Moving across borders for love

By Caitlin Kelly

I fell in love in September 1986 when I opened my downtown Montreal apartment door to a tall, bearded, blue-eyed medical student from New Jersey, whose name, (which I won’t reveal) is shared with a cocktail. (No, not Tom Collins!)

But the week before we met, and we were soon seriously discussing marriage — a first, for me — he had accepted a four-year residency position in New Hampshire, a 3.5 drive south.

Statue of Liberty National Monument, Ellis Isl...
Statue of Liberty National Monument, Ellis Island and Liberty Island, Manhattan, in New York County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh, and in another country.

I was extremely lucky. As the unmarried child of an American citizen, my mother, I was able to get a green card quickly and easily and move to the United States legally to join him. Even more unlikely, I found a three-month, well-paid journalism job in theΒ  same small town as his program.

English: the forests in new hampshire in autumn
English: the forests in new hampshire in autumn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But after it ended, reality hit. Hard.

I had no friends, family, income, history or job prospects. He was rarely home, and when he was home was exhausted and grouchy. The huge gang of lovely friends he’d made in Montreal? Gone and not replaced with anyone new.

Instead, homesick and bored, I commuted those 3.5 hours north every Monday for three months to teach journalism back in Montreal.

After 18 months of miserable, lonely, broke, isolated and career-threatening rural life, we moved to suburban New York.

We married three years later — and he walked out two years after that.

Anyone who moves to a foreign country for love takes an incredible leap into the unknown.

I know that several Broadside readers have, or are about to, done this. I also know it’s worked out well for two of them, and I have my fingers tightly crossed for Ashana.

But good Lord it’s scary!

Maybe not for other people.

It was for me. I remember, as if it was yesterday, feeling like a raindrop falling into the ocean. At 30, I was leaving a country in which I’d built a good national reputation as a journalist. I was leaving behind dear friends, a culture I knew intimately and liberal social and political values I mostly shared.

I was leaving behind a country whose entire population is that of New York State, barely 10 percent of the United States. How could I ever re-establish an identity or a career?

Seal of New York.
Seal of New York. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before I married the first time, (worried on several counts), I consulted a local lawyer — $350/hour in 1992 — to ask what, if anything, I would get in alimony or support if we divorced. Zip! Nada! Rien!

Wow. Since I was very far from home and wasn’t working and didn’t have a place to run back to in case…

Good thing I asked, and demanded a pre-nuptial agreement that allowed me to stay in my home and re-establish myself financially after two years of not working.

Had I not made that scary cross-border leap, I would not have published two books on complex national American issues, written 100+ stories for The New York Times, met my lovely second husband or enjoyed my river-view apartment.

But…it’s been quite a bumpy ride. I’m lucky I still have dear friends back in Toronto and other parts of Canada I’m in close touch with, and visit a few times a year. I am rarely homesick, but I do miss some cultural touchstones and a shared history.

I also still struggle mightily with the power here of the religious right, their relentless assault on women’s reproductive freedoms and laissez-faire American capitalism, which enriches so many so effectively — and buries millions more in low-wage jobs and medical fear and debt.

Have you changed countries for love?

Would you?

How has it turned out?

37 thoughts on “Moving across borders for love

  1. I don’t think I would leave my country for love. This is a big leap into the unknown as you say. And personally, I would have a lot to lose if I leave my country.

  2. Alexander, Martini, Wolfram? Please don’t say Harvey.

    Yes, I did move to another country for love. More to the point: Another language. HA! Now that’s where challenge lies. Scary? No.

    Thirteen years into our marriage we called it a day. Amicably. Everyone assumed that I’d take my four year old son and move back “home”. Seventeen years on I am still here. For many reasons. And, no, ‘love’ – of the romantic kind – has nothing to do with it.

    I am lucky. As long as I am wherever it is I am at home. Mind you, I dare say, the moon would challenge even me.


    1. I had been gone from Canada for only six years then, but didn’t want to lose my green card by leaving. Nor could I see what I would be going back to, or why. I wonder how many divorcees do repatriate.

  3. I will be moving to the US soon to marry my fiance, and I’m excited! As well as my fiance, I have some good friends over there from university, and relatives who emigrated from Scotland in the past, so I’m lucky in that I already have a small support network to build on. I’ve studied abroad in the US and worked in China, and as a result crossing borders doesn’t worry me too much – life is what you make it!

