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Detachment and an Adult Third Culture Kid

Photo credit: Tommy McMillion, meme agency
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Culturs-expert-flagThere were several observations that John Bowlby, a British psychologist famous for his work in child development, made on attachment theory. One of these was the following scenario consisting of three stages: A primary caregiver leaves his or her infant behind in a room. The first reaction of the child is to protest, which entails crying, screaming, and looking for the caregiver. The second stage is when the infant expresses despair; Bowlby describes this as being unresponsive and sad. Finally, the last stage is detachment: when the parent returns, the child does not show interest and instead avoids that caregiver.

Bowbly’s observations resonated with me, having just finished a degree in psychology, and made me question whether a Third Culture Kid (TCK) goes through these same stages whilst following their globetrotting parents around the world. First, what is a Third Culture Kid? A Third Culture Kid is a person who has spent some time living outside their passport or home country during their formative years. Having spoken to many TCKs about their experience, I have found that some have a unique ability to completely detach themselves from relationships at a moment’s notice. Could it be that the (sometimes repetitive) separation that we, as TCKs, experience over the years has a long-lasting effect on us as adults? Do some of us then remain in a constant state of detachment and avoidance in relationships?

Bowbly’s observations resonated with me, having just finished a degree in psychology, and made me question whether a Third Culture Kid (TCK) goes through these same stages whilst following their globetrotting parents around the world.

It’s hard to say definitely; however, what I will say from my own genuine encounters of the pattern that I’ve experienced since the age of 18 when I moved to Boston for university. The pattern goes a little something like this: I would meet people who I liked and who I would spend endless evenings with. Soon after, they would become my friends and confidantes. After about six months to a year, I would find myself feeling bored and restless in that friendship. Out of the blue, I would lose all interest in these friends and not want to see them anymore. I would completely detach myself from the relationship.

The worst part about this was that I wouldn’t share my feelings with those people who had been in my life for that period of time. Each and every time I would drop friends, effectively cutting them out of my life. There was no ounce of regret or emotion tied to the decision. Instead, after a couple of weeks, I would have made brand new connections and forgotten about the old ones. What might seem strange to some was that I would never reminisce about time spent together as I was happily engaged in new friendships with other individuals. And this happened over and over again throughout university and later in London.

To some, this pattern may seem cold and intentionally unsympathetic. And, in retrospect, I can honestly say that it was. But, even today, I strongly believe that part of the reason I did this was a consequence of my personal Third Culture Kid experience of having to leave friends and meet new ones every couple of years as a result of frequently moving countries.

To some, this pattern may seem cold and intentionally unsympathetic.

Around two years ago, a close friend of mine revealed this pattern to me. She said, “Please don’t become bored of me and leave, like you have with all of your other friends.”

It was the first time I had been made aware of the pattern. Her words shook me. I wanted to make a change and decided I wanted to stop throwing away friends. I did not want to be like that child, who was avoidant and emotionless; I wanted to be engaged and emotionally attached. The truth was, I had probably unconsciously done this in the past to avoid potentially getting hurt in the future.

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4 comments

  1. Hi! Your article really resonated with me. I’m, also, an ATCK and what you described above sounds like my life story since I was 18. But thinking about it, I only think of it being my story since I was 18 because that’s when I had “control” over my life and circumstances. This has actually been my life story since I was a child, but I didn’t see it that way.

    Instead of thinking, “I leave everything, including friendships and relationships behind,” I thought, “oh, another move for my dad’s job.” Simple. But that simple fact has now become a habit in relationships. My modus operandi and I didn’t even realize this until last year. And I just turned 30…

    I will forever be grateful of my experience as a TCK. I feel blessed. But next to that blessing is the recognition that some of the unconscious habits that was formed around relationships, grief, intimacy and other feelings that require a certain grounding and stability to intergrate and nurture into emotional maturity… Well, my TCK-ness did not prepare me for that and my parents were, unfortunately, not conscious enough to know that this exotic lifestyle would mean that my brother and I required more support around developing skills that they unconsciously mastered due to their mono-cultural upbringings.

    What you speak of has really caused problems for me as a adult, both in platonic friendships and romantic relationships. Again, I feel blessed to be a TCK, but that blessing has come at a cost. I now have to learn, like a kid riding a bike, to stay connected to people for more than 2 years. This fact will shock anyone who knows me because I am magnetic as all hell. I make friends SO easily and fit in literally ANYWHERE. Despite my weird name and bizzaro background, people feel comfortable around me. They feel intimacy with me (YAAY TCK) but I don’t feel that same level of connection (strike for TCK). I protect myself from the pain of eventually “having” to let them go and then I let them go… EVEN THOUGH I NO LONGER HAVE TO!!! The irony.

    Sigh. Well, I’m doing what I know how to change this dynamic within myself. But changing subconscious habits is not an easy task…

    Thank you so much for your article and providing a place for us wanderers to share.

  2. Hi! Your article really resonated with me. I’m, also, an ATCK and what you described above sounds like my life story since I was 18. But thinking about it, I only think of it being my story since I was 18 because that’s when I had “control” over my life and circumstances. This has actually been my life story since I was a child, but I didn’t see it that way. 

    Instead of thinking, “I leave everything, including friendships and relationships behind,” I thought, “oh, another move for my dad’s job.” Simple. But that simple fact has now become a habit in relationships. My modus operandi and I didn’t even realize this until last year. And I just turned 30…

    I will forever be grateful of my experience as a TCK. I feel blessed. But next to that blessing is the recognition that some of the unconscious habits that was formed around relationships, grief, intimacy and other feelings that require a certain grounding and stability to intergrate and nurture into emotional maturity… Well, my TCK-ness did not prepare me for that and my parents were, unfortunately, not conscious enough to know that this exotic lifestyle would mean that my brother and I required more support around developing skills that they unconsciously mastered due to their mono-cultural upbringings.

    What you speak of has really caused problems for me as a adult, both in platonic friendships and romantic relationships. Again, I feel blessed to be a TCK, but that blessing has come at a cost. I now have to learn, like a kid riding a bike, to stay connected to people for more than 2 years. This fact will shock anyone who knows me because I am magnetic as all hell. I make friends SO easily and fit in literally ANYWHERE. Despite my weird name and bizzaro background, people feel comfortable around me. They feel intimacy with me (YAAY TCK) but I don’t feel that same level of connection (strike for TCK). I protect myself from the pain of eventually “having” to let them go and then I let them go… EVEN THOUGH I NO LONGER HAVE TO!!! The irony.

    Sigh. Well, I’m doing what I know how to change this dynamic within myself. But changing subconscious habits is not an easy task…

    Thank you so much for your article and providing a place for us wanderers to share.

    1. MSA! Your feelings literally echo so many TCKs! That magnetic personality that draws people to you, yet to you, they’re perhaps just another person, friend, colleague. We all know it well. And yes, our parents knew the beauty of the experiences they provided; little did they know of the dangers. Bravo for being aware – it’s the first step to making a difference and making sure you create a life that’s your own.

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