Ask a TCK Counselor: “How do I settle in relationships?”


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TCK Academy is an online learning and education community to support the needs of ATCKs and the expatriate community co-founded by Dr. Paulette Bethel and Brice Royer.
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TCK Relationships: Q&A with Carmen Vaughan LCSW, a TCK Academy Therapist

By Carmen Vaughan LCSW
Ask a TCK Academy Counselor

“RELATIONSHIP RESTLESSNESS: How do I settle in relationships when I can’t stop running away?”

Dear Uncommitted,

“Settling in relationships” requires psychological work that most Third Culture Kids never learned how to do. They may never have learned the skills needed to develop emotional intimacy with another person because they never had the opportunity to know someone (outside their immediate family) on a day to day basis for more that two or three years at a time. Either they themselves or the other person had to leave for the next post before the relationship had time to evolve into something more lasting.

Making close friends or pseudo-intimacy?

The idea that TCKʼs donʼt make close friends may come as a surprise to most TCKs, since as a group, TCKʼs usually excel at making friends quickly. In the short time they have to develop the relationship, they may establish a pseudo-intimacy, based more on the looming reality that they will soon be separated than on actual intimate knowledge of each other. A corollary to this pattern of constantly moving to meet the demands of their parentʼs career is that TCKs may unconsciously conclude that their relationships are unimportant and by logical extension they themselves are unimportant. Low self-esteem is known to undermine a relationshipʼs sustainability because the couple can never establish a safe attachment bond and move onto the risky business of getting to know each other intimately.

Building intimacy…

Building intimacy involves risking being vulnerable to another person and believing that person will respond in kind. Each new revelation and each experience of being mirrored and accepted deepens trust and nurtures love. All of this takes time, a commodity TCKs have had to learn to do without in making friends and finding lovers.

Are you repeating a pattern?

Another set of skills TCKS may not have at their disposal are negotiating differences, making compromises, self-soothing when feeling hurt or neglected, and feeling confident in oneʼs self-identity and resiliency. Because they have always had the escape hatch of having to move and leave friends behind, TCKs have been able to skirt many of the issues that must be resolved or at least addressed to make long lasting relationships possible. When things start to get to hard or too scary those old TCK feelings of restlessness start to stir, even when the TCK is an adult and is no longer affected by his or her parentsʼ career relocations. Repeating a pattern of avoidance in relationships reenforces the belief that one is incapable of sustaining a meaningful relationship. At this point in the process, the TCK is at the mercy of his or her self-fulfilling prophecy that a stable relationship is not in the cards.

So, how to stop self-sabotaging yourself and find true love?

First recognize that the problem isnʼt really you, but rather a lack of experience and practice sticking to a relationship through thick and thin. With experience you learn that all relationships have ups and downs and that you donʼt have to run away if things are not going as you want them to go.

You have the power to negotiate with the other person. You will not run out of things to say just because the usually allotted two or three years have passed.

Relationships evolve as the individuals in them evolve. You can survive disappointment and awkwardness and doubt and still have a great relationship. The only way to learn these things is to stick around and experience them.

Your turn: Can you relate?  Do you have any TCK relationship questions?

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