As couples fall into cohabitation earlier and delay marriage later, moving to a new city for a partner has become a relationship rite of passage.
When Sarah celebrated her 26th birthday in Miami Beach last summer, her life was already 1,000 miles north. She held an abbreviated birthday dinner—burgers at Shake Shack with friends—then finished packing for Washington, D.C., where she was set to start a new job and finally move in with her longtime boyfriend, a guy she met in college and had been seeing long-distance ever since. “We hadn’t talked in a while—we kept missing each other,” Sarah says of the pre-move rush. So walking home from birthday dinner, “I called him and said, ‘Aren’t you excited that I’m moving soon?’”
His response: “Mmm. Kinda."
After that limp endorsement hit, Sarah spent her first month in Washington sleeping on his couch and fumbling through relationship limbo until her boyfriend finally vocalized what he couldn’t spit out before she arrived. “It’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, I wish you were here.’ But when someone actually shows up, it’s a whole different thing,” Sarah says. “I think it felt natural for him to keep things going long distance and pretend to be prepared for me to move there eventually.”
As couples fall into cohabitation earlier and earlier—and delay marriage later and later—moving to a new city for a significant other has emerged as a central test of a serious young relationship. And as I've entered my late 20s, I've collected a modest treasury of stories from couples blindsided by the implications of the big move: The girlfriend dumped at the baggage carousel; the boyfriend who convinced his girlfriend to move cross-country even as he began quietly dating his new roommate; the partner who promised to move but never arrived. I’ve also heard from trailing partners whose moves bumped their couplings to the next level—friends who are now busy fixing up single-family homes or scouting wedding-reception venues in their new towns.
Less visible are the transplanted romances that continue to drift casually from lease to lease. There’s just something about an uprooted relationship that forces an announcement of its intentions.
And I've been listening carefully because in three weeks, my longtime boyfriend is planning to follow me to Los Angeles from our former home in D.C. My upbringing didn't supply a roadmap for this experience. After 20 years of marriage, my parents decided to pursue careers in different states as my brother and I felt our way through junior high. They spent the next 15 years racking up frequent flyer miles and squeezing in family time on weekends, holidays, and sabbaticals. They're still together, even if they spend most of their time apart.
Sarah, who I met a couple of months after she ended up single in Washington, is just one of the friends who has counseled us on how this is supposed to work. Moving in with a boyfriend or girlfriend is "less enormous, less life-changing" for us than it was for previous generations, Sarah tells me. But when one partner risks social and professional success for coupled life in a new town, nebulous "eventual" plans suddenly crystalize into real commitments. "When you start to look at it through that prism," Sarah says, "things can get a little scary.”
And when years of loose promises begin to be translated into cross-country logistics, pressure mounts. “I don’t think there were any concerns until we were already out there," says Dave, 32, another friend of mine who left D.C. to join his girlfriend in Chicago last year. Moving “did change things, in ways I didn’t recognize at first,” he says. “There was a lot of pressure going into the decision of whether I should do it or not, so when I finally made the move, it kicked the relationship up a notch, and I think eventually it put some stress on it.” He returned to D.C. five months later.
Even positive anticipation of a move can make it more difficult for couples to manage expectations when they’re finally sleeping side by side. When Leah, 31, moved from London to Houston for her boyfriend, she traded the romance of a far-flung intercontinental relationship for the more mundane charms of the everyday. "It was, like, real life," Leah says. "We worried about bills, what we were going to cook for dinner, if we were going to get a cat, what to do to decorate the house. He had to get used to my sleeping in and I had to get used to his football addiction,” she says. “It was so ... domestic compared to our relationship before.”
