Do We Need to Cut Ties?

Steaming mug of coffee in hand, I click join on my family’s weekly video chat.

It’s Sunday morning for me, Saturday evening for them back in the rolling Midwest hills.

Videos pop onto the screen: my parents on the desktop in their bedroom, siblings joining from spots in college or beyond, wherever the years take them.

I apologize for the music blasting from a funeral or a wedding on the street just outside, or tell them about the woman my teammate and I met that week as we walked and prayed dusty streets. I meet a new sister-in-law across the screen, catch up on the latest news about cousins and my sending church, send virtual kisses to my baby nephew.

Conventional wisdom has said, “Cut ties back home.” This helps you connect right where you, helps you focus on language learning and seeking to understand a new culture. Cutting ties allows you to build new relationships and forge bonds.

And I agree that there are so many things vying for our attention. Social media and technology are wonderful gifts. It can also feel like we are straddling two worlds, always knowing what is going on in our passport country even as we make connections in our local culture. This can be exhausting or distracting, depending on the season and moment. We default to what is easiest, going back to the people we know, rather than doing the hard work of getting to know teammates and operating in a language that doesn’t flow quite as naturally, at least at first, as our own.

But for me, the issue is a bit more nuanced. I served for five years on the field as a single. I mostly had the same in-country team for the entire time, a gift I know a lot of people don’t have in the always-changing, revolving door that team often is. At the same time, though, I didn’t have a built-in support system of a spouse and kids.

Don’t get me wrong, marriage and children add their own layers of beauty and complexity to overseas life.

But as a single, I’m always starting from scratch with connection. This can feel overwhelming when everything else is new and unfamiliar, when I’m trying to keep my head above water and navigate new learning opportunities around every corner.  

So, do we need to take singleness and season of life into consideration when we create policies and set expectations (written and unwritten) when it comes to connection “back home”?

I think it starts with conversation. Do you have specific questions you are asking the singles on your team or in your organization about loneliness, connection and community? Single ladies, are you able to share honestly about these aspects of your lives?

We don’t approach these conversations with shame, and we might not even start with hard-and-fast rules. Can we set reasonable goals or check-in points? I know we can all fall into mindless scrolling that isn’t beneficial to anyone. I am pretty introverted so a goal of 5 hours a day out talking to people just isn’t sustainable. What works the best for me, my situation and season?

Our family and friends back home can’t be our only support system, single or married. Building in those support systems with local friends and other expats is hard and beautiful! As a single, I can be intentional about seeking out connection with other singles but also getting to know families. I can even ask for invitations to dinner or to meet at a restaurant, rather than waiting for others to come to me or know what I need.

But let’s also make a place to talk about what singles need related to online connection. Is cutting off ties to family and friends back home the best advice? Those regular video chats with my family buoyed my spirit week after week. They were constant in a swirling world, part of filling my heart to go out and love and serve the people around me.

What are some of the factors we need to take into consideration related to singles and connection “back home”? As a single, what would you love to add to the conversation?

6 Comments

  1. Tessa August 16, 2022

    I think that the gift of an online connection to friends and family has been a huge blessing to me in the past four years of service as a single. As one of only two singles among my co-workers, I have found it particularly difficult to build deep connections with others on my team. Add to that the fact that my team has changed constantly and often without warning through the years, the constancy of my friendship with my parents and siblings has helped tremendously.

    However, an online connection should only be one source of connection and friendship. If it becomes our only source, then we are danger of disengaging from our context of ministry.

    1. Sarah Hilkemann August 17, 2022

      Tessa, thank you for sharing your thoughts! I so agree that online connection shouldn’t be our only source of connection. I can easily get pulled in there, so having a healthy balance and relationship with technology can protect me from spending all my time online. But there can be so many changes like you said, and so having something constant- like connection to family- can be such a gift!

  2. Michele August 16, 2022

    Sara, these are such good thoughts, and I really hope it will open conversations on teams and in organizations! I started as a single pre-social media, when I was thrilled to be able to get a dial-up connection allowing me to email my family. Phone calls were expensive and usually pretty low quality. No one had advised me to ‘cut ties’, but it kind of just happened to some extent. Phone calls were mostly for Christmas and emergencies, and my mom and I emailed fairly regularly, but I was forced to focus on making connections where I was. Add to that the fact that I didn’t have teammates in my city until I’d been there a couple of months, and it was the ‘ideal’ situation to cause me to ‘bond with the culture’ as we were taught was the best way. I can see lots of blessings and benefits that came out of that, but I am also really glad the last decade or so to be able to video chat with family and send random messages and pictures to friends I’ve had for thirty plus years. And YET, I had to work a bit harder, because of that availability, to make connections in the country I moved to at that time. You are so right- this is an area where it’s different for singles, for all the reasons you stated. I don’t have any answers here and this is kind of a rambly comment, but I just love that you brought this up and kind of wanted to add my experience of having done it both ways to say it really DOES need more discussion.

    1. Sarah Hilkemann August 17, 2022

      Michele, it’s so good to have your perspective! Social media and video chatting were in full swing by the time I went overseas (although so much has changed even from then to now), so it’s interesting to hear what it was like before that was all a thing. I hope it opens up conversation too! 🙂

  3. Hadassah August 30, 2022

    “But as a single, I’m always starting from scratch with connection” this idea has been in my mind lately as I realize that part of my keeping and continuing to build connection with a group of friends in the US helps me not just now, but also gives me a safety net in the future and helps me to not panic about potential and/or upcoming changes in my physical location relationships. I’ve realized how there is no one currently physically in my life that I can count on to still be physically present in 5 years. So continuing to build relationship with a group I’ve known for over a decade can help me to know that there will continue to be people who know me who I won’t have to start from scratch with. Having that stability helps to encourage me to continue to make connections where I am.
    Also working on developing the skill of continuing to build a relationship from a distance also helps me as I build in person connections, because it gives me more confidence that in person relationships can last longer than the actual time we’re in the same place.

    1. Sarah Hilkemann August 30, 2022

      Hadassah, yes, so true! Whereas someone who is married has the constant of a spouse and possibly children in the midst of shifting relationships, I do think it’s important for singles to figure out who can be that long-term support system. Whether that’s family, or like you said, a group of friends, it can make such a difference. It doesn’t mean not engaging and building new relationships wherever we are, but it gives me the courage I need to keep going out and making those new connections. Thanks so much for sharing!

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