  4. My brother moved to France to be with his now-wife. Didn’t know a bit of French but now is fluent. He’s been over there for over three years now and is very happy!

  5. Ms Mond

    When I read your blog, I see someone who has a pretty eventful life! But how do you handle things not working out quite the way you want them to, like moving to another country for a relationship that was ultimately unsuccessful? I mean, weren’t you scared? How did you deal with that?

    1. It was hell, actually. πŸ™‚

      I guess, given the eventful childhood I’d already had as an only child, (details too complex for public discussion), I was fairly used to emotional upheaval and getting through sudden surprises without much help. I was very sad, as I took those vows seriously. I had not been working, and had very few friends. It was very difficult. But I had no huge desire to move back to Toronto after being gone from there for eight years and I had always wanted to make my name in American publishing. (even in a very small way), so that goal remained intact even if my husband was gone. And, frankly, anyone stuck in a really unhappy marriage feels some relief that that hell is over.

      A fresh start is a good thing — and I had a FANTASTIC boyfriend within three weeks. Two, in fact. πŸ™‚

      I wasn’t scared, per se: I had alimony so I wouldn’t be starving and homeless. The only thing that has ever scared me is some horrible cancer and early death. The rest…I can figure it out.

  6. Caitlin, I met my American husband in 1971 when he had been transferred up to Hamilton to work. His girlfriend in the U.S. refused to move to Canada with him – lucky me! We had even bought our first house in Canada, lived there nine months and then he was transferred back. We were already married and I knew that eventually he would go back to the U.S. I was ready to go with him. I left everything I knew because I loved him so much but it took awhile (you know what I am talking about) to make friends here. I even missed my dysfunctional family for a few years; it was hard to let go and I remained a Canadian citizen for decades because that was my identity. I have no regrets at all, but like you, it is hard to take some of the very conservative attitudes. My mouth hangs open at the interference by Big White Men in the rights of women, already established by Constitutional Amendment. The growing disparity of wealth just gets bigger every day.

    1. It’s really helpful to know another Canadian who has had some of these challenges…The fantasy is that America and Canada are SO similar, but in many ways I feel like coming to the U.S. meant losing about 95% of my feminist rights and expectations of fair and equitable behavior. I have never seen such sexist, entitled bullshit! My mouth drops open regularly as well…and what’s up with American women who don’t fight HARD for their rights?

      I know Canada has some of this BS as well, but it’s usually drowned out by left-liberals and feisty feminists. I miss both of those.

  7. Myself and my partner met at university in Manchester, which was one hour’s drive from his home town and about four and a half from mine. After university, I moved back to London to do a post-grad course and he worked for a year in his home town before moving from Sheffield to London to join me. We have now been together for almost ten years.

    We’re not married, and (surprise, surprise) not all that keen to rush into things. Instead of blowing our collective savings on a wedding (his parents are divorced, mine are separated, so it never seemed like such a great idea to force them all to be in the same room for an extended period surrounded by a lot of alcohol and people we would prefer to continue calling our friends), we supported each other through post-grad education and shared a tiny, rented two room flat filled to the brim with our collective, accumulated stuff (the usual – books, LPs, bits of computer, musical instruments, cooking pots, tools, bits of bicycle, sewing machines) for years while we saved to buy our first home. When we had finally scraped together enough of a deposit, we got the lawyers involved to draw up the relevant contractual paperwork to cover both the house purchase and equitable division of the assets in the event the relationship ever went South and we had to sell.

    Two years ago this week, we completed and I can happily squeak: having our own place is awesome!

    I have to say, I definitely think the lawyers were worth the time and money. It sounds deeply unromantic, but it was oddly satisfying to know that we both liked and respected each other enough to avoid leaving one of us financially crippled should the relationship break down. If we ever have kids or decide to get married, the paperwork will need to change, but for now this suits us.

    While the idea of taking huge risks because amor vincit omnia (love conquers all) is a beautiful concept and the root of many wonderful stories and even some relationships; given the strike rate of most of our married-divorced-remarried-redivorced friends, I am firmly in favour of a well-balanced pre-nup to protect both parties should the romance start to wane.

