By Megan Lillick
If you’re thinking about moving to a foreign country with your significant other, this article is meant for you. Or maybe you already made the leap with your lover. In that case, good for you! But know that this article is yours to read, too.
Use my experiences as a lesson on what not to do when moving abroad together. Or take this essay as a sign of relief, something that will give you comfort in knowing that you’re not the only person out there for going a bit insane during a big life change. It’s normal! Going through this kind of move will play with your emotions. The key is to do your best to stay positive through the inevitable cultural punches (and to have a back-up plan and set up a support team for when the road gets rough).
Anyway, I wanted to contribute this article for a couple reasons. The first, selfishly, was that I wanted to do a kind of journal entry to reflect on the past 33 months in Berlin with my partner. A “daaaaamn, look at how far we’ve come” revelational piece, if you will.
And secondly, I wanted to write an advice ‘esque’ column, the kind of thing I wish I had had and something that could give any couples a fair heads-up of what they might expect when moving overseas as a unit.
This is my struggle story, so bear with me. It’s not the most fun read, nor was it entirely pleasurable to write (I mean, who wants to relive bad memories, really). But I did it — again, for those aforementioned reasons but mostly for those couples (like you!) who are seriously contemplating moving abroad while keeping their healthy relationship in tact. Before you leave that happy place behind, it might be a good idea to think twice about what it will all look like.
So you’ve thought twice and even thrice? OK then, read on:
Before my partner and I decided to move abroad together, I had lived abroad before on my own. A couple of times, actually. Not because I was an army brat or a traveling nurse. I’ve lived in other countries simply because I wanted to. I guess that, when you combine a love of cultures with that “drive” that people refer to in interviews when they’re talking up their strengths, it’s a natural fit. Or so it seemed.
I was eager to move somewhere else, so I did whatever it took to get there (1). And once in these foreign countries, like moving anywhere new — whether just across state lines or all of the way across the Atlantic to a new continent — it wasn’t easy. It never is.
For my first two international moves, I went alone. I struggled to acclimate to the new cultures and make new friends, and I did it all on my own — at my own pace.
Moving to Berlin was different. I came here with my boyfriend. (Spoiler alert: He’s still my boyfriend.) I assumed this move would be immensely better, having a partner and all to get through the ups and downs of a new city with together. I was wrong.
It was much worse.
I blame my ego. I thought that because I had been there, done that all before, I’d be the positive force navigating us through the culture shock and bureaucratic bullshit. Nope.
Instead I was the one constantly complaining about e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g: the never-ending cold and dismal gray; dead deciduous trees; ear-splitting sirens; suffocating smoke in bars; our ground floor sublet that received zero sunlight; being jobless; the fact that I had to make and go to all these “amt” and “behörde” appointments by my lonesome not knowing more than five German words — one of those being “fenster,” which isn’t quite helpful when trying to make a case for residency — whereas my boyfriend had his employer’s Happiness Coordinator there to hold his hand and guide him through this.
“Must be nice,” I’d say to him bitterly — and quite often.
Must be nice to have your plane ticket to Berlin covered, I’d think. What a comforting feeling, holding a steady job and knowing that a paycheck was coming at the end of the month and that your health insurance was covered. Must be lovely to have lunch catered every single day and to have work colleagues to mingle with. Must be nice.
Looking back, I feel horrible for how much of a funk I was in when we were getting settled in Berlin. Not so much for being in a funk itself, as funks happen, but rather, I feel guilty for acting as I did, for being a Debbie Downer. She was the alter-ego who was slowly pulling us apart.
This was and still is crazy to fathom because, upon leaving our life behind in Seattle, we were absolutely happy. We were our best selves. That’s great, right? And, particularly given what I’ve already said, I’d get it if you even might want to ask why we’d want to leave something so great in the first place.
Well, for one, I think my boyfriend was a bit jealous that I had lived overseas before and he hadn’t. Maybe jealous isn’t the right word, but I had inspired him to join the bandwagon, and he was eager to drive it, too. And for another thing, we thought we could make our lives even better. Ha! How greedy we were.
We discussed wanting to live somewhere where there was an actual work-life balance, where traveling to other countries was affordable and easy, and perhaps where we could have the opportunity to learn another language.
Lastly, we were thinking long term about our future family. See, that’s how much we loved each other; we were future-proofing our lives together. We wondered where we could go in the world where we’d feel safe and taken care of by the government and its societal benefits, where our ideal community would be, where we could thrive.
So yeah, it was a joint decision and, we thought, a no-brainer to move to Europe. And the plan became that wherever my boyfriend got a job offer (2), I’d happily follow and find one upon arrival. It was a 90 day risk (3) that I was willing to take because I loved him, because we loved each other.
He got the offer in Berlin, and in a matter of weeks, we had sