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Third Culture Kids in marriage: 10 survey results & trends

This past month of focusing on Third Culture Kids in relationships has been a thrilling roller coaster to say the least. It all started when the 2017 EuroTCK consultation invited me to lead the Third Culture Kids in marriage workshop this week in Germany, as it isn’t a topic discussed all that much. That TCKs in marriage isn’t a huge topic is surprising to me, because in my circles, we speak about cross-cultural or interracial marriages all the time. But, it turns out, there is a dearth of support for Third Culture Kid marriages. That’s why you saw me hitting the streets, the highways and the byways, asking you all indiscreet questions about your relationships in this survey I called TCK Love and Marriage. I spotlighted three fascinating couples here, here and here on the blog in a three part series as initial food for thought. All the while, I was avidly collecting your personal testimonies.

TCKs in marriage is a topic close to my heart having married a monocultural American a decade or so ago. It goes without saying that any two people living together will have their ups and downs, quirks and pet peeves and unique set of challenges. Now think of the Third Culture dynamics, often bringing a broad worldview, but a raging inner war of identities, an intricate web of relationships and questions about belonging to an already complex marital relationship. I tell you, it’s been fun.

I recall being given permission early on in our relationship to view ours as a cross-cultural marriage and how freeing that simple label was. I didn’t have to adore popcorn or fit my international life inside a party trick bag. He didn’t have to give up his allegiance to Crocs or quesadillas with cheddar, salsa and a side of sour cream. Cross-cultural glasses were a good starting point for us to process so many differing view points.

Having said that, while Third Culture Kid marriages have qualities of cross-cultural or interracial ones, they are a bit different. For starters, these marriages aren’t made up of two monoculturals. The Third Culture Kid may or may not share a passport with their spouse, but their relationship to their passport culture(s) is rather complicated. They will often find their sense of belonging in people of a similar upbringing rather than in their citizenship. They may crave travel, struggle to commit to a job, feel trapped inside society’s prescribed boxes and live out the tension of ‘where I’ve come from’ vs. ‘where we are going’.

Or not.

This is the thing. You’ve got to be terribly delicate in drawing conclusions on Third Culture Kids in marriage since each marriage is unique. Because each Third Culture Kid is unique too. Some of us had fantastic experiences and struggle to identify real losses,  while others will process their grief for a lifetime. Some are highly mobile, others quite sedentary, raised in one town in their host culture. Some never even return to their passport culture. Some live like locals, others are quite in-tune with their parents’ culture(s). Some aren’t wealthy, others are living in slums. They are city kids, village kids. They are multilingual. They are monolingual.

Third Culture Kids all spent a significant part of their developmental years in a culture outside of their parents’ passport culture. Yet no two are alike.

And yet. And yet. When listening to all the voices of those who were kind enough to complete the TCK Love and Marriage survey, it all sounded so familiar. Maybe a bit like coming home. Despite business, missionary, navy backgrounds, you echoed one another.

Fighting the urge to draw hard and fast conclusions on TCK relationships (don’t we hate being put inside boxes?), could there still be insights to be gained from other Third Culture Kid marriages? Trends to be observed? What are markers of a thriving TCK marriage anyway? Is it easier to marry a Third Culture Kid than a monocultural? And what are some of the challenges specific to Third Culture Kids in marriage? How do these evolve over time? And what are some great pieces of advice for Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) desiring to be in a relationship?

When I sat down to look at the responses, 136 had answered the survey. Removing duplicates and not quite TCKs ;-), we’re down to about 130 valid entries corresponding to people who have lived all over:

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The vast majority (95%) were split between the ages of 25-60 years old.

 

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107  were Third Culture Kids: 26 TCKs married to other TCKs, 81 TCKs married to a monocultural.
22 monoculturals married to TCKs.

 

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I have left the survey open here to gather more responses for further thought. I’d love to capture the dating and the divorced demographics as they have much to offer here as well. Sadly, many divorcees don’t love taking marriage surveys and when you’re in love, you’re on love island. How does the expression go? If love is blind, marriage is an eye-opener? If you know TCKs in this group or married, please feel free to pass this survey link along (ideally before they read this article).

Back to the survey results…

There was a pretty decent representation in terms of how long participants had been married:

 

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Here are the general trends emanating from the survey at this point in time. Please note that these statements are not representative of all the answers but rather summarize where the majority of the answers lie. Don’t take this as a precise scientific analysis, but rather as a glimpse into what the majority of respondents felt about their relationships.

1. Third Culture Kids find comfort in their monocultural spouse’s rootedness

Third Culture Kids overwhelmingly responded that the best thing about being married to a monocultural spouse is related to their rootedness. Their spouse could easily explain where they were from, it was a relief that they belonged, and boy, they had long-term friends who weren’t relocating anytime soon. Major struggles for this group included how one person always has to sacrifice where they have to live for the other, or the pressure to stay somewhere and not “steal“ the spouse from their in-laws. Several TCKs in this category mentioned that there were significant cultural clashes when it came to raising kids. And the bravest of them all, admitted that their constant presumption that their way was best had become one of the main struggles in their couple.

