The Stuff of Love Migration


When couples move across the world, there are often some difficult decisions about what to bring with them and what to leave behind. In my research on love migration, I am asking couples to talk about an object which has some meaning for them. The objects chosen range from photographs to hand-made paintings; from glass vases to a lump of rock. It has been interesting to see that the sorts of things which people choose are often not their most expensive possessions, but things which embody an important memory, capture the essence of their partner, or which they use in their everyday life together. As they packed their cases and moved abroad, the love migrants kept all sorts of momentos close at hand. These are some initial thoughts about the kinds of objects which have been selected.

Moments and Events

Some objects which the love migrants have chosen represent an important moment or event in the life of the couple. Some examples are a painting given as a wedding present, a knick-knack from the place they met, or in the case of one couple, the doorway where they had their first kiss. In the couples’ narratives, the object itself is less important than the memory associated with it.


Where They Went Public

The Melbourne tram, below, which attaches to a straw is significant because it was given on the night the couple met. While it is inexpensive, they have kept it, and brought it with them to a different continent. They like it because it reminds them of the start of their relationship. It is dear to them also because it is ‘frivolous’, fun and a bit silly, which they both agreed, are words which could be used to describe Andi’s personality, who gave it to Sarah.

A Melbourne tram straw attachment

A Melbourne Tram Straw Attachment

 Emotional Work

Doing things together is an important part of the on-going emotional work in relationships. These next objects represent that which the couples do to maintain and nurture their relationship. One couple do crosswords both when they are together and when they are apart, comparing the answers later.

Making Connections with Belgian Crossword Puzzles

Making Connections with Belgian Crossword Puzzles

Another couple chose an Ottolenghi cookery book. Dan enjoys cooking and often makes things from this particular book for his girlfriend, Sophie. It is her favourite recipe book, and they have particular recipes which they love. As they showed it to me they spoke enthusiastically about lamb with artichokes, and many other recipes. Many of the ingredients for the recipes are international, and they enjoy being able to find them all in the local shops, as the area they live in is multicultural and diverse. Sophie often calls Dan to find out what is for dinner, and she commented that while she can cook, she doesn’t get as much joy out of it as Dan does. She appreciates his efforts to make things which she wouldn’t, and he relishes being able to provide delicious food, which his girlfriend loves. This book of recipes is indicative of the ways which they care for each other, and of the things which they share.

Ottolenghi's recipes bringing love migrants together

Ottolenghi’s recipes bringing love migrants together

These objects are part of practices of loving and caring which the couples use in their daily lives, and the physical qualities of them are not important.

Physical Properties

However, some of the objects were chosen precisely because the physical properties of the object are as important as what the object may represent. This is most noticeable with some of the textile objects which are given as a physical stand-in for the body of the absent partner.

Teddy Bear

A Teddy Bear Given to Cuddle at Night

A Sheep called Potato

A Sheep called Potato

The soft toys were explicitly talked about as body substitutes, which were intended to hugged and slept with when the couple were not together.


He gave her his towel when she lost hers


A T-shirt given in a lost bet

The T-shirt and towel are also objects which encase the body, carry the smells of the other. They both became ‘stand-ins’ for the absent partner, rather than the soft toys which were bought and given with this purpose.

Transcending categories

Clearly, there are overlaps in the categories which these objects could fit into, for example the portrait below was given as a gift from one partner to the other on their 15th anniversary, which is clearly an important moment.

An anniversary gift

An anniversary gift

The painting was made from a photograph taken on a holiday for a previous anniversary celebration, which is another important moment or event. However, the practice of gift giving in this particular relationship is very important. One of the partners feels that choosing a gift is part of showing the other that they have listened and remembered things, and is a way of demonstrating closeness and that they ‘know’ their partner. So while this one particular object could be located within the first category, it could also fall into the second when seen within the wider practices of this relationship.

Some couples I have spoken to commented that they are not really the kind of people who have a lot of stuff, which is unsurprising as love migrants are often highly mobile. And yet, all of them were able to find something which they held dear, sometimes surprising themselves that they really had kept and travelled with these objects for so long.

See more Love Migration Objects here

Making a Move


In an interview with a couple which had been going well, I asked what seemed like an innocent question – ‘were you a couple at this point?’. Rather than getting a simple answer, my question created a moment of awkwardness as they struggled to define at what point their relationship became official. This problem is not unique to couples who migrate, as the starting point of a relationship might be fluid for many people, migrants or not. What makes love migration distinct seems to be that the migration itself is sometimes seen as a marker of relationship status.

Eduardo’s first visit to Britain was to improve his English, which is where he met Olivia. Once this visit was over and he went back to Spain, he made an effort to stay in touch. For three more years their relationship grew through email contact and infrequent visits. Olivia visited Spain, they travelled to Paris together for a holiday, and then eventually she moved to Spain. During this gestation period Eduardo described their relationship at that time as more than friendship. Olivia said that she sometimes behaved as though she was in a relationship, but was unclear about whether Eduardo felt the same.

But once they started discussing and planning Olivia’s move, their relationship status became more certain to both of them. When Olivia moved to Spain they moved in together, which , along with her migration, created more certainty around their relationship. But the migration to Spain was significant in itself. In this sense, migration might have something in common with other ways of publicly marking a relationship, such as an engagement, marriage or moving in together. It signified a point of clarity for this couple, the beginning of an official relationship.

It seems that in migration for love, the move is not incidental or just for practical reasons, but becomes part of a wider, more public declaration.  Jim moved from the US to Brussels to be with Sabine. While the move for him was enough of an indication of his feelings, Sabine felt it strange that he would move across the world and not want to live together. For both Jim and Sabine, the migration was a significant marker of their status as a couple, but one which they understood as having different ramifications. For Jim, it is the migration itself which indicated his commitment.

Another couple, Jennifer and Mubarak, split up because Mubarak did not want to move. When Jennifer and Mubarak met, they were both living in Africa. They agreed that they wanted to move to Europe to continue their relationship and Jennifer returned to start preparations for their life in Brussels. Mubarak encountered a number of difficulties with his visa, but  in the end he decided that he did not want to move. They tried a long distance relationship and got engaged. Jennifer ended the relationship after four years, as she felt that his decision not to move to Brussels revealed his lack of commitment to the relationship.

For these migrants, moving, or not, is framed entirely within the context of their relationship and has significant meaning for its advancement. Migration is more than a practical way to overcome distance. It is a declaration of intentions for the relationship, of commitment and of surety. The significant upheaval involved in migrating because of a relationship is seldom interpreted by the State as a sign of commitment. There are without doubt numerous people who move with no intention that signifies anything for their relationship. And yet the negotiations of cultural, linguistic, and gustatory boundaries can be indicators of much more than a desire to travel.