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.


‘I think I need to be somewhere else’: Small towns, big cities and love migration


The anonymity of big cities is sometimes thought to have a negative impact on personal relationships. It has become a cliché that city life makes meeting people more difficult, that people in cities don’t have such meaningful interactions as those in smaller communities. Whether or not city life means we are less likely to know our neighbours, place is important in our lives. In terms of our love relationships the places we love in might affect how we experience them, and how they develop. One couple I spoke to about their migration, discussed the differences for them between living in a small town and a big city.

Olivia and Emilio met in London when Emilio came to take English lessons over 10 years ago and Olivia was his teacher for a short time. Their relationship developed over a number of years through visits and email communication. After about three years, Olivia moved to be with Emilio in his hometown in Spain. They lived in a house owned by Emilio’s parents with a large balcony which they enjoyed eating on everyday, despite the blazing hot sun.

It was a small town. Emilio’s job in local government, as well as having grown up there meant that he knew lots of people. As he put it ‘if I went to the street [and] I saw 20 people, I [had] met 18 of them’, exemplifying just how many people in that community he knew. Part of local life was to greet people in the street who were friends of the family, which was difficult for Olivia as they knew who she was, but she didn’t know them. Emilio knew that this was making Olivia feel ‘stressed’. Her own description of that time, ‘I felt totally claustrophobic’ pinpoints how the close social connections which her partner had were influencing her own emotional state.

She found that she needed to visit London more and more frequently. During the final year of her three-year stay in Spain, she spent more time in London than in Spain. She contrasted the way in Spain people were very talkative, with the  anonymity she felt in London, ‘I’m very English in that respect and have been like a very anonymous, reserved person in London so kind that was full on as well’. Olivia points out that it wasn’t Spain – the climate, the space which she found difficult, but the way she needed to adapt to be able to fit in there. As she points out though, ‘you don’t necessarily wanna fit in if it means you have to change your total personality’, suggesting that there are limits to how much adaptation might be possible.  The social milieu which she found herself in was overwhelming and while in Spain something which ran through her mind was, ‘I think i need to be somewhere else’.

For Olivia and Emilio, living in London has less security and predictability than their lives in Spain, but it seems to have given them space for the relationship. Place appears to be vital for this couple, not in terms of the geographical and physical sense of the space, but in the ways which the social networks surround them.  Once they had made the decision to move to London, Olivia says that people often told her she was ‘mad’ to be leaving the sunny climes, but these factors were not enough to overcome the tough social negotiations.  Referring to London, she said,  ‘for me, in the relationship, I felt I needed to be here’, showing how the place itself is not simply an environment to live in, but is perhaps important to the relationship itself. It also suggests that the ‘anonymous’ setting of a big city is not detrimental to love relationships.



One of the most motivating aspects of doing the fieldwork for this project is that there is loads of public interest, despite it being Phd research which can be quite dry and off-putting. The comments which I get about this being interesting and worthwhile research from the people I meet continually validates my reasons for doing the research in the first place; namely that while economics, politics, and transport links are factors in people’s decisions to move (or not), those factors are almost always weighed up in conjunction with the outcomes they will have on personal relationships. Transport links take you somewhere and who or what is at the other end of the line is key to deciding whether those links qualify as good or not to you.

The project appeals to a wide array of people and one reason for that is there are a multitude of different understandings of love. There are numerous kinds of relationships which involve love – parents and children, friendship, siblings – they are just a few examples of relationships which can involve love and loving (and annoyance, and jealousy, and tedium etc.). No matter how I define love in the academic context, and there is a rather convoluted definition in the official outline of the project which tries to pin it down to the sort of thing we might call ‘couple’ love (though that is too short a definition for academics).

This was brought home to me the other day when I was talking to an Italian man who moved to Brussels because his wife was coming here to work. When I suggested that he was a love migrant, he was surprised, and, pointing to his wedding ring, told me that ‘this’ (meaning his marriage) was not the same as love. He felt that once married, obligation and duty become more salient and that his case was not romantic enough for the way he understood the Love Migration Project (though I beg to differ).

I was talking to another man who had found a job in Europe and his wife and young children had come with him to live here. This fits in to research which often terms this ‘trailing spouse’, where one partner (often the wife) follows the other. But what he said was that he had looked for this job in the first place because his wife was unhappy in the US. As he saw it, he left his old job and moved continents so that she and his children could also do that. In other words love could be seen as a ‘push’ factor in his migration.

One woman I spoke to explained in great detail how she had followed her partner to several different countries, as he had to move around so much for his job. She has been doing this for over twenty years. The couple have lived together at some points in their relationship, and at other times they have lived separately in the the same country, and in different countries. Despite upping and leaving several times to be near(er) to her partner, she did not see herself as a love migrant because she found work in the places she moved to.

