DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have long dreamed of emigrating from the US, and as COVID slows down it looks like I may have the opportunity to move to my top-choice country in a few years. My partner of three years seems uncomfortable with this now that it’s no longer theoretical. She has said on multiple occasions that she doesn’t want to live in the US permanently either, and we’ve agreed that, whether we wind up married or not, neither of us wants to have kids in the States.
Is it just that 2-3 years from now (which would make 5-6 years dating) is too short for her to commit to marriage, or is there something else going on here? It hurts that the most exciting thing in my life seems to be putting a wedge between me and the person I value most.
Thanks in advance,
DEAR EXPAT-IN-WAITING: I think you put your finger on it, right at the start, EIW: this is no longer theoretical to you. When it’s just a thought exercise, the idea of leaving the US is incredibly appealing. The idea of a fresh start is tempting in and of itself; doing so in a place that seems to promise a life that you can’t have (or had to flee) in your home country is even better. It’s all hope and sunshine and rainbows, no downsides, just pure, uncut potential.
Unfortunately, the nature of dreams and fantasies is that these can be perfect. They go exactly how you want them to go. There’re no uncomfortable delays, no awkward transitions as you try to settle into, not just a new city but a new country. There’s no adjustment period, no time needed to get in tune with the new rhythms and routines and the new pulse of your new home. You don’t need to learn the ins and outs of bits of culture that you never thought about because, well, you never had to.
But the problem is: eventually dreams end. Fantasies are like soap bubbles; beautiful, even transcendent… but fragile and temporary. They pop very easily… especially when they come in contact with reality.
The reason why your partner is most likely feeling weird about the idea of either your moving or moving with you is that, at the end of the day, that’s a seismic shift from everything she’s known. Even if she legitimately does want to leave – and I don’t have reason to doubt that she does – that’s a hard thing to do. Especially if she (and you) are fortunate and privileged enough that the chaos and upheaval isn’t affecting you directly yet, or at the same level or intensity it’s already affecting people of color and LGBTQ people.
Now what I’m going to say is going to sound like I’m trying to talk you out of leaving, and I’m not. If you’ve decided that it’s best for you to get the hell outta Dodge, then you’re making the best decision for you and yours. But consider what this means, especially for your partner, who, it seems, may not have had the same dream as you, or to the same degree.
To start with, there’s what you’re leaving behind. Not just an increasingly fascist-friendly right-wing political party or an out-of-control judiciary, but friends and family. Even with the modern conveniences of direct messaging, video calls, email and social media, living in another country is putting a hell of a distance between you and your loved ones. A Skype call or Facetime isn’t going to be the same as driving over to your parents, or dropping in on grandma to take her out to lunch. Even if you’re just moving next door – hey, I hear Vancouver’s amazing! – that’s still a sizable distance between you and them.
Then there’s the fact that, while you may have your ducks in a row – lining up a place to live, making sure you’ve got a job ready and waiting for you when you arrive, all the things that many countries want in place before you immigrate – doesn’t mean she does. If she hasn’t been laying the groundwork to move to this new place the way you’ve been, then she wouldn’t just be moving, she’d be starting completely over. With no support network, no
And, of course, there’s the inherent strangeness of living in a new country. Even if it’s mostly the same as back home – and God knows the Internet and mass-communication have turned the world into much more of a monoculture – there’re differences. Different accents, different slang, different cultural expectations, even different brands. I don’t know if there’s a specific German word for the feeling of missing a particular foodstuff in a foreign country, but if there isn’t there should be. Imagine how much of a craving you might end up facing for something as simple as peanut butter.
There’s a reason why so many expats in foreign countries – even the UK and Canada – tend to cluster together; there’s comfort in the familiar. There’s a very specific form of relief that comes with hearing a familiar accent and being around people who also get that sense of missing what you left behind.
Just as importantly though – and what’s likely bothering her the most – is the difference between your desire to emigrate and hers. For her, it’s been a theoretical; something she’s idly considered but not put serious work into. For you, it’s been the dream of a lifetime. And if she’s not as excited as you, if she’s hesitant or even realizes she doesn’t want to leave after all… well, s--t, now what? What does that do to your relationship? Does she white-knuckle it and go anyway and risk resenting you for “taking” her away from everything she’s ever known? Or does she say “hey, I don’t know if I’m down for this” and watch a five to six year relationship come to a screeching halt? Or does she even give it that long? Instead of making that call when you’re actually able to up stakes and go, does she say “I don’t know if I can do this now,” and risk torpedoing a relationship that is incredibly important to her?
To be clear: all of this is pure speculation on my part. I’m only guessing at what she’s thinking and feeling; I have no more of an idea than you do. But you know who does have those answers? Your partner. And the easiest way for you to gather what’s going on is to ask.
So this means it’s time for an Awkward Conversation. And this one could be extra-crispy awkward because hey, this is getting to something deeply important to you. It’s hard to say “I was ok with your dream when it was just a dream, now that its real I don’t know if I’m down with it”, assuming that this is what she’s feeling. It may be even harder for you to hear it. So when you do sit down to talk about it… do so of a mindset of just listening. Not trying to change her mind, not trying to reassure her that everything’s alright or that she shouldn’t worry. You just want to listen and understand. Even if what she says sounds 100% wrong to you.
What she likely needs right now is to feel like she’s free to at least say “I don’t know about this” or “I’m not sure I’m at the same place with this as you are”. Having doubts is hard. Feeling like you can’t express those doubts can be harder. She may feel like clamming up is a way of avoiding an unnecessary conflict. The problem is… that doesn’t avoid it; it only compresses it. It takes something that could be vented or dispelled and shoves it into a can marked “contents under pressure”. And we all know what happens when that can inevitably gets punctured. It explodes… messily and all over the place.
So for now, make room for her to talk, while you commit to just listening and understanding. Nothing needs to be decided now. Nothing needs to be done now. All that’s needed is a chance to clear the air and create a space where she can feel like she can at least express herself. If – and I stress, if – that means that this relationship will end… well, that doesn’t need to be today. Talking now, however, means that if it does come to that, then it will be a much less painful and contentious ending than it would be otherwise.
However, talking now and getting it all out there could also be what saves this. If she’s having doubts or questions and wants you to reassure her, then you have your chance to talk it out and say “ok, here’s how I see this working” or “here’s how we could handle this together.” But let her set the tone. Let your partner decide precisely what she needs from you in this conversation. And then… well, let things be. You have a few years before you and she have to make a final decision, and a lot can happen in that intervening time. Focusing on the worst-case scenarios would just be borrowing trouble from the future – a future that may never come to pass. Worse, it’ll rob you both of joy you could have in the present.
So for now, let her talk, let her vent, and make it clear: she’s allowed to have these feelings, no matter what they are. Let the future take care of itself.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org