    1. Welcome to home ownership! It’s a great feeling to have your own place…enjoy!

      I admire your very clear-eyed understanding that a major financial commitment needs back-up. I know many people are horrified by the thought that love might not be enough…having seen my ex turn into someone I could not have recognized in his nastiness, been there, lived it and DAMN glad for a pre-nup with everything in writing.

      Once someone is no longer committed to a relationship (esp. if they’ve wandered off to someone else), you’re usually toast. My attitude is this — there will be another sweetie but I am NOT losing my home or financial assets to some tedious domestic drama. I need to survive it and move on, as do you.

      (Hoping, of course, you’ll be fine!)

  8. It was very prescient of you to get a pre-nup back in the day, Caitlin. Did you sense that this was not the love of your life? Canada went through a lot of adjustment in the early 70’s – so many immigrants who did not understand our culture and we did not understand theirs. Canada was very white; I only recall one young black man in our high school and the Native Canadians faded into the background. You can imagine what the influx of immigrants did to entrenched and bigoted white old school Canadians. Now, they have many of the same social ills as we do – heavy duty drug problems, poverty, uneducated young people and guns which were almost unheard of in my day. I left for love and along the way came to love this country but the goings on of the last few years, especially the internet snooping are very alarming.

    1. I was not as worried about my ex as his family of origin and their miserable marital patterns — his parents were very unhappy (and still married) and his older brother had abandoned two wives and two sets of small children. Not encouraging! Seeing that put me on high alert as it suggested (accurately) he had no role model for a good marriage and no family backup to insist he work out his issues instead of fleeing to the next wife. He had also said, very early, that he wanted a high-earning spouse (which No. 2 is) and I could never become — journalism never pays much unless you are a HUGE television star or anchor.

      My high school was like yours — I remember maybe a handful of Asians, no Hispanics and no blacks. Ironic that my husband is Hispanic!

      I don’t know that I love the U.S. I appreciate many things about my life here, but the toxicity of its politics/policies and the income divide are horrifying to me. I enjoy my life and find it more interesting than if I’d stayed in Toronto. It’s too small a place.

  9. I didn’t move to another country for love, but it felt like another country. After getting married and finishing grad school, I moved from Colorado to North Carolina. Colorado felt like a place where people struggled to be better and to be active, inside and outside. OK, that was Denver, at least. In NC, people seemed to acquiesce and, while generally friendly, not let outsiders into their lives. The marriage ended (she’s happily with the woman she had the affair with), I broke, I started to heal, returned to Colorado with a treasure of a woman from NC. Although it should have been more familiar, it felt stranger than my childhood stint living in Germany. Still, I grew and, some day, my ‘scars’ will evolve cool-sounding stories.

    1. Interesting…

      Different regions of the same country can indeed feel like foreign countries. I have only lived in NE USA: NH and NY. I’ve visited many other states, NC included (not Colorado yet) and can tell I would never do very well in some of them. Even NH was very difficult after urban, sexy, multi-culti Montreal where I moved from.

    2. Me too, David! I moved from Berkeley, CA, to Texas for a girl. It really is like a different country. I have been here 20 years and still often feel like an outsider. I have a great life here, though. We’ve been married 18 years and have 2 kids.

  10. I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for love and you can take that figuratively as well as literally. My wife and I had been married almost 7 years when we moved from Ireland to her native Australia in 2010. It was, and continues to be, a challenging move for both of us.

    We still haven’t found a similarly successful work/life balance to the one we enjoyed in Ireland but other positives have emerged to almost counter the negatives. I think a huge part of your happiness is connected to either a desire to recreate old patterns or the willingness to try and create a new paradigm. That said, some cultural differences are hard to stomach and no easier to bypass. Local orthodoxies of thought are always tricky as they have a way of defining your options.

    In other news, I am currently reading and very much enjoying ‘Malled’. Lots of recognition!

    1. That is one hell of a move! I am very spoiled in being able to go “home” to Canada several times a year, crossing the border within 5 hours’ drive. I admit, I would find it difficult to leave old friends/family a 20-hour+ flight away.

      You’re right. If you insist on things being as they were in a totally different country, misery ensues. I had always wanted to live in the States, and try to make my bones in NY publishing, so that goal was always clear to me. I also really prefer some American behaviors and attitudes — they are very open to new ideas and people, while Canadians are often exasperatingly fearful about moving in any direction involving risk…i.e. anywhere new.

