Third Culture Kids: Commitment in Relationship

by | Apr 24, 2018 | Blog | 20 comments

I’ve been reading Lijadi and Schalkwyk’s article, “Narratives of Third Culture Kids: Commitment and Reticence in Social Relationships”. It’s worth a read and presents some interesting insights around mobility addiction and adaptation versus commitment, where the Third Culture Kid experiences commitment less as conscious choice and more as “an imperative of merely accepting differences and learning to live with it” (2014, pg. 9). But one quotation from a Third Culture Kid especially caught my attention, and I want to share it with you today:

“I find that I am much more insecure with myself when I am with someone”

The authors note of their interviewee that relationships for Third Culture Kids can present “a double-edged sword of simultaneously striving for independence and being dependent on the other” (2014, pg. 13).

For many non-TCKs, relationships are developed over time with commitment motivated by choice rather than survival. For many TCKs, choice in committed relationships is a new and alarming prospect. The current literature describes our ‘cut and run’ patterns, where very often we will sever commitments and leave before we can be left. Personally I have also noted the converse, where TCKs stay and remain unwitting martyrs to damaging relationships, thus playing out their ‘commit to survive’ childhood patterns even into adulthood. Voluntary disengagement (even in pursuit of a healthier, happier life) can be a very frightening prospect to someone who has had separation and disruption imposed on their lives from childhood.

Where am I going with this? How did we go from feeling more insecure when in relationship than when single to commitment-phobes and commitment-martyrs? I would suggest that both commitment responses are fear responses; they are protective mechanisms born out of insecurity. So why would Third Culture Kids feel more insecure when in relationship than when single? It’s an interesting notion, especially when we consider the dominant narrative around people in relationship feeling more confident because they feel themselves to be attractive, accepted and wanted. Long term relationship is what makes us feel safe, stable and like have found belonging, surely?

Perhaps not. Perhaps high mobility rewires us for independence to such an extent that the inter-dependence that inevitably grows in long-term relationships (and maybe we should include long-term friendships here also) challenges our notions of self as independent. We leave our safe havens of independence to enter the murky world of dependence, which unsurprisingly could leave us feeling more insecure.

Of course, we TCKs are typically very good at connecting, engaging with people and building relationship. But the level and extent of commitment in these relationships are in question here. For many years I would presume that my absence mattered not a great deal to my friends. This was not an issue of poor self esteem, merely a reflection of the fact that I did not conflate friendship and reliance. Just because I liked someone did not mean that I felt a need for their presence, and so I assumed the same was true vice-versa.

Our authors here suggest that while Third Culture Kids are gifted connectors, they are reticent around commitment in their relationships. Commitment suggests responsibility, and a certain mutuality. Pico Iyer wrote in The Global Soul about “a lack of accountability” (2000, pg. 24) that offers the Third Culture Kid another kind of double-edged sword; our independence offers us both freedom and exile.

This framing of commitment offers Third Culture Kids a ‘so what’ with regards to their relationship challenges. Third Culture Kids often experience challenges in their relationships because of high mobile pasts. How can knowing this help or empower them? So what? So they can choose to commit. They can choose to make themselves accountable, in Iyer’s words, to the people they choose to have in their lives. 

This isn’t to suggest it’s an easy choice. But in my experience, it’s what brings the exiles home.

If you’d like some support on your journey, get in touch here. I’d be honoured to hear your story and walk a few miles with you.

Iyer, P., 2000. The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home. New
York: Alred A. Knopf

Lijadi, A. A. and van Schalkwyk, G. J., 2014. Narratives of Third Culture Kids: Commitment and Reticence in Social Relationships, The Qualitative Report, Vol. 19, Article 49, pgs 1-18

20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. Dan

    A little steep for us civilians, Dr. Rachel. 🙂

    Not sure what it means, but as I thought about your article just now, I realized that my best friends are MKs, people that I rarely see in person, but maintain close contact with, some for over sixty years. Maybe not being adaptable enough . . .

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thanks for reading, Dan! That sounds like very committed contact… and that you’ve found your ‘tribe’ amongst other MKs. It also sounds like you feel there could be room for some non-TCK relationships in your life – which would mean exploring a different kind of commitment?