It doesn’t help that as couples navigate the stress of the big move, friends and family are watching from afar. When Dave left for Chicago, he invited his friends to a going-away party. Then they threw him a second surprise send-off. “There was a little bit of fanfare when I left,” Dave says. So when he returned a half a year later, his relationship bruised, “I kind of slinked back quietly,” he says. “People would say to me, ‘Hey—didn’t you move to Chicago?’” And in some ways, the aerial view of the break-up was grimmer than that of the relevant parties. "I don't regret the move," Dave says. But "my experience on paper probably looks like a disaster."
For some couples, the expectation of an even bigger party looms large. "I think everyone assumes that the next logical step is marriage,” Sarah told me. "I know my parents always thought that was going to be the case." When I put out a call to learn more about peoples' experiences moving for relationships, many listed wedding dates as an affirmation of the transplant. "I moved across the country 2 yrs ago for love! We're getting married in 32 days," one trailing partner told me. "How'd it work out? The wedding's on Sat," another said.
A wedding makes for a neat happy ending, but it doesn’t sew up the messy practical considerations that come along with moving for love—securing a job, an income, a circle of friends, and a personal identity in a town that may initially see you solely as so-and-so’s significant other. “When I moved here, I didn't know anyone and I was just ‘Daniel's girlfriend,’” says Leah, who later married the man she moved for. “Six years later, I'm still really only friends with people that Daniel introduced me to. I never really made any good girlfriends on my own, and I think my friendship circle is greatly lacking from a girlfriend who doesn't know Daniel.”
When Stu followed his girlfriend from England to Barcelona, “She said to me: ‘Make sure that you move out here for you, not me,'" Stu says. "At the time, that didn't make much sense, as from my point of view, I wouldn't have otherwise thought to move out to Spain—of course I was moving for her,” he says. When he showed up in Barcelona, he began to understand what that meant. "My romantic side definitely got the best of my pragmatic side,” says Stu, who found himself without a steady paycheck, a command of the language, or friends of his own. He moved back nine months later.
Faced with the prospect of social and professional alienation, it helps to remember that ditching old jobs and paving a new path can be a really exciting thing for a couple of people to do. When Kat moved with her boyfriend from Melbourne to Montreal, they started a “life anew together” in a place without “the safety net of friends, family, a home, a job," an experience that “bonded us together,” she says. The alternative is relationship stagnation. Melanie, 25, is currently weighing whether to move back to Bangalore for her long-distance boyfriend or continue to build her career in London. “I'm not certain about the move and have been putting it on hold forever,” Melanie tells me. “I know it sounds contradictory, considering there's so much hesitance about moving, but for me, it's easier to maintain a long distance relationship than going the whole way,” she says. “Should the relationship fail, I'd be devastated to say the least, and hence the reluctance,” Melanie adds. “If I don't move, the relationship just continues.”
And even a relationship that doesn’t take to a new town can plant the seed for individual success. When Kate’s boyfriend began attending graduate school in Colorado, she picked up and moved with him from Wisconsin. But when he decided to cut his losses and move back to the Midwest, she realized they “had completely different expectations for our time” in the state, a conflict that was compounded by poor communication. After heading back to Wisconsin to regroup, she returned to live in Colorado a couple of years later—this time, alone.
Mid-course corrections can be easier to pull off if a career follows. When Dave moved to Chicago, he was working as a freelancer, a job that made it easy to move—and move on. And before Sarah even considered moving to join her boyfriend, she landed a position at a news start-up. The job ended up redeeming her experience. “Once it was over, I was able to cut and run, mostly because I was working like crazy,” Sarah says. “I didn’t have to think about it because I had 8 million other things to think about.”
Incidentally, Dave, Sarah and I all ended up in the same newsroom—meaning that as I prepared to leave D.C., I spent a couple of happy hours trying to shield my boyfriend from my coworkers' tales of fractured transplanted relationships. In the end, it wasn’t that hard to hear: “It didn’t work out, but I got to know why it didn’t work out,” Dave says. “If I had not gone out there and stayed in D.C., it most certainly would have died there anyway. And I always would have wondered if it was because I didn’t have the balls to move to Chicago.”