Third Culture Kids and Intimacy

by | Mar 10, 2020 | Blog | 6 comments

This question is a biggie for us Third Culture Kids, not only in that it spans two decades in Erikson’s Eight Stages of Man timeline, but also in terms of the impact our relationships have on our sense of Self as successful in achieving intimacy or isolation.

According to Erikson, we spend our 20s and 30s seeking an answer to the question, “Can I love and be loved?” – and our happiness, our sense of intimate connection and engagement with others, depends heavily on how we learn to answer it.

Third Culture Kids and intimacy

One of the markers by which we often identify Third Culture Kids is by how many friends they have across how many continents. I’ve heard a variety of feelings expressed by TCKs about their friendships – ranging from feeling globally ‘woven in’ to a web of friendship that holds them tight, wherever they live, to feeling scattered and fragmented, somewhat connected over here, somewhat connected over there, but lacking that day to day contact that speaks to them of intimacy and belonging.

I often hear from TCKs struggling in their romantic relationships – finding it hard to ‘settle’ in to the degree of intimacy that is suggested by commitment over time, fearing abandonment (‘everyone leaves’) or struggling to shut the door on the many possible relationships ‘out there’ by sticking with this one.

When we carry within us many identities, it can be challenging to know how our relationships meet these different parts, nurture them or neglect them… allowing us self-expression or encouraging us to slow down our shape-shifting tendencies, and pick a form. Do you find it hard to know when you are being ‘you’ in relationship? The question, “Can I love and be loved?” takes on new depth when we realise we have many ‘I’s.

Do you ever catch yourself thinking, “Well, they love this me, but they wouldn’t love the other me…”? If so, it may be that the second part of these question is also at play in your relationships – “I know I can love this part of them, but what if there is another part of them I won’t love… I can’t commit, I might get stuck!”

What is it that makes intimacy scary?

Intimacy is built on knowing; knowing who I am that I am offering to the other to know too. This builds on the identity work of the previous stage, and is seriously complicated if we haven’t built a solid sense of who we are, and who we are to others.

Inviting intimacy is also to take a massive risk that we could be rejected! And so we must have a sense of our own worthiness, our own loveability, to buffer against this risk. Rejection is pretty high stakes as a Third Culture Kid. We know how much making friends quickly could make or break our social standing, even our social survival. And we may, even in adulthood, carry with us this sense of high stakes risk when we reach out to others for intimacy.

In fact, many of us stop reaching. We have been burnt, and burnt repeatedly so that we now associate intimacy with danger and pain. Perhaps we find our relationships consistently break down once a certain degree of intimacy is expected or invited. Being close hurts.

Isolation is safer than intimacy.

It is. We can retreat, lick our wounds, and erect walls that trigger alarm bells whenever someone looks like they might approach. We stay safe. Away from the feelings and the turmoil and the rejection. We can engage in friendships and partnerships, always as a our best self so keeping a swift retreat as the best option when we are liable to reveal a part of ourselves we feel to be especially rejectable.

We tire quickly, working hard to demonstrate that we are really actually very good at loving, and can definitely deserve being loved too. Third Culture Kids and intimacy – it can feel like a risky combination.

It’s safer here, but it’s not intimacy. We haven’t yet gained Erikson’s virtue of Love.

A Third Culture Kid’s response to: “Can I love and be loved?”

  • I can love because I know who ‘I’ is.
  • I can love others because I loved me first.
  • I can love others because I experience intimacy as opportunity rather than as an unwelcome anchor.
  • I can love others because I do not fear them.
  • I can be loved because I can present who I am bravely, because I know myself to be loveable.
  • I can be loved because I am not frightened of being known.
  • I can be loved because another’s love for me does not replace my own for myself.
  • I can be loved because I am not placing my worth in another’s hands – my own worth predates this relationship.

I want you to know this:

Wherever you are, whatever life you are living, whichever Self you are being – You are truly marvellous.

There is only one you but you are not alone. You have unique experiences but you have the ability to connect with the unique experiences of others.

You are capable of great love, and you are worth knowing. 

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Dan Elyea

    I don’t know about Erikson’s timeline, but this essay rang my bell. While I haven’t done much analysis of why I have only a few close friends, these seed thoughts stir up ponderings and cogitations. Not sure whether or not the extrovert/introvert factor plays large or small. On a very short-time consideration, I note that in a medical waiting room, I prefer not to get into the conversations that spring up; my 50-ish daughter, on the other hand, jumps right in with gusto. Zero to sixty in five seconds. Not exactly the topic you’re presenting here, but it may illustrate a factor at play in longer-term considerations. I tend to feel “private.” And I certainly don’t want to discuss with strangers why I’m seeing the doctor today or what happened during the previous visit. Or politics or religion or current events. I just want to sit quietly and mind my own business. In this case, the acorn did fall far from the oak tree. 😉

    I do very much appreciate your presentations, Dr. Rachel; Erikson has been a little steep for me, that’s why few comments lately. Always interesting, at any rate.

    Dan

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thanks for this Dan – that makes a lot of sense about feeling private, we don’t always want to invest in short term relationships when we are so aware of how transitory they are… Thanks so much for reading, and I might branch out from Erikson for a bit as they are reading a bit heavy? Any suggestions for topics you’d like especially to read about?

      Reply
      • Dan Elyea

        You hold a unique perspective in that you work closely with TCKs from a broad spectrum. You know how we differ and how we’re the same as ‘civilians.’ Please keep pointing out to us factors we need to keep in mind. Warn us; encourage us. Keep us humble. Draw from your many interactions, and steer us as needed. You’re doing great . . . really. Different strokes for different folks (horses for courses). And–to top it off–you’re one of us, Dr. Rachel!

        Dan

        Reply
        • Dr. Rachel Cason

          Thanks so much for this encouragement and support, Dan – you are wonderfully kind.

          Reply
  2. Dan Elyea

    Hello, Dr. Rachel . . .

    I commented on this piece a few days back, but it never appeared. Apparently because I missed catching the cookie blurb below (and hitting “Accept”).

    Though I don’t feel up to reconstructing that message just now, I did want to let you know that your essays are thought-provoking and appreciated.

    As to the validity of Erikson’s Stages concepts, I don’t know . . . it’s rather steep climbing for this old guy. But an interesting platform, at any rate.

    Thanks for sharing these inputs with us.

    Dan

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      No it’s my bad, Dad for not hitting ‘approve’ earlier! Thanks again for reading! I’ve replied to your first comment now 🙂

      Reply

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