      Glad you’re enjoying Malled!

  11. I’ve never loved, but if its truly love wouldn’t they be your home? I know that sounds like a naive child’s affair of the heart, but isn’t that what love is? Young and naive. People take chances on love every day and for some reason these chances fuel love. The bigger the leap the stronger I guess. Not that these things always work out, but love is chance. I think….

    1. In theory, sure.

      In reality, you are *not* going to spend 24/7 with them. They work, you work. They have friends, you need friends. With a major move, you may need to re-create many aspects of your identity — I suppose, the less of one you have, the easier it is. I left Canada at 30, leaving behind a lot that mattered dearly to me. Few “loves” can replace an entire life. It’s far too much pressure.

      1. Of course, and I personally don’t know Id leave a nice life for a mirage of something that could be. I guess I just mean if you calculate these things they sound more like a nuisance. Love and life have a lot of factors none the less, but what makes love so special and strong to move for it? Is it something I have yet to experience or understand. Is it just a chemical in your brain that is stronger in others that makes them throw logic out? Ah so many questions. Very confusing if you ask me. Also I wonder if there are different degrees of love…. How do we know if we’re merely settling. Sorry for my babbling its a subject that’s been heavy on my mind these past few weeks.

      2. Lots of questions and everyone is different…

        Some people are much more impulsive than I and would just GO with no second thoughts. I think the only smart way to “move for love” (unless you are married or engaged) is to have a steady base of your own support — a job (or freelance work lined up); significant savings (i.e. to move elsewhere if you need to; to rent your own space, etc.); good health. Flinging yourself into someone’s lap is not smart. They can drop you.

  12. I left Australia to live and work in Vietnam in 2009. On the way I stopped by Singapore where I met my now husband. Six months after meeting we starting dating. I tried to get a job in Singapore but couldn’t. So he sold his motorbike, left his job and moved to Vietnam. He couldn’t get work in Vietnam and we were at a loss if what to do. Eventually I got a job offer in Singapore so we both moved back in Singapore. Then my partner had to find work again in Singapore. When he did, it took him to Germany for 3 months so I was left in a country I never planned to work in with no reason for being there. It was a very trying time. Eventually he came home. We are now happily married and still in Singapore. Maybe it’s risky but that’s what life is about for me. Some people find happiness and contentedness in familiar surrounds. I enjoy adventure and risks… But I also appreciate routine and seemingly non-eventful days too after such a lot of craziness.

  13. Gilraen

    I moved countries a few times. Only the last time love was a factor, but not the main reason. I was in the process of moving to Europe, he had nothing to do with that choice. The choice for the Netherlands was in part because of him (the other part was my because of my parents). Moving to the Netherlands was also moving to my homecountry, with the advantage of having a bit of a network there. After 10 years away the network was seriously diluted though
    As it was my 6th time moving over borders I knew I could do it on my own I knew that if it would not work out the move still could.

    Despite the advantage of moving to my own country it was not in my home area. I worked hard to find my own space within this community, not wanting to be totally reliant on him, his network and friends. I felt it was important to get myself established as a person, not the GF of…. I found work quickly so that was not an issue for me.
    Something I would recommend anybody moving for love; find your life outside just that what pulled you there. Not only work, but hobbies and sports help too and if it involves a different language; learn it! It takes time, at least a year, probably more.
    For us it worked out fine. We’ve been together over 6 years married over 4.

    1. So true. The more you have your own interests and identity, the easier it can be to adapt to all the other changes. I worry about people who just “hope for the best” with no forethought.

  14. Thanks for the mention and the good wishes. Keep crossing those fingers.

    I’m a bit of a weirdo. I had the destination in mind first. Then made friends and found a partner there. I guess I wanted to ease the shock of the transition for myself.

    Country X is intended as a stepping stone. It could turn out to be a wobble or a side-trip. We’ll just have to see. Let’s hope however it turns out, I’ll enjoy it.

    1. Actually, this is familiar. I wanted desperately to move to the U.S. but am not sure I would ever have had the guts to just GO, even after a very good job interview in my 20s with a big U.S. paper.

      Falling in love with an American helped. It was NOT a plan, but it worked out.

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