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

Anywhere but there


Deciding where to live involves a number of considerations, and when moving means migrating to another country those factors might be things like  which languages are spoken there, and proximity to our families. The importance of these things might alter over the course of an individual’s lifetime. At some points people might prioritise school systems for their young children, at others they might be more interested in job prospects, and sometimes it’s the weather and lifestyle that they are after.

Many of the love migrants I’ve interviewed have felt that they could live pretty much anywhere in Europe. There was no allegiance to any particular city or country; Berlin, Brussels, Barcelona were, as one participant put it, ‘the same, but slightly different’. In terms of culture, while there are certainly local ways of doing things, these don’t seem to have much impact on many of the mobile people I’ve spoken to. Lots of them speak two or more languages, which must help. There also seems to be a strong feeling that, in European cities, so many people speak English, that it is easy to move around within this international, global strata of the migrant community.

And there are times when only matters of the heart are what decides. An interesting restriction which couples are self imposing on where they will or will not move to, is based on their past love relationships. The assertion that they could more or less live in any European city was made by one couple, who also said that Paris was off limits because one of them  had lived there with a previous partner. This, in fact was the only definite limit which they placed on where they could potentially live. They had similar thoughts about choosing which city to get engaged in, as they wanted to find a place which was ‘theirs’. Maria didn’t want their relationship overshadowed by feelings which might linger from other relationships.

I mentioned in a previous post, the importance which place had for one couple. They needed an anonymous, international city like London to be able to foster their relationship. So, whether it is the feeling a relationship has  in a particular place, or if it’s a need to preserve a sense of newness, or to keep the ‘us-ness’ of a place the relationship between place is strong. Love, it seems, is an important force which compels people to move, or stay, and guides them in where they want to go.

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.