Life on the road is one of those grand adventures that everyone has opinions on. You’ve probably already digested all the comforting slices of wisdom pie: It’ll teach you empathy and humanity; it’ll teach you how to date; you’ll find yourself. We know these things to be factual — they’ve been well studied.
But the notion of travel-as-self-improvement comes with a massive asterisk: You have to be open to the idea of personal growth and change in the first place. You have to embrace the joy and the hardships. Because it’s tough out there on the road. Especially when it comes to love-while-traveling.
I left America in 2003. I found love on the road in 2004. Over 14 years, my partner and I lived in Moscow, Prague, Jakarta, Manchester, Los Angeles, and, finally, Berlin. In between, we traveled to well over 50 countries. We learned a lot about each other on those trips and learned even more by trying (and sometimes failing) to actually thrive in far-flung places.
Traveling with a partner amplifies everything. You’re no longer flying solo. Suddenly there’s someone there who can (and will) question your whims or desires. The whole dynamic changes. Then there’s that next step you can take: Living abroad together. When you decide to move to another country with your significant other, the end destination is the adventure. You’re untethering yourself from family, friends, and furniture for something wholly new. It can be terrifying.
What you learn on the road is whether or not you click with someone. What you learn by staking a claim somewhere foreign is whether that click means more than just an attraction. Whether it means you can work together, protect one another, and grow in thrilling ways together.
Here’s our recipe for success:
YOU TEST YOUR LIMITS AND SEE SOMEONE ELSE TEST THEM TOO
Fanciful culture and language are fun quirks to play with when you’re just passing through a place. When you live in that place, they can become insurmountable obstacles.
Having to deal with constant bribing in Russia will wear you down. Dealing with bartering for everything in markets in Indonesia is great fun when you’re there for a week or month. When you’re there for a year or more, it gets daunting.
[Pro-tip: have the cash in your hand that you’re willing to pay and offer it directly to the person selling. They’ll almost always take the cash once they see it.]
Little things start to get amplified in very different ways. Eating with your hands in Java is fun at first. After about two months, you may start longing to bring a fork and knife with you.
Everyone starts off living in a new and fun place by promising themselves they’re going to only eat at local joints and dive as deeply as they can into the local cuisine. Then one of you will break and a Chilis or Pizza Hut or McDonald’s will become part of your routine. Judge all you want, but it’s called comfort food for a very good reason.
The point here is that we all break when thrown into the deep end of new cultures. You will break. Your partner is going to break. Often over stupid little things like a knife and fork or just wanting some familiar fries or not wanting to have to barter for ten minutes to buy some sunglasses. Things wear you down when you live abroad. And it’s how you support each other and pick each other back up that strengthens your relationship and resolve.
The best way to fight your limits as a team: Take a language class together. Spending five, or so, hours a week with a common goal is one of the best ways to remind each other that you’re in this together. And, the progress you achieve by learning the local language will feel like a common victory that then makes living together in a foreign place that much easier to boot.
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YOU LEARN TO ARGUE
No two people are ever going to agree on everything. That transcends whether you’re at home in your native land or living abroad. Arguments happen over big issues like money and the stupidest little stuff like what to eat. That’s just life.
Arguing in another country is a little different. Each person is going to have individual expectations from living in a foreign land. From my experience, the lion’s share of the arguments are about those expectations. What changes when you’re abroad (especially in the beginning months) is that you’re there alone with your partner. It’s likely you haven’t built a social circle yet (or at least one that you’ll take relationship spats to) and you’ll be far away from family and comforting places you usually go. That just leaves the two of you to work your shit out.
You have to face each other. Yell it out. Find a solution. No one is there to tag in. That means it’s on you to find that common ground and figure out, directly, what each other want and need.
Of course, having a very frank and honest discussion about what you expect from a place and what you really are looking for is of paramount importance. You both need to be on the same page. The best-laid plans and expectations are the first to fail or be proven wrong. Which leads us to…
YOU LEARN TO LISTEN
In the excitement of moving to a new place, you start to say yes to a lot of things just to get there. It’s fun and exciting, and the thrill of embarking on a great new adventure can cloud your judgment and vision of everything around you.
Listening to what your partner expects is huge. Listening to them when what they expect isn’t there is even more important.
Not every place is going to live up to the hype. In fact, almost nowhere lives up to the hype. You are going to be disappointed. Your partner is going to be disappointed. How you come together and share your disappointment is crucial. Listen to each other complain and acknowledge it — even if you don’t agree. You don’t have to prove each other wrong, or even right, you just need to be there.
This is also imperative in deciding whether or not you’re going to stay somewhere. There are plenty of places that seem like the best place to move to that will grind you down and you’ll eventually want to leave. Don’t get stuck somewhere you hate because you can’t talk to your partner. Have that argument. Listen to each other. And make a plan to move forward.
YOU FIND OUT WHAT EACH OTHER TRULY LOVE IN LIFE
Being in a new country and exploring a new land, culture, and language fills you in. Every day is a new chance to embrace change and growth.
Choosing to live abroad is like a clean slate. You arrive at a place with a bag of clothes and some trinkets from home and start everything over. It’s a chance to hit reset in real life. Then, as time goes by, your wants and desires manifest. You make choices based on what you really want to put the time, effort, and money to acquire or do in a foreign land. Some activities will fall by the wayside, some will get amplified. Either way, you’ll be on your path.
You start to focus on the things you really love. As time goes on, your life abroad will start to fill with the creature comforts you left behind. You’ll each start to realize the artifacts and devices that meant the most to you back home and seek them out where you live. Maybe it’s something as simple as a mountain bike or Xbox, or it might be something big like a piano or drum kit. The point is that by taking everything away, you learn to value the things you have and the hobbies you love even more.
THERE’S NO HIDING
This might seem like the most obvious. But it’s very important. When you choose to move abroad with someone, you’re in it together. Hiding your feelings or qualms is not realistic when two people are living in a foreign land. Living abroad means you’ll be spending more time together than almost every other living situation domestically. Often times it even means you’ll be working together at the same place — so, expect to spend a lot more time together.
You’ll be at both your best and worst when you live abroad. You’ll be flummoxed, scared, and pissed off in front of the person you care about the most — and often when they’re experiencing one of those states too. Someone is always going to be there to see you at your lowest and vice versa. And, hopefully, they’ll help you get back up again.
Choosing to live abroad with someone is a huge leap of faith. Maybe your partner won’t be open to learning the language or just find it too much. Maybe they’ll turn out to be culturally insensitive. Or maybe it just doesn’t work out for a million different reasons. When you have no place else to go, you have to be honest with each other. Don’t hide from each other, especially when it’s only two of you in the situation in the first place.
You have to go through the motions together to either make a life in a new place or abandon ship and admit you weren’t cut out for it. Which takes us to the last point: Don’t be afraid to leave. Just make sure to talk about it and come to a conclusion together. Even if that means one of you is staying behind.
In the end, when you overcome the obstacles associated with living abroad, you come out the other end stronger and happier than before. You’ve learned how to communicate with each other. You’ve learned how to pick each other up when either of your falls down. You’ve tested each other and your relationship in deeply trying ways.
You’ve failed together. You’ve learned together. And, you made a new life … together.