soul. I believe that’s what God is asking each of us to do.”