Saturday, February 23, 2013

Divorce and the Third Culture Kid

This was a difficult post to write, and even more so to share.  As humans we tend to keep our hurts to ourselves, licking our wounds in the privacy of our minds.  Maybe it’s a pride thing: we want the world to think we’ve got it all together and have no weaknesses.  By doing this, we are under the impression that we’re the only ones suffering, and the result is acute magnification of the pain. If, serendipitously, we come across someone else going through the same thing, the relief is palpable!  Sharing burdens makes them a little more tolerable.  Obviously … how else do you explain the phenomenon of group therapy?
So while it’s risky to let others (especially strangers!) into your own private Idaho, it can also serve a purpose.  I am 100% certain that this post will resonate with many Third Culture Kids, and I don’t share it to air out my dirty laundry, but to reach out to others that may be plodding through life, needlessly carrying a burden that can be shared, and thereby lightened.

I wonder if there are any statistics about divorce and Third Culture Kids?  Do we get restless in our marriages just like we get restless about our places in the world?  The overwhelming majority of literature that I have found about TCKs says that we are LESS likely to get a divorce.  I suppose we latch on to the security of our marriages after a lifetime of moves and uprootings.  After all, it is said that the trauma of a move to a new place can have the same effect as a death or a divorce.  Why would we want to experience such a thing once we have found stability?

On the other hand, couldn’t it be said that when offered marriage we jump into it with the hope that this will be the end of the nomadic life?  For the first time, we attach ourselves to a seemingly solid foundation in hopes that the emotional upheavals and insecurity will stop.  Isn’t it true that we have so little experience with commitment (whether to a place or a person) that we may not realize that we may be marrying a person simply to satisfy the visceral need to belong to someone or someplace? 

I had no hometown, no roots, and no stability in my life.  I went to nine schools before I graduated from high school (two during my senior year alone).  When I went off to college in Texas, my parents were halfway around the globe in Singapore.  I got to call home once a month, maybe.  It was an exciting day when I found a blue aerogram from mom and dad in my mailbox.  When the dorm closed for breaks, I had to scramble to find somewhere to go.  One time it was a trip to the beach with a girl from my dorm, but who I didn’t know that well.  Another time I holed up in the spare bedroom of a friend of my parents’.  Ostensibly I spent the whole time working on a paper; that gave me the excuse not to come out that much.  I felt uncomfortable, an imposition.  After spending past home leaves staying in friends’ houses with my parents, I came to understand what an invasion that was.  Another time I spent a holiday with cousins who were indeed family, but whom I only knew casually from our once-a-year stateside visits.  I hate to keep bringing up that silly fish out of water, but you get the picture.

I latched on to the very first guy I met in college.  I was desperate to be loved; to be “established” and I’m sure that scared him away.  (The fact that that same guy is now my husband is beside the point.)  After college, dating was a kaleidoscope of men who came and went.  I would fall deeply in love after one date, only to wake up not long afterwards hating him and pushing him out of my life.  It was as if I was desperate for something solid, but not trusting in its solidity.  Each new potential relationship was like moving to a new place, being the new kid at a new school.  I had to try and figure out how to behave in order to fit in, and not always successfully.  I probably left a trail of truly bewildered fellows.

In the mid-1980s, I met my first husband: he was attractive, funny and spiritual.  I was drawn to his life, his cadre of friends from church.  He belonged to something, and I wanted to jump on that train, regardless of my feelings about that to which he belonged.  It was irresistible.  I tried at one point to back out, because I was afraid that my feelings weren’t “what they were supposed to be,” falling into that same defensive trap of dumping him before he could dump me.  Where was the manual telling me how I was supposed to feel?  Apparently I was absent when they handed it out.  I was desperate to be part of that something, but at the same time, afraid to.  We had a beautiful wedding.

