My generation has a problem
“My girlfriend,” said the boy typing away on his phone, “She’s in Canada.” I snuck a peek at the screen and could see he was sending a video of the impressive piano rendition we were all listening to. “When are you seeing her next?” I asked. “In ten days.” And his face beamed.
My generation has a problem. Well, of course, it has many. Like every next generation, we bear the burden of the failures of the generations before: climate change, strained international relations, a western culture prone to materialism, obesity and alcoholism, and pressing issues of poverty and inequality the world around. But my generation has a defining problem, which I believe is unique to our explosively mobile and international lives: we are navigating new rules of love and relationships.
If a century ago people died within ten kilometers of where they were born, today we grow up, fall in love and create a home in different states, countries, and sometimes on different continents. Only one of my close friends lives in the city she was born in, with a boyfriend from the same area, within walking distance of members of her family. My mom dreams of it and calls it “being able to come over for dinner in slippers.” Most everyone else I know is on their way to a multicultural family with kids likely to be fluent in two languages before the age of six. I’m anticipating some interesting baby name arguments.
Unfortunately the reality is far from a sunlit Benetton commercial dream. Before we all have our mixed-race multi-cultural polyglot kids we have to navigate a world of heartbreak and adaptation and make decisions we didn’t quite prepare for in school. I’ve felt acutely through my own experience and through the experiences of my friends that every important life move in our twenties is often closely tied with a decision about love. There are no clean breaks in love.
When we left home to go to university and then left university to join a tough job market we had to assess the importance of our relationships and their chance of survival across time and distance. We had to perform cost-benefit analysis on our feelings to figure out whether what we’d be getting by investing in a relationship would be more valuable than what we’d have to give up. And when the numbers didn’t add up, we had to face the fact that the person we thought meant everything would be going through life with someone else someday. And I know from experience that’s a tough truth to stomach, even when your own life has brought you to fascinating places, fulfilling jobs and inspiring encounters with people and cultures you knew nothing about. There are no clean breaks in love.
From egoists to victims
In college I used to think that the main culprit for our difficulty in love was the essence of international living, in which everyone is a transplant adventurer at any given time prone to leave one place in order to pursue a career, passion or whim somewhere else. Egoism of sorts, nurtured over years of institutionally encouraged individualism and an obsession with the pursuit of new and better opportunities.
But as university life gradually trickled into real live, I realized that there are external factors we have far less control over that can much more decisively break up or significantly tax a relationship. These external factors are more stringent, unforgiving and mysterious than religion, I’ve come to realize, and overcoming them can sometimes be harder than switching faiths. Immigration is the death of romance for twenty first century lovers.
In The Green Card Gérard Depardieu married Andie MacDowell in order to be able to remain in the country after his visa expired. It was an odd concept to me as an early teen, even more so when my mom explained that there existed an industry for visa marriages, something I couldn’t imagine anyone I knew doing, be it for love or compensation. Now in my mid-twenties, I am very little surprised by surprise marriages. The number of people I encounter who marry their significant others prematurely for reasons of documentation or work is growing. In the international world of these couples marriage is as much a strategic move to ensure the continuation of the relationship in the face of harsh economic and immigration policies, as it is a romantic expression of two people’s official commitment to each other before the law.
The trouble is that as soon as you have to prove you’ve been a couple for two years, submit photos and text messages as evidence and employ your friends as regular witnesses to establish the validity of your relationship, romance goes out the door. Of course it can be done. Of course some (or many!) of these couples will be happily married for years and the need to do it now has only sped up a natural process already in motion. Still, I can’t help but see a distortion in relationships that fundamentally changes our perceptions of what it means, or takes, to be in love today.
At some point in the following weeks I met the Canadian girlfriend of the boy sitting next to me at that piano bar. She came to visit him in London and he brought her to dinner at a friend’s house. Between dips into the bowl of homemade guacamole someone thought it appropriate to ask, “So, when are you moving to London?”
Only someone who has never been in a similar situation can ask that sort of question lightly. As someone who has, I felt my heart fold like a napkin for her and for him and for the conversations they had doubtlessly had or would have in the future. But she said coolly, “We are considering it,” and sipped her wine.
Relationships have changed. It seems like it costs more to be in love. Every new opportunity puts pressure to assess, defend and fight for what we think matters. Yet, maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe love should be difficult. Maybe making the wrong choice has been too easy and having to frequently re-affirm our position in a relationship helps us get out of a dead-end street before it’s too late. And when we do make it out with that special person, each bruise will shine like a war wound that’s also a war medal.
(This piece is part of the essay collection Love in a Time of International Living, available on Amazon)