How multiple losses can affect future relationships

Many TCKs are very comfortable diving into new relationships, but there are many who are privately very reticent to become involved on a deeper level. A 1986 survey by the renowned academic Ruth van Reken reported that 40% of the 300 TCKs who took part acknowledged that they were apprehensive about forming new relationships because of the fear of loss. Based on previous repeated experiences of making and breaking relationships they were concerned about exposing themselves to pain again.

This reticence can sometimes be interpreted as the individual being shy or quiet. With some, it may extend to reservations about throwing themselves into getting involved and engaged in community activities. The outgoing, friendly, and ‘easy to get on with’ individuals who easily jump into new relationships at Stages Two (‘Still Safe’) and Three (‘Judgemental’) as described by Pollock and van Reneken respectively may guard against allowing relationships to progress to levels Four and Five – the levels of emotional disclosure – as being too intimate for them. These individuals are good at building protective, and often subconscious, walls around themselves to keep others out.

Pollock and Van Recken identified three main ways that people protect themselves from the pain of losing precious and cherished relationships. TCKs behaviour is not any different.

By ‘refusing to care’, the individual fully rejects that they care for anyone or anything, or that they ever did. Over time this approach becomes more painful as it is reinforced by the pain of loneliness as well as the suppressed pain of loss. A false sense of pride in the fact that one doesn’t need anyone sometimes goes hand in hand with this approach. This can quickly catch up on them, and one day the dam breaks. At some time the individual becomes ready to be released from a state of emotional numbness and risk pain in order to welcome the feeling of closeness once again.

In the coping mechanism known as ‘quick release’, the individual starts to distance themselves from relationships in the knowledge that they will be moving on. They begin to transition away from their current reality by retreating from situations and relationships with which they have previously been engaged. Sometimes they start to engineer this cooling of relationships too soon, for example, meeting up with friends and acquaintances is noticeably reduced. Pollock and Van Reken talk about Quick Release being quite widespread in situations when temporary separation is about to happen; TCKs often refer to having arguments with their partners the night before one of them is going on a short business trip. Somehow these arguments unconsciously make the separation easier. This clear self-protection mechanism can be ascribed to past behaviour and experience and is no direct reflection on the individual, the circumstance, or the relationship affected in at the time.

Known as ‘emotional flattening’, an individual refuses to feel any pain associated with the various losses which they have experienced because of their highly mobile lives. It is as if they force themselves to not feel, to be numb. However, this also means that by droning out any pain felt they are also droning out any chance of feeling joy. This is similar to Refusing to Care, but is distinguished more deeply by the fact that individuals acknowledge that they did care for someone but that they don’t care once they have moved on.

This cold approach to goodbyes and anything emotional can seep through to all aspects of one’s life and unfortunately, some individuals are completely unaware they are doing it. Sometimes this approach is seen as a sign of confidence, strength, and independence but Pollock and Van Recken have suggested that this may actually be a form of detachment. Psychiatrist Hugh Missildine cites the work of John Bowlby to explain that whenever there is an extended loss of relationship between parent and child (for whatever reason), the child will experience despair, grief, and then lastly detachment as they try and cope with that loss.

Historically TCKs were often separated from their parents at an early age, going off to boarding school at 5 or 6 years old was commonplace, although less so now. However, the cyclic separation from friends and family can equally create a response of detachment for the individual and sadly this response extends then to the inability to feel or express joy and positive emotions. The same might be true for loss of environment or community, especially when the pattern of loss is repeated.

This detached response can have a shattering effect on intimate relationships. Stories from ATCks include their partners feeling rejected and questioning why they are in a relationship with this person in the first place. In these unfortunate instances, the TCK’s inability to show and receive signs of love within the relationship rarely or at all is interpreted negatively. Equally a child of an ATCK can also experience this pain as the parent is unable to express joy and delight at having a child and being involved in all the parental activities, whether it is reading bedtime stories or bath time. Sadly, both the parent and child can miss out on what they need from what is ultimately one of the most rewarding relationships one can have in one’s lifetime.

This is not to say all TCKs experience a detachment response. Many are able to create healthy relationships throughout life while being able to transition between them and move on with minimal distress. They are able to enjoy relationships for what it offers fully at the time. A fact of life is that we lose and gain relationships as we go through life and need skills to navigate and transition through them, some people are more agile than others in this. Self-awareness may be the key.