The ways which people identify (or not) with the project are endlessly fascinating and hearing how people understand what I’m doing is hugely valuable. As these people’s stories indicate that there is more to it than categorising migrants in terms of ‘trailing spouse’ or ‘labour migrant’ and shows how important personal life is in people’s decisions to migrate.

Your Stories So Far


It seems like a gloomy day to be hunting for love stories, but it turns out there are plenty out there. Brussel-ites are certainly amorous. The response has been marvellous. That there have been responses in what is only day two of the project is quite wonderful.

Thanks, Brussel-ites.

Keep them coming!

Googled to the Face

Business cards make a difference

When I started this project, there wasn’t a website and I didn’t have any business cards. I must admit that I had thought that business cards were a bit of a pretentious waste of time. This is partly because my experience of business cards is that they just sit at the bottom of your bag, or in your pocket gathering dust and you can’t remember why you would want to contact that particular person ever again. I can’t remember a time when I’ve used a business card to contact someone, and when I have needed to find out more about a person or place for most of my adult life I’ve been able to use Google.

As I began my fieldwork, I found myself at various ‘expat’ events with a view to finding participants and to publicise the project. In this sort of networking event you need to be able to tell people what you’re doing in less than a minute, because if you don’t grab their attention, the waiter circulating with the tepid cava certainly will. It was at one of these events that I realised the words ‘phd research’ cannot compete with a tray of free plonk, and quickly re-vamped the project with a more catchy name. Thus the Love Migration Project was born.

What I then realised is that once attention is being paid, there is the possibility that someone might want to know more. Queue Google. I hadn’t anticipated that people would be Googling me to my face, though, but once I realised that this is exactly what was happening, and that they were not impressed with what they were finding, I knew I had better get my web presence sorted out.

This blog, still very much in an embryonic form, is one result of that networking encounter, one which I hopefully will serve as a public face for the project as well as a place for people to do an online survey. After that networking affair, I also got some business cards sorted out, which is probably quite useful, but as yet I am still in the process of working out at what point to hand one over.

Ethical Responsibilities

After rather a lot of filling in of forms, my research got ethical approval a couple of weeks ago. This sort of approval is necessary to stop the kind of terrible research which used to take place with complete and utter disregard for the participants (usually known as subjects to minimise the fact that they were human), so the forms need to be waded through for good reason. What I was struck by was how much of the approval is about how the information, data, material will be collected and how little consideration is given to what might be done with it.

Most university ethics departments insist on some sort of anonimisation of interview transcripts, which is intended to protect the respondents. This usually involves taking out names and any other key information which could mean that the person could be identified by a reader, so if I use a synonym instead of a participant’s real name and then mention that they prefer the view from their bedroom at Buckingham Palace to that at Sandringham, I haven’t really done my bit. But making something anonymous is more complicated than just replacing key words. The amount and type of information which needs to be changed depends on the particular research and the participants. This means that making information anonymous can only ever go so far. In the case of my research if someone tells me their highly unique life story, it might be difficult to present that in its entirety without others who knew then being able to work out that its their story.

Their are other problems with this sort of ethical practice. Some participants don’t want their stories to be anonymous; they want their name on their work, so to speak. If they give what is often called informed consent to have their words attributed to their name, perhaps researchers should not be too worried. After all, research which is political in nature or deals with stories of resistance, for instance, might attract people who want their stories to be told so they can contribute to wider debates. And that must surely be their right. But what happens if their situation changes and revealing their identity is no longer the most apt thing to do? Should researchers insist on anonymity to protect participants from their future selves, perhaps? This is not an easy question to answer as one way seems to deny people the right to decide for themselves, and puts the researcher in the position of ‘the one who knows better’, and the other way does leave open the possibility for participants to regret their actions and cause potential embarrassment or worse.

So, much effort is made to try to help people understand what is involved in taking part in research. But it seems to me we might take this a little further. There is little to say how researchers might analyse the information, and few if any restrictions. Once ‘gathered’, this ‘data’ seems to be, in the eyes of the ethics department, the sole possession of the researcher. For many, this is unproblematic, but for those researchers who take the view that interviews are co-constructed, that is, the participants have a key role in creating the ‘data’, should they not be allowed to have a say about how it is later discussed, or analysed?

Perhaps, then, the involvement of participants should not stop when the interview does. Academic research might adopt some of the forms of interactive discussion which journalism has undergone, where articles are open for comments. Many researchers have done this by writing about their research in public spaces, such as blogs. Others have taken the step of asking participants to comment on drafts of chapters. While there may be no space for this on an ethical approval form, knowing that ‘they’ will read what ‘we’ write is perhaps the right ethical direction.