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