I forged ahead, trying to make myself into the perfect partner, still trying to fit in at the school, metaphorically speaking.  We were married for over 20 years.  We had three incredible kids.  Then we adopted two amazing little girls.  I was proud of the fact that I had been a faithful wife; a good mom (never good enough in my mind) and that I had “roots”!  But restlessness never went away.  I never lost that “outsider” feeling.  No one in my new life got who I was, and I was sorely lacking in the tools to express myself.  I felt like I was playing a part on a stage, without a script.  I would mentally jump up and down, screaming “SOMEONE PLEASE LISTEN TO ME!” but there was never an answer.  I’m sure I developed a patina of arrogance.  I wanted to invite everyone into my head, to show them a movie about my life.  There was little interest in where I had been and how I had lived, it was all too foreign (pun intended).  Speaking of Asia and Europe made me feel like I was bragging.  After a while I stopped talking about it … too many glazed eyes and blank stares will do that to a person.  The real me had begun to slowly disappear, like an old photograph fading over time.

All my life I sought approval from the people I knew and loved.  Everything I did was to please others, to get a pat on the back, a check mark, to fit in.  I needed everyone to LIKE me. My own self-worth was dead last in the hierarchy.  I made excruciating decisions along the way that seriously damaged myself, but that made damn sure no one hated me!  I did enough of that on my own.  I did the same thing in my marriage. 

I knew that there were to be no rewards for leaving, that many people would be hurt, badly, deeply.  For a pleaser like me, this was anathema, the divine punishment.  The few friendships I had cultivated over the years were lost.  I would venture to say most of them ended.  There is no loneliness like what I experienced.  I don’t say this to invite pity or sympathy.  It was what it was, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t care; they couldn't have been true friends.  The fact was, I didn’t have to pretend any more.   

This begs the question: are TCKs always running away from something, or trying to run toward something?  Personally, I feel as though I am finally, finally, where I fit in, where I am real, accepted and understood.  Early in our relationship, my (now) husband ordered and read the book “Third Culture Kids” by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken.  Cover to cover.  The man is completely allergic to reading; the fact that he made this gargantuan effort was a colossal and genuine act of love.  He gets me.

I’ve stopped running.  I have consciously made the decision to stop playing a part, and I no longer accept hiding behind some kind of mask.
If anyone thinks that the person who leaves a marriage does not grieve, they are grievously wrong.  Don’t ever think that we go trippingly into the sunset, laughing all the while at our newfound freedom.  We mourn the awfulness of the destruction we have wreaked … and at our inability to be the person that we thought we had to be.  It was a huge failure on my part, and I will regret the effects that it had on the people I love until the day I die.  I could blame my Third Culture Kid-ness for this, but that seems like an easy out.  Maybe I’m just a selfish, horrible person.  Should I blame Third Culture Kid-ness for that too?

Staying on the back burner for a very long time results in ashes and dust.  


Anonymous said...

Liz, I share so many of your experiences and feelings. Been down the same path, nice to share it with you. Take care...

Elizabeth Evans said...

You are not alone!

Nancy Broussard said...

Liz, this is by far my favorite of your blog posts thus far. I can identify with that feeling of not fitting in, not being understood, of wanting people to listen to me and know that I had had some very unique and meaningful experiences in every way you describe. It's one of the reasons I married so young, certainly explains my wanting my children to have those all important experiences outside of South Louisiana. Bravo!

DrieCulturen said...

Thank you Liz for tackling such a difficult and personal topic. I know that in the list of disadvantages of being a TCK they say we can have difficulties with relationships...I have not read of any decent research on the topic. I do identify with feeling the odd one out, the feeling that no one knows who you really are. As if part of yourself is hidden under the surface. I'm glad I married a cross culture kid, it helps to understand each other.
Have you heard of the book "Expat Alien" by Kathleen Gamble? She's a TCK who went through a divorce too.

Anonymous said...

The need to belong is fundamental in any society, organization, group, and family. In addition, nurturing and affirming strengthens this need to belong, or, in the absence of these, we humans will break or seek another way to be nurtured and affirmed. I don't know if divorce is the better of the actions to seek nurturing and affirmations, but I do know that it is a viable and healthy alternative.

I definitely identify with your story, and my development through adulthood found Joy when I finally acknowledged that I enjoyed external nurturing and affirmation AND that I could also provide self nurturing and affirmations.

I am honored to have read your Blog, Liz. Your authenticity is refreshing, and I know there are many who will have their minds and hearts opened from your words. Thank you.