I’m Not From Here: 3 Expats on What Makes or Breaks a Long Distance Relationship

Welcome to I’m Not From Here — a monthly column by five people who have lived the expat experience and want to share their advice and anecdotes with anyone thinking of doing the same. We know all too well that packing up and starting over elsewhere is one of the most exhilarating, yet stressful, things you can do. So, each month, we’ll aim to make your move that little bit easier while reminiscing about our own crazy adventures abroad. Enjoy and bon voyage!

Navigating a romantic relationship is never easy, particularly when you’re on different continents. Despite my boyfriend and I knowing each other since we were twelve, we were only three months into a romantic relationship before he left to study in America.

Over the six years of living in different countries, states, and cities, we encountered the good, the bad and the ugly. We struggled with time differences and conflicting schedules. We would sometimes go days without talking and several months without physically seeing each other. But here, I am writing to you from the apartment that we live in. After seven years of long-distance, we’re proof that romantic relationships abroad can work.

Natasha and her partner. Image: Supplied

So how do you make it work? I’m not going to lie; it’s not easy, but it’s worth it. We were lucky because we were young and still figuring out who we were as a couple and as individuals. We gave each other the space to grow individually but still enjoyed each other’s company and made the most of being apart. Despite being apart, it was important for us to make memories together. We rendezvoused in New York or hit the road to chase our first snowfall in Canada. When we couldn’t be together, we Skyped, played online games and found ways to stay connected.

Although, for some, relationships abroad could involve children, careers, and other factors keeping two people in separate places. To deal with all kinds of relationships abroad, we asked The Latch‘s expats to talk about how they navigated their relationships abroad.

Make Sure Your Goals Are Aligned — Lyndsey Rodrigues

When I moved to New York in 2007 for a dream job opportunity, my boyfriend of three years decided he would move with me, albeit several months later. The months we spent apart were hard. First, there was the time difference which made it hard for us to speak on the phone (not to mention it was back in the days when you’d need to get an international calling card to make such calls!). Then, my boyfriend (understandably) had a freak out about moving to a new country, leaving behind his job, family and friends. He became fairly distant to the point where I strongly considered breaking up with him, but then he booked a flight even earlier than he had initially intended.

Lyndsey in New York. Image: Supplied

At first, we loved the excitement of discovering our new city together and even got a rescue dog to complete our home. However, it wasn’t long before things got tough again. We’d been told he would be eligible for an E3 visa if he could find employment in his field, but despite his qualifications, no one would hire him. What we didn’t know was that the world was slowly descending into recession, so American employers were not willing to take on foreign staff (in fact, they were laying people off). This was all a precursor to the global financial crisis, but we didn’t know that at the time. What this meant was that we went from being a couple who split everything 50/50 to a situation where I was the sole breadwinner and the one who paid all the rent and other bills — which I was more than happy to do as he had made this huge sacrifice by moving for me.

Related: I’m Not From Here: 4 Expats Make the Case For Moving Overseas

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For him, though, it was hard and emasculating to see his mates back home progressing in their careers while he spent his days walking our dog or visiting me at my work, where I was happy and fulfilled. We got engaged in August of 2008, and he had to return to Australia shortly after as he hadn’t been able to secure a visa and couldn’t enter yet again on an ESTA without arousing suspicion as he’d already left and come back twice. Once again, we were thrust into a long-distance relationship until I returned to Australia, prioritising my relationship over my career.

Looking back and being the ridiculously ambitious person I am, I can’t believe I did it and, honestly, I shouldn’t have. While I thought I was following my heart, the truth was that my heart no longer belonged to my fiancé — it belonged to New York. We never made it down the aisle, but I did make it back to New York, where I lived and worked for another decade.

My advice for anyone considering moving overseas for a partner is to ensure your goals are aligned — especially how long you want the move to be. If one of you wants it to be an adventure for a year or two (him) and the other wants it to be permanent (me), you need to either reassess or compromise. Make sure you can find employment that inspires and fulfils you. Do your due diligence and research the market, economy and opportunities that may be available. And, if you do move for a partner, make an effort to make your own friends and pursue your own interests, so you have something that is your own — it will not only mitigate loneliness but resentment too.

Ultimately, he moved for me and then I moved for him, and while this story doesn’t have a happy ending, it maybe could have if we had been more realistic about our expectations and better informed about our options.

I Ignored Red Flags I’d Never Ignore In An In-Person Relationship — Ruby Feneley

I met my long-distance boyfriend when I had four months left on my American visa. I’d been living in New York for a year and had decided to come home, and the Tinder date I went on with a friend’s ex-fling (yay for hookups by referral!) was typical of the “YOLO, I’m not going to be here much longer” vibe I was projecting at the time. Straight off the bat, he was very keen. Following our “date”, I was travelling for work and fun in Philadelphia and  Miami, and he messaged me constantly. I’m a texter, so it was fun! After work, we’d watch Haunting of Hill House at precisely the same time together, ‘WhatsApping’ all the way through. We had heaps in common, he was a Virgo Sun, I have a Virgo Venus, I was reading “The Stranger Beside Me”, and he had a “The Soup That Made Milwaukee Famous” Vintage Jeffrey Dahmer T-Shirt. He’d paid $300USD for it! Cool!  

When I returned to New York, we immediately started dating, and it continued to be a lot of fun. My time in New York had been character building. I’d arrived to an unusually cold and long winter, was making next to no money in my grad-comms role, and 50% of my rent went to a room in a falling apart Bushwick apartment. Early-day friendships had replaced my close friends at home. He seemed put together. He lived in a Williamsburg share house with two college friends. It had hot water 100% of the time and pipes that were not bursting out through the floorboards. He was years along in his career and came from a wealthy family. He projected security and adult-ishness (he had all Aesop toiletries!)  