      Reply
  2. Tineke Hegeman Bryson

    This is great!

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thanks SO much, Tineke! Really appreciate you reading, and the kind comments!

      Reply
  3. Antje Geiss

    I agree with the interviewee, who states that being in a relationship means much more insecurity than being out of a long term relationship. This is definately true for me too.
    I find that the insecurity and terror of being in a long term relationship is the feeling that we do not have the power over our personal boundaries and limits. Meaningful choices were often made FOR us, thus I often feel that this power got stuck and blocked in childhood and could not yet be transferred to adulthood. It’s IN our OUT but seldomly we see the option of IN, but I wait… I have the power to manage my boundaries depending on the space I need, the pain I might feel and need to process or the closeness I want from a person.
    I wonder if the space to feel into all of these options are not a given for TCKs. Maybe because we often yearn so much just for security and safety that we forget the rest of our personalities. It’s that survival mode…

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Yes, this! Thanks so much for reading, Antje… and yes I agree, I think that the lack of choice, or as you put it, options, is at the root of a lot of our insecurity around emotional expression. The more we can move from survival mode to thriving mode, the more brilliant life gets! 🙂

      Reply
  4. Hannah

    I’ve just had a dating relationship end, in which I’d say I was a commitment-martyr. I found myself incapable of choosing to leave, believing somehow that love HAS to last forever if I just stay. I never had the option to choose to stay before, as a kid…now I do, and it’s almost incomprehensible to realise that staying isn’t always the right choice. So, yeah. I got left. Still reeling. Didn’t realise this too was a side-effect of TCK-ness.

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thank you for reading! These side-effects do seem to have a habit of creeping up on us. I’m sorry for your relationship loss – the realisations these endings leave us with can be very profound. Realising that staying isn’t always the right choice sounds like one of these profound, life changing realisations. I hope the reeling steadies soon, and that you have a lot of support around you to hold you right now.

      Reply
  5. Sharon Shaw

    Well, this one hit me right in the heart, especially the line about “bringing the exiles home”… I hope it’s okay if I copy and paste a snippet of this for my self-reflection journal?

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Absolutely – thanks so much for reading and do feel free to refer to this in your journal! Honoured…

      Reply
  6. Ida Giersing

    Great stuff – I’d have loved for the main points to be further cut out into small edible pieces that were easier to understand – because I think there is something so true here. I grew up as a TCK from the age og 4 until the age of, well, around 25 I guess – and I’ve always suspected that my childhood has had HUGE impact on the way I’ve been a friend, a girlfriend, a sibling – any type of relationship, really. I think there’s a big change in going from living in a TCK environment (international schools and being surrounded by other TCKs) to suddenly settling somewhere where a large proportion of acquaintances will not be TCK, and who will possibly have very limited knowledge about what it’s like to be a TCK. When I moved back to my “home” country in my early 20’s, I was still just in transit and for several years, being “home” was just something I did in between trips. I made friends, and I remeber they would tell me “you can’t just leave all the time” – and I was shocked… Why couldn’t I? The thought of people “requiring”, “demanding” og even just counting on my presence scared me to death. Better to leave and just be in control of my independence… Later, in romantic relationships, I’ve found the same fright – although I’ve learned also to see all the positive aspects of “togetherness” and of being able to rely on others – to ALLOW myself to rely on others, really. I also find that I tackle breakups much easier than others – a break-up is, afterall, just “another move”, another “starting over”, and somehow, it doesn’t feel like the end of the world. I’ve had people question whether I’m cold and insensitive about it because I seem to just move on – but I think I’m just so well trained in this.

    Sorry for the ramble – your article just hit a spot that rang very true to my ears 🙂

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thank you so much for reading, and sharing so openly! Yes, that ‘it’s just another move’ stuff resonates for me too… Tenderising my heart so I can actually feel loss and miss people is a scary thing, but I’ve found it necessary to thaw the ability to just move on that can actually tip me over into prematurely leaving…

      Reply
  7. Anastasia Aldelina Lijadi

    Dear Rachel, I just notice about your review on my aricle. I am so overwhelmed and full with gratitute for the attention to my work. I have published another paper about TCK, with similar research method (narrative) on identity construction of the TCK. Let me know if you have trouble to get the paper.

