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?
Professor Emily Impett and graduate student Rebecca Horne at The Relationships and Well-Being (RAW) lab at the University of Toronto have already started! We are launching a longitudinal study that tracks couples before, during, and after a relocation. If you’re in a relationship and relocating in the upcoming year for your or your partner’s career, click this link. This link will take you to our study advertisement that will give you a brief introduction to the study, what you’ll receive for participating if you choose to do so, and how you can contact our research team. We look forward to hearing from you to help us better understand how couples can successfully navigate this major life transition!
1Marshall, E. L., & Greenwood, P. (2002, April). Setting corporate policy to meet the changing definition of family. Mobility Magazine.
2Whitaker, E. (2010). Where everybody knows your name: The role of social capital in resettlement after an employee relocation. Community, Work & Family, 13, 429-445.
3Baldridge, D. C., Eddleston, K. A., & Veiga, J. F. (2006). Saying no to being uprooted: The impact of family and gender on willingness to relocate. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 79, 131-149.
4Harvey, M. G. (1995). The impact of dual-career families on international relocations. Human Resource Management Review, 5, 223-244.
5Lê, J., Tissington, P., & Budhwar, P. (2010). To move or not to move – A question of family? The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 21, 17-45.
5Challiol, H., & Mignonac, K. (2005). Relocation decision-making and couple relationships: A quantitative and qualitative study of dual-earner couples. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26(3), 247-274.
6Roderick, M. J. (2012). An unpaid labor of love: Professional footballers, family life, and the problem of job relocation. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 36, 317-338.
Leanne is a fourth-year undergraduate psychology student at the University of Toronto, working under Dr. Emily Impett in her Relationships and Well-being Lab. Emily’s research focuses centrally on understanding when and for whom “giving” in the context of close relationships helps, and when it hurts. Leanne shares her desire to learn about motivations underlying the sacrifices partners take in their relationships, and individual regulation of their emotions that arise when making relationship decisions.