Relationships are hard when you are a third culture kid (TCK). Because we’ve grown up with a transient lifestyle, commitments can be difficult for us to make. This comes from the society and culture we TCKs often find ourselves in. We live in international communities where people rarely stay for more than a couple of years. We are constantly saying “goodbye.”
How do you find equal footing with someone when your pasts are so different? How do you risk intimacy on someone who will inevitably leave?
A couple of weeks ago, I asked Culture Honey readers to share their experiences with TCK relationships. Listening to them, I heard five common themes. If you are friends with a TCK, or if you are in a relationship with one, here are five things you should keep in mind:
01) Remember, We Are Global Citizens
“Insecurity and difficulty in understanding who I am has a negative impact on any close relationship I have.”
The TCK stereotype is that we don’t know where our home is. We’ve travelled and lived in so many places that for some TCKs that answer can be hard. Which of our homes takes precedence?
However, the concept of a home is still important to us. We might desperately hold onto one place, one memory, or even one person as our home. Or we might be uncomfortable staying in one place. Let us know that you’re on board and that you want to help create a home together.
02) Talk Deeply With Us
“[It’s] easy to make ‘friends’, but hard to make ‘best’ friends.”
“Some TCKs tend to have lots of more superficial relationships, but few deeper ones… I’ve had to be the one to build longer-lasting relationships, whereas my TCK husband is great at first meetings.”
–Helen, married to a TCK
“In college, when I first moved back to the States, I liked to find TCKs [and] international students since [they allowed me] to talk about my home. I felt like the American students didn’t want to hear about Africa all the time, but that was all I knew.”
Make an effort to get to know us—the real us. It’s okay to make small talk, but really dig deep in conversations with us. Help us feel comfortable with sharing who we are — and who we’re still discovering ourselves to be. We’ve grown up as foreigners, but we don’t want to be foreign to you too.
03) Redefine “Normal”
“Being a ‘chameleon’ and adapting to people around me comes across to my [significant other] as someone unsure of themselves and fearful to be judged.”
TCKs are most comfortable with being the outsiders. Because we’ve had to adapt to other cultures so many times in our lives, we can be a little confused as to who we really are. Our identity has been slower to form because we feel pushed to fit in with the culture surrounding us.
We know that’s hard to understand. So in our relationship with you, let’s redefine “normal”. Let’s create our own culture together.
04) Be Intentional With Gifts
“Not valuing material possessions… because all these things are things I can’t take with me… can be a bit upsetting to my [significant other].”
We don’t want a lot of stuff. It’s not that we’re ungrateful, it’s just that we filter our possessions by asking, “Can I fit this in my suitcase?” If it’s not something we can use on our next adventure, it’s probably best not to get it for us. Give us experiences instead of things.
05) Give Us A Reason To Stay
“[It’s] difficult to commit and trust one person only. [It’s] difficult to imagine marriage since it’s hard to imagine one person staying with you forever.”
“Very few people are willing to have a long-distance relationship. And it is even harder to build a trusting friendship long enough to [become romantic]. I have found myself losing my ideal of… a life partner/husband.”
We’re terrified of the “goodbye.” We need a reason to stay. We need to know that you’re going to stay too. It’s very hard to be open with someone if you are afraid they’re going to leave you. If you’re not ready for a serious relationship, that’s okay—just know we might be more closed off.
So here we are. We’re messy, we’re weird, and we’re worth it.
Thank you so much to our survey participants for your words and your insights: Bethany, Helen, Marie and Naomi.