Discussion of news topics with a point of view, including narratives by individuals regarding their own experiences

Ask Sahaj is a series from The Lily with Sahaj Kaur Kohli, a therapist-in-training and advice columnist. She will be answering questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for Kohli, please send her an email.

Dear Sahaj,

I am a third-culture kid, with an Indian father and a White mother of two different religions. There was a lot of trauma in my upbringing, but I am a bit more settled now in a country away from my birthplace, where I usually find myself in relationships with straight, White, middle-class men. But the more serious those relationships become, the more that identity and background become issues. I feel my partner has little interest in or access to the complexity of my life.

This dynamic has been recurring for years, I’ve realized, and it’s coming to a head now. The pandemic has affected my current partner and I very differently, and our relationship is now on the rocks.

While my mother was hospitalized with covid for almost two months over the winter, and I haven’t yet been able to see her, his family home is 10 minutes away. Even outside of the pandemic, living in a separate country from my family has created an imbalance: Though I rely on him for support, he has a network of stability to fall back on.

My partner says he is scared that he can’t give me what I need and is scared of my “reactions, anger and negativity.” He has said that he doesn’t know how to relate to or deal with my questions of identity. I am willing to lean in and do the work. I have been to therapy for years, but he never has. It all has left me feeling unworthy, or not whole enough, to be with someone with a more straightforward background.

Is there a way to bridge these divides?

— Third-culture kid

The pandemic has left us all suspended, grasping at our parachutes. It sounds like living far away from your family is a healthy decision for you, and yet this does not discredit how lonely and hard it can be. It makes sense that you have relied heavily on your relationship to be a source of support.

Sahaj Kaur Kohli. (Sam Hall Media)
Sahaj Kaur Kohli. (Sam Hall Media)

For so many of us, the pandemic brought to light some of the struggles and patterns we may have always had but never quite picked up on. It sounds like this is true for you as you become more aware about the patterns you repeat within your romantic relationships. It’s easy to put our best foot forward when we start a relationship. It’s easy to shove the messy parts of ourselves in boxes and tuck them away behind closed doors so they can’t be discovered. To control which parts of ourselves are witnessed. To contort ourselves into shapes in which we will hopefully be accepted and loved. And it’s not unusual for those of us who have experienced childhood trauma to struggle with core beliefs that we are not worthy.

The language we use to discuss our struggles and hardships matter. In your question I hear you bring the issues in your relationship back to you: You’re too needy. You’re too complex. You are at fault. What if you, and you alone, are not the problem? There’s a version of you inside that is begging to be loved and yet you are convinced you are unlovable because men from “straightforward” backgrounds find it difficult to understand or find interest in you.

In your question, I hear shame and self-rejection. And even though I don’t know you, it pains me to see that you are picking yourself apart and trying to put yourself back together again to fit into a persona that does not seem completely authentic to you. You don’t feel worthy because you have internalized a narrative that parts of you are not worthy. Maybe by your family. Maybe by society and the systems we exist in. Maybe by past partners.

Like you, for so long, I learned to negotiate my identities by dressing the part that was expected of me, adopting performative behaviors to keep the peace and to keep my relationships close. It never occurred to me that by hiding parts of myself, I was compounding my internalized shame with resentment for not feeling totally understood or accepted.

As humans we exist in a duality of both/and, and this is especially salient for those of us who are bicultural or biracial. You may carry so much pain from your childhood and you are still deserving of love as an adult. You may have a different identity than your partner and you are worthy of your different needs being met. You may not feel whole and yet, I assure you, that you still deserve to take up space.

True vulnerability is uncomfortable and nauseating, I know, but it’s also a liberation from the shackles of shame. Love can give us the agency to step into our power, and if not from someone else right now, then we must attempt to give it to ourselves. Your partner cannot know if they can be who you need them to be if you are not clear about what you need and if you are unable to communicate it.

So many of us have been taught that anger is a bad emotion or a negative reaction, when in reality, anger is a healthy and powerful indicator that something needs to change. What if your anger your partner fears is your true self asking for more? What if you, the whole, full you, is grasping at ways to come out and exist? Staying in a relationship that is comfortable, that you’ve been used to, and that is right in front of you is easier than venturing into the unknown.

By denying yourself to show up more fully in all of your identities — all your questions in tow — you may be protecting yourself from rejection or pain, but you are also denying yourself the joy and beauty of your complex existence. And I assure you: Your complexity is what makes you so worthy of a sweet, curious love.

I can’t suggest I know what your partner is really feeling, but none of us have lived lives that are completely uncomplicated. An inability to be curious or open or kind to you about your background and what you struggle with may suggest an inability to be curious or open or kind with himself. It’s easier for some people to focus on another person’s insecurities or issues as a way to avoid their own. As someone who has been in a long-term interracial, intercultural relationship, it’s a curiosity and a commitment to learn equally about yourselves and about one another that will sustain a deep love. You do not need to be able to relate to one another to truly listen and care about the other’s experiences and feelings.

You also cannot force another person to do the work, no matter how much you try to pick up the slack or make it easier for them. Bridges are created to allow us to cross, or carry on, over an obstacle of some kind. You may have built the bridge, but it’s a two-way path; negotiation and communication on both sides is an essential part to a healthy relationship. Otherwise, you will be schlepping over the bridge every day to make this relationship work by yourself, and from the sound of it, in doing that so far, you’ve been leaving and losing parts of yourself behind as you take that journey.

Is that worth it to you?

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