Moving for Love: The Modern Relationship Milestone

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Photo: John Lund/Sam Diephuis/Getty

Last week Jason Stanford, whose wife, Sonia Van Meter, is on the list of candidates for the first human mission to Mars, published an essay about the way people have reacted to their potential interplanetary long-distance relationship. “No sooner had a story about my wife’s astronautical ambition aired in Austin than strangers took it upon themselves to diagnose our obviously flawed marriage,” Stanford wrote. He felt defensive, and she worried her decision made her a bad wife.

As job searches expand to “wherever I can find one” (including, apparently, Mars), the normally low-simmering tension between work and relationships is increasingly distilled to a single big decision: Should I move away from my partner to take this great job opportunity? Ask him or her to take a leap and come with me? Or — for the partners on the flip side — should I uproot my life and follow? With employment prospects for twentysomethings in short supply and more couples delaying marriage, people are facing this dilemma at a younger age, usually before they’ve made a legal commitment to one another. In fact, the decision to pack up and leave together could probably even be considered a new relationship milestone, falling somewhere between “cohabitation” and “engagement” on the seriousness scale.

Of all the high-stakes life decisions of the pre-child-rearing years, it’s the one that crops up most frequently with the least historical precedent. And now that many women are breadwinners and many of us spend our 20s focused on building a career rather than a family, assumptions about whose professional concerns should take priority have dramatically shifted. A recent survey by Mayflower, the moving company, found that 72 percent of men in their 20s would move for a female partner, whereas only 59 percent of their parents’ generation and 37 percent of their grandparents’ would consider it. There’s still some stigma to being the one who follows, though: The survey didn’t say what percentage of women would consider moving for their male partner. But even women’s magazines, in their trademark cautionary-tale tone, tend to make moving for a relationship sound pathetic (“I Was the One That Had to Move”) or conflicted (“I'm Supposed to Be Moving for My Guy, But I'm Having Second Thoughts”), or at the very least passé.

Perhaps it’s time we let go of that stigma. As more relationships demand balancing two careers and their road maps, we ought to recognize that neither side of this decision is an easy one. Asking someone to move for you means making yourself vulnerable to their rejection; choosing to re-establish your life someplace new takes confidence and skill.

I’ve moved not once but twice to be with boyfriends, a fact I admit somewhat sheepishly. I’ve sworn up and down, more than once, never to move for a relationship again. But the truth is that moving, like almost everything in a relationship, is circumstantial. What was a really bad idea with one boyfriend at age 23 could make total sense with a different person at age 32.

Which is not to say it’s a decision to be made lightly. Transplanting a relationship is work. Relationships exist in an emotional ecosystem, supported and influenced by the friends and circumstances that surround them. When you mess with the external variables, introducing a new friend group (or remove friends from the equation altogether, for those moving to a brand-new city), plus new jobs and a new neighborhood, the whole relationship changes, too. Both times I moved for a boyfriend, it was hard to separate my personal unhappiness in the new city from my sense of resentment at having been the one to pick up and relocate. Neither, as you might imagine, had a particularly positive effect on the relationship I’d moved thousands of miles to preserve.

It’s no wonder some couples just opt to stay long-distance. Love from afar is fundamentally different in an era of texting and FaceTime, and a shocking 3 million married couples in the United States live apart. A full 75 percent of college students say they’ve already had a long-distance relationship. And in an article published last year in the Journal of Communication, researchers explained that several studies show long-distance couples aren’t always unhappy with their arrangement — and some are even happier than their counterparts who live in the same city.

But maintaining a relationship across time zones is not for everyone, or even most of us. And so it makes more sense to recognize moving for love is a now-classic dilemma, one that most career-focused adults will be at least faced with at some point in their lives. And maybe now that men and women are equally willing to move, we’ll collectively start to recognize that the person moving is not weaker or lesser-than. (It’s often when men find themselves in traditionally marginalized roles that our collective cultural perspective begins to shift.) After all, every couple makes compromises and trade-offs in order to stay together — a shift of physical location is just the most concrete.