2. Third Culture Kids married to Third Culture Kids: kindred spirits but also grief x 2

Many TCKs think life is easier when you marry another TCK. In some ways it is: TCKs loved being married to a fellow TCK because they share a similar worldview and both simply “get” the desire for change, the joy in raising multilingual kids, or not having to explain themselves within their home. Sounds dreamy to marry someone with such a kindred spirit. However, they both bring the classic TCK challenges into their marriage. The struggles they noted: feelings of isolation, unresolved grief x2, wondering if they will ever belong, questions about where to retire, or what to do with the fact that they both deal with judgment of their passport country.

3. Monoculturals married to Third Culture Kids love their spouse’s broad worldview

Monos said they loved being married to TCKs because of their sense of adventure, or the fact that their spouse spoke another language or is flexible. I love how one person wrote: “TCKs are extraordinarily and refreshingly simple and down to earth“. That response echoed a number of others. Monoculturals appreciated the exposure they now had to a different food culture, and a large network of friends thanks to their TCK spouse. Among their struggles was language inequality in the marriage, the TCK’s awkwardness in regards to their passport culture (pop culture references, anyone?), TCK family expectations and the TCK’s wavering national allegiance to back their points of view.

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4. How do you keep your cross-cultural marriage from being a constant fight of my upbringing vs. yours? Two distinct groups.

When asking all groups how they keep their marriage from being a constant fight of my upbringing vs. yours, most responses fell into one of two categories:

  1. Couples seeking harmony at all costs
  2. Couples engaging their differences

Indeed, the first group of couples preferred compromise or to avoid the topic altogether. They spoke of the value of fair representation of traditions in the home, or how they choose their battles, they opted for compromise or focused on similarities. The second group seemed to prefer wrestling with their differences. They said they’d traveled to their spouse’s country, they had lived there, they had intentionally created a new culture within their marriage, or they were trying hard to put on their “foreign glasses“ when speaking about the other’s upbringing.

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5. Monoculturals can best understand their TCK spouse by entering into the Third Culture experience together, living in a third culture and raising little TCKs themselves.

According to the respondents, monoculturals could best understand their TCK spouse by embracing their TCK upbringing and drawing it out of them, entering into their grief together. Or, by reading Third Culture Kids – Growing up Among Worlds (new edition coming out shortly), by living abroad together and raising your own little TCKs.

This is how one Third Culture Kid sums it up:

Ask questions, let them cook food from their childhood, look at pictures, learn key phrases in their language. Understand that we’re constantly fighting against this dichotomy of wanting to venture off, but also wanting a place to belong. Realize that we approach emotional intimacy and relationships very differently.

6. TCKs can best understand their monocultural spouse by getting to know his/her family and walk in their shoes

TCK respondents said that one of the best ways to understand their monocultural spouse is to see your spouse as a person, to study what makes them tick and to get to know their family and friends. And, realize that relationships are far more important than geography.

7. Communication, respect, forgiveness, humility – keys for thriving TCK marriages

So many fabulous success tips were listed for TCKs in marriage. I could have written a whole post on just this topic. The vast majority of responses are admittedly valid for all marriages. Communication, talking and listening were constantly mentioned as best tips for a thriving marriage. Also recurrent were the notions of respect, forgiveness, humility and flexibility.

I love these quotes:

“Listen. It takes a great deal of humility to set aside your own desire to be right. And when multiple cultures are involved it’s easy to idealize your own culture and how you were brought up. But if you can set it aside to listen to another point of view and another way of doing things, you realize there isn’t only one right way. As a couple you need to decide to say “this is how WE do things. This is what WE believe.” Not “this is what she did. Or this is how my family did it growing up.” There is great validity in understanding both of your pasts and how you were raised. But you need to move on from there and choose a path that you go down together. Doing this takes humility, love, and a desire to do right more than to be right. Listen to one another” – anonymous

“Grow in your selflessness. Don’t hold grudges. Talk things out as soon as possible until both are satisfied. Seek couples therapy early, from someone who understands TCKs, before the issues become problems. Express love daily in the way your spouse likes to receive it.” – anonymous

Workshop participants added that thriving TCK marriages walk a fine balance between rootedness and independence. Partners are serving one another, giving each other the chance to breathe alone and with one another (but apart from the kids). They have learned each other’s languages (love language, culture, customs) and are still intentional about communicating decades and decades down the road.

