Should I Stay or Should I Go? Understanding Relationship Relocation

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Imagine you are in a highly satisfying long-term relationship. Your partner just told you they have received the job opportunity of a lifetime, and you’re absolutely thrilled to hear this news. The only issue is that the job is halfway across the country. After much back and forth about this new opportunity, you and your partner go to sleep and vow to talk about it in the morning. But now it’s midnight, and you’re wide awake, thinking about all of the unknowns and ‘what ifs’ looming ahead. Finally, as you do with all crucial decisions in this modern age, you decide to consult the internet, hoping for a simple answer to such a complicated question: what will happen to our relationship if I relocate for my partner’s career?

This ‘should I stay or should I go’ relocation decision impacts an astonishing number of people in our increasingly globalized world. Approximately 1.1 million Americans are affected by employee transfers yearly, with 84% of domestically-transferred employees in the United States being married1,2. But anyone who has been or is in a relationship knows that this process can’t be as simple as packing a suitcase and getting on a plane together. The decision to relocate is not just dependent on the partner with the job opportunity (who we call the ‘relocater’), but also on the partner who accompanies them (who we call the ‘trailer’). Indeed, research has showed that the relocater’s decision to move for a job offer depends strongly on their partner’s willingness to accompany them3. This means that the trailer’s feelings towards the move could be a driving force for the couple’s decision to relocate. Seeing this, a logical next step for researchers would be to understand how trailers’ come to this decision in the first place. What does the relationship science say about what motivates trailer’s willingness to relocate?

The existing research on this topic has shown that trailers’ levels of relationship satisfaction (how happy they are in their relationship) and level of commitment (how much they want to stay in their relationship over time) may underpin their willingness to support the relocator during a relocation. Specifically, the happier and more devoted people are to their relationship, the more likely they are to make the decision to move with their partner4. After the relocation, trailers often experience stress from a loss of social support, as moving commonly brings with it the physical distancing from family and friends. They do often build new social connections with time, however, and this process is accelerated if they have their own job opportunities or befriend others who went through similar experiences2.

Although we have some insight into the experiences of the trailing partner, there is a stark lack of research on how relocation impacts the couple’s relationship as a whole. This is puzzling, as a relationship is obviously comprised of (at least) two people who do not operate in isolation from each other. As with all major life transitions, relocation is something partners negotiate and navigate together. If we know that moving is a huge life transition and that studying individual partner experiences may not provide us the whole relocation picture, then why aren’t we striving to change this in our science?

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