Third Culture Kid Relationships: Attachment & Trauma

by | Oct 15, 2018 | Blog | 0 comments

The ways we attach…

I’ve been looking more deeply into attachment theory this week and it’s interaction with Third Culture Kid relationships. In this theory (read more about it here), Bowlby’s proposes that the way we experience relationship in our first few years draws up a blueprint for our later relationships. Some say that the way to establish what our early experiences (pre-memory) of attachment were is to look at the way we engage in relationships now. How do we do relationship in our present day lives? Do we feel secure in our relationships? Or perhaps we feel anxious about them never quite convinced the affections we receive will continue. Perhaps we feel avoidant in our relationships; aware of our need for connectedness but hesitant to ever be truly vulnerable in relationship, instead prioritising independence.

The ways we experience trauma…

Many of my clients have experienced trauma of one kind or another. Trauma may be understood as disordered emotional or behavioural functioning as a result of severe emotional or physical stress. Trauma with a big ‘T’ is easily recognised; earthquakes, civil war, a car accident. Trauma with a little ‘t’ is more subtle, but some of the experiences may include routine and frequent loss, linguistic and/or cultural alienation, family disfunction due to internal or external stressors, and physical illness that limits and complicates what would be seen as ‘normal’ day-to-day functioning.

What have these to do with Third Culture Kids?

Why am I linking attachment and trauma? Well, because there is such a thing as ‘attachment injury’ which, according to this fascinating article, is when trauma occurs within the context of a relationship. I’ve been pondering the implication of this with particular reference to my work with Third Culture Kids, who have experienced many of the little ‘t’ traumas I mention above. They also often experience relational challenges later in life.

It wasn’t easy to write that last sentence: Third Culture Kids often experience relational challenges later in life. And yet it is so understandable that this should be true! The repeated losses, the early carer-giver relationships left behind, the continued movement in adulthood complicating grounded connection to place and people… and the belief etched onto many of our hearts, “Everyone Leaves”. So why is it so hard to say?

The way we tell our stories…

So where does attachment injury or trauma of any other kind feature in our story? I hear it most often expressed as Self Blame. “If only I was stronger… more spiritual… less messed up…” And yet, if it is true that common challenges are felt across a particular demographic, we have to look beyond personal weakness for explanation. The data simply demands another explanation. Instead, I sincerely believe that,

Your challenges are not simply the result of personal failings, but are instead normal responses to extraordinary circumstances.

But where does this leave us? It leaves us in the uncomfortable position of inferring that certain elements of Third Culture Kid experiences as essentially traumatic. Traumatic because they interfere with the abilities of large portions of the TCK population to connect securely in their adult relationships.

Of course, there is hope. Where we learnt self-blame, we can learn self-compassion. And where we find compassion, we find acceptance… and here is what nurtures the most enduring change. We can change behaviours learnt through painful experiences. Change is, after all, what we do best.

Get in touch here to begin making your changes today.


A note or two

Now, two notes here. One, my suggestion here digresses from Bowlby’s focus on the mother relationship as the significant element in securing attachment. I would expand outwards and suggest that the evidence I am seeing points to a wider body of early relationships impacting on adult relationship patterns. If enough relationships are repeatedly severed, a secure maternal relationship may be insufficient to protect the TCK from feeling some of the impact of this. Though it should also be noted that maternal attachment is likely to be complicated where that mother is herself placed under significant strain, such as is experienced by many raising their families abroad.

My second point to note is that I fully expect to receive comments and emails from TCKs who do not feel they have had relationship challenges into adulthood. By positing that many TCKs experience relational challenge, I am not seeking to deny your more secure experiences. I am thrilled you have had such a positive experience. Instead, what I am doing (though I tremble slightly in my boots as I write) is to lend voice to the stories I hear where personal suffering has been too long compounded by a tendency to see the suffering TCK as an anomaly to the TCK experience. The TCKs who struggle with secure attachments and the effects of trauma, these are valid TCK stories too – and all the more difficult to tell.

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