8. Very few resources available for struggling TCK marriages

This survey confirmed the dearth of resources available to Third Culture Kids in marriages, let alone those relationships that are struggling. Of the 130 responses, only five resources were listed. With the exception of Still Waters Ministry in Ontario Canada (TCK counseling couple) and Family Foundations International, most of these were general marriage books and courses/seminars listed as well as a few cross-cultural ones. More often, respondents would mention they don’t know of any single support group or book on this topic.

This weekend’s workshop participants suggested finding a mentor couple, ideally in a TCK relationship to walk alongside your couple. Or to use the Love across latitudes workbook. Or to take the LAM (Love After Marriage) course, which isn’t specific to TCKs.  And yes, to communicate, communicate, communicate. No surprise there.

9. To the TCK wanting to be in a relationship: settle into the country first, be okay with friendship, and choose the person before the culture

Those already in married relationships wanted other TCKs to assume their marriage was a cross-cultural one before proven otherwise. Respondents spoke of choosing the spouse first before the culture. Or, honoring both backgrounds – “even if the monocultural one is boring”, said one person. 😉 Respondents couldn’t stress enough, the importance of cross-cultural pre-martial counseling and working on core tensions and on TCK issues (losses, grief, pride) before getting married. Also, to engage in your tensions before children come along and divide your attention. Life gets a bit crazy at that point…

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This weekend’s workshop attendees suggested advising TCKs new in a country to take the time to first settle in before jumping into a relationship. Or, being content with friendship without the pressure to enter into the commitment of marriage.

10. Marriage grows up at 15+ years

Because we often hear of the challenges of Third Culture Kids in marriage, this was perhaps the most exciting and hopeful finding to me personally. Juxtaposing responses of the newest and the most senior marriages revealed a noticeable change in tone. Whereas the newer marriages often mentioned their pursuit to find themselves as individuals and as a couple, or how one partner was misunderstood or frustrated, marriages of more than 16 years changed their discourse to speak about respect, sensitivity and self-sacrifice for one another. There were some exceptions, but how hopeful is it to read how marriage softens some of those hard edges we sometimes come into it with. As one counselor friend told us once, marriage is about unpacking your bags for life together. These wiser, most content couples have certainly unpacked a few full suitcases.

There is so much more to say but those are a few high-level findings. I look forward to unpacking some of these topics over the coming months here on the blog. If you’d like to follow along, feel free to sign up for automated updates on the side bar (right) and follow my Facebook page as well as continue to fill out the survey.

Thank you to each of you who entrusted parts of your journey to me. You made me smile, you made me cry. Thank you to the couple of people who said that filling out the survey was an eye-opening, healing experience. Your feedback helps those of us who desire to see Cross Cultural Kid (CCK) and Third Culture Kid marriages thrive. In that vain, also feel free to pass this article to your TCK friends and care-givers of TCKs who can come alongside us in this phenomenal journey of finding strength, healing and richness in our Third Culture marriages.

Salut. <3

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Wedding photos and featured image by Greg Allen
Black & White photos Carryingwonder Photography

11 thoughts on “Third Culture Kids in marriage: 10 survey results & trends

  1. I am very grateful that you published the results. I do a lot of surveys to help further research and am rarely rewarded with the results. You showed great sensitivity in how you worded your findings as to not alienate any group.

    1. Wow, thank you so much for your encouraging note, Sharon. I removed results of one or two questions that I deemed too narrow in their scope, in order to make the study less leading and hoped that would help in giving center stage to their stories. What type of surveys do you carry out?

  2. Wow, you quoted me! That was a pleasant surprise. Thank you for that honor.

    And thank you for putting all of this information together. It was so interesting to read how the struggles and successes my husband and I have had are very similar to many other couples. It’s nice to feel normal for once. 😉

  3. Very good. I work with MK Safety Net, which comes along MKs who have been abused in the missionary setting. There are hundreds of them, most would not be in your survey. We find a large percent are divorced many more than one time. They are from those who married other TCK and those who married someone from their passport country. We find that one third of these MKs have left the church, but not necessarily God. Missions need to include these MKs instead of excommunicating them by their action of just labeling these MK as rebellious. Missions need to pay attention to their former MKs if they wish to do better with the present MKs.

  4. I’m with the same organization Shary Kroeker Hauber is, MK Safety Net Canada. I was abused in a missionary boarding school; which compounded the trauma of being separated from my parents for almost 9 months a year from the age of six. The abuse included sexual abuse, which is quite common in missionary boarding schools (actually, in many boarding schools; not just those owned and managed by mission agencies). The combination of both abandonment issues and the impact of having been sexually assaulted impacted my marriage. Fortunately, I had done a great deal of healing work before meeting Ernie, my husband. It would have been much more difficult if I hadn’t. My perspective is that trauma, including sexual trauma, impacts the relationships with former MK’s and sometimes other TCK’s even more than the challenges of being brought up in another culture. I would suggest including whether the experience of TCK’s included trauma and the impact of this on their marriages.

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