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thank you so much for reading, and commenting! I’d love to read your other paper – what’s the best way to get a hold of it? Do you have a link? Thank you!

      Reply
  8. Emily Sage

    Wow. This is so good and so helpful. I’ve found that I hold so tightly to my independence and if anything steps on that, walls go up and typically I feel the need to bounce. Recently I’ve been trying to allow roots to grow long term, because I realize that home and belonging are going to need to be based on a choice and investment of time and energy. But in what I like to call “cultivating home” it’s hard to let go of my autonomy and independence when independence has been the only thing I could keep for so long in a childhood of transition. I think a reason it is so hard is that it feels like letting go of part of my identity and my story. My story and identity is like my home, like a turtle shell I carry with me everywhere, collecting experiences and memories along the way to all the places I’ve been and people I’ve loved, but it’s also the place I hide inside of when I’m scared.

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thank you so much for reading, Emily! And what a great analogy! Yes, our story and identity is our protective shell. Growing roots, and getting more involved (inter-dependent) with others is a massive part of growing this commitment muscle, but it can feel very counter-intuitive!

      Reply
  9. Leanne

    Thank you for this really interesting article. I found it explained quite a bit I have been dealing with but didn’t know why. I’ve only lived in my passport country for 2 years when I was an infant and can’t remember it. Over the years I have kept a handful of strong friendships with people of the same background, all of which I feel comfortable communicating with since they too treat friendships in the same way. There is no pressure to always be in contact but we are there for each other when needed. Right now though, I’m struggling as a mid-20s ATKC. My parents have retired back to my passport country leaving me feeling more disconnected with a sense of home than ever before, I’m intimidated by their comfort and joy of being home and questioning if I should follow them. I’ve found myself in a very remote and culturally different country where I am at home and in a serious relationship with a local. However I know it has to end, I’m an outsider here and the only reason I belong is because of my job. My boyfriend will soon move back to his family where I don’t belong and my parents don’t approve of. We’ve discussed it and I was the one who explained it’s not going to last- I’m used to this and all my relationships have been the same, so normally it’s easy not to commit. But getting close to my 30s and being in this relationship for so long I’m starting to question why I do this. My gut reaction is to pack up my bags and go somewhere else overseas in search for more ATKCs, but perhaps I need to try out living at ‘home’ too? When I was a kid this was all so exciting, now for the first time ever I’m craving stability and community. The hardest part is my parents don’t understand, and when I try talk about it they become defensive saying the culture in our home was enough to root me. I’m not sure it was.

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Hi Leanne, I’m sorry I’ve taken so long to reply to your comment! I’m so glad this article explained some things for you – it sounds like you are in an uncomfortable place right now. Noticing our craving for stability is really tough when we aren’t entirely sure how to ‘do’ stability and longevity. Roots just don’t come easily to many of us. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn how to put them down later.

      Reply
  10. Marsha

    I think I may be a special kind of messed up. I have been married for 20 years to a non-TCK, and while we have had pretty big difficulties in our marriage, it wasn’t completely impossible for me to commit and stay (playing the martyr), because we were raising our family, and offering them a whole family was supremely important for me (probably because of my own divorced parents and complicated life). But now that all 3 kids are moving out this coming summer to go to university, I just want to bolt (feeling insecure at the thought of continuing this commitment). So I guess I’m both personalities – very confusing. Understanding where all this might be coming from helps a bit though, and I hope that I’ll figure myself out one of these days.

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      If you feel a special kind of messed up, Marsha, you are plentiful company. Empty nesting is a massive identity chapter, and we are far more used to whole life change than partial change as TCKs. I’ve found it not uncommon to find when one element of my life changes, I can feel a strong urge to upend everything else as well – in anticipation of the whole life change I’ve wired for. Equally however, if children have been the glue in a relationship, it’s so understandable that we may carry as sense of ‘coming unstuck’ when they leave. I hope you have support and compassion around you at this time. Getting some therapeutic support through this transition might help give you confidence to make decisions you feel in control of, rather than feeling they are reactive decisions only.

      Reply

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