Boarding School Survivors and Relationships

Boarding School Survivors and relationships can be a difficult combination to manage.  Relationships for ex-boarders can be tricky due to having had to manage the hidden effects of separation from family coupled with the need to adapt to institutional living. One of the significant aspects of relating is to be able to express needs and feelings and to be responsive to the needs of others. Emotional relating is vital to relationships and intimacy yet this is often an area which former boarders have great difficulty with since one of the places which is neglected totally within a boarding education is that of emotional literacy. This creates problems for both the former boarder and future partners.

The Strategic Survivor Personality presents an outer exterior of confidence and ability to cope while simultaneously keeping inside the parts that are vulnerable. These parts of yourself, the shadow, consist of those aspects of yourself you hide from others and from yourself and over time are repressed.

The part of the self that is shown to others is a falsely competent self which is actively encouraged in boarding school. Putting on a brave face, ignoring unhappiness, denial of feelings, believing you shouldn’t feel sorry for yourself, hiding under a veneer of positivity are the external ways that are encouraged. However when this happens feelings go underground and remain unknown and unfamiliar as they have not been given the nourishment needed to grow. One of the effects is that emotional illiteracy develops as the language of feeling together with recognising how feelings feel inside the body is pushed out of awareness. By blocking your own feelings when your own feelings are unknown to you it is difficult to read the feelings of others and so to empathise with others. After all if your needs do not matter why should anyone else’s?

Emotional abandonment

The ingredients of love, care, touch and comfort are vital to both emotional and psychological development yet these are neglected. It is unsurprising that relationships are found to be difficult given how little preparation has taken place and how frequently there is a deep fear of intimacy.

Fear of intimacy

Fear of intimacy often develops when there have been repeated disappointments that others can be reliable, dependent and emotionally available and this leads towards feeling that others cannot be trusted. The alternative then is to shut down and not need anyone however this makes for problems in relationships as partners can feel pushed away and kept at a distance.

Some of the ways in which ex-boarders difficulties in relating appear include:

Being unable to find the words to identify and express feelings 

Hiding feelings particularly fears and insecurities from others 

Feeling mistrustful of others’ motives 

Feeling anxious in close intimate relationships 

Being reluctant to ask for help as this is seen to be weak

Inability to relax, preferring to be engaged in work or activity 

Feeling fearful of being smothered or controlled by others 

Having little awareness for the needs of others

Internal landscape

The internal landscape of the ex-boarder:

“I need you but not that close.”

Closeness is equated with loss of independence, and while you may have a deep wish to connect this may also bring about a feeling of being trapped. Instead you find yourself acting strong and pushing others away

“I won’t let my guard down, if I do I’ll be hurt.”

Maintaining emotional aloofness and unavailability by pushing others away and being armoured against others’ attempts to be close keeps others at a distance and leads to loneliness and isolation within relationships for both partners.

So what is needed? Moving towards love and connectedness

Support to explore the circumstances that created who you have become and to recognise that the walls you developed through the Strategic Survivor Personality to protect yourself were done out of necessity. You are now no longer in that place of having to survive and may be it is time to move towards interdependency in which you acknowledge you can take care of your own needs and also allow yourself to be interconnected with others and to rely on them for some things.