Ruby met her long distance boyfriend in New York. Image: Supplied

He was also really generous — he surprised me with presents, took me out to places I would never have been able to afford to go and immediately wove me into his circle of friends.  

The prospect of my eventual departure clouded our entire in-person relationship. It was also accelerated by it. When there’s zero threat of real commitment, the usual reservations about over-committing to someone you’re not sure about or seeming too keen disappear. It was very intense and very passionate.  From our first date, he’d talked about how much he wanted to see Australia and how he’d like to work overseas. While I liked him a lot, my Venus is, after all, in Virgo, and I’m pragmatic in relationships. I was devastated when I finally left but assumed we wouldn’t see each other again.  

When I got home, though, he announced he was quitting his job and working on a freelance project in Paris and then would move to Australia. I decided I’d visit him in Paris before he made a move. During this time, we messaged 12 hours a day and spent hours on Zoom weekly. 

About two months before I left, his mum and stepdad came to Sydney on a cross-over stay. They had drinks with my parents and me. When I met his mum, I started to feel something was off. Firstly, she was under the impression I was a novelist. I’d taken some writing classes in New York and written the first draft of a novel, but my work in Sydney involved an entry-level beauty writing job and makeup artistry gigs on the side. I wasn’t spending my time doodling in notebooks in cafes. Despite the absence of a best-seller, his mum seemed incredibly keen on the idea of us staying together and him moving to Australia. I’m not saying she was trying to ship him offshore, but I did leave our conversation feeling like I’d received a handover email.  

This is where context comes into relationships. In a normal relationship, you see people face to face; you can read their moods, pick up on their body language and see them with their friends and family. In a virtual relationship, you can do a lot of self-editing, and you can also read into situations and conversations what you want.  

 I didn’t meet my boyfriend’s family until he announced he was moving to Australia. I’d only met his friends in the context of partying; I had no idea they’d held multiple interventions for him over the last twelve months following his previous breakup.  

When I got to Paris, my boyfriend had gained a lot of weight, and the foot he’d been complaining about for months was diagnosed with gout over a Zoom conference with my doctor, who is also my mother. Like what Henry VIII had. While gout was standard fair in 1500, it’s unusual in men under 50 in the virtual-relationship era, and my mum, as a doctor, was alarmed. It was indicative of a pretty severe drinking problem that I’d missed when in “party mode” in New York.  

A disastrous holiday that spanned Paris, and the South of France followed. I ascertained that having quit his job, he had nothing solid lined up in Paris and was spending his time drinking, eating out and sinking money into Airbnbs. He was neurotic and had wild mood swings when he was drinking. I didn’t mind his slightly controlling personality in New York and even found it comforting as life was so chaotic there. But when you’re overseas, you’re out of control 99% of the time, and he was uncomfortable with that. So he tried to control me. He was hypercritical and nit-picky. Some of it was upsetting, and some laughable, like when he told me my breasts were “just off being too big” or got mad at me for reading too fast. He’d been reading  Jean-Paul Sartre’s Iron in the Soul for 6 months, even though I told him he was allowed to stop. 

He found me annoying. He thought the nitty gritty of my work was vapid and resented my deadlines. He preferred the Zooey Deschanel notebook scribbler he’d pitched his mum (so do I, her life seems awesome!)  

He also  found things he’d liked about me in a short-term fling, incredibly grating in a 24/7 companion. When we were lost on our way to the Louvre, we had an argument that started with him,  “is everything a f**king joke to you?” in the street, and I replied, “you are”, before I could stop myself. It did not diffuse the situation and I’m very sorry to the elderly Parisian couple who witnessed the dispute. 

 The absolute low point was my birthday. He resented lining up for things that he deemed “touristy” but I love history, so he’d grudgingly agreed to go to Versailles with me. After lining up for two hours (he had Iron in the Soul out the whole time), we were in the coronation room, looking at The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David (a reproduction, but I hadn’t seen it in the Louvre because he was in a bad mood). The room was full of tourists, like us, and I felt a tantrum brewing.  I took him to Marie Antoinette’s gardens to look at goats and ponies, which he much preferred. It was while staring at a goat rather than Napoleon crowning Empress Josephine that I decided I’d never see him again.  

After some heated phone calls, when I got back to Australia, I finally broke up with him over text. A few weeks later,  I got an email from him saying he was headed back to the US and missed me because he’d just seen “It 2” and wasn’t sure if it was good. After all, I wasn’t there to tell him. I realised how much he’d crafted his personality around mine when we first met and how much I’d ignored red flags that I’d never ignore in an in-person relationship, from his “you’re not like the other girls” complaining about his “boring” ex to his “fiscal Republicanism” (he said he didn’t vote Trump. Doubtful.)  

That was entirely on me. Based on 3 months of dating, I’d built a relationship and person in my head. I should have asked his mum for his birth certificate! He hasn’t even read Helter Skelter! Was his natal chart even real?  

I never told him whether ‘It 2’ was good or not (I vote “not”), he stalked me on LinkedIn a few times, and we never spoke again.

I realise I’ve laid into this dude, and I have my own flaws — but as they say in the biz, I’m out of time. The takeaway here is you can miss a lot about what’s going on in someone’s life when you’re not face-to-face and always check their birth certificate!

If you are concerned about your relationship, support is available. You can call #1800RESPECT to access confidential information and counselling services at any time of the day, every day of the year. Visit www.1800respect.org.au or call 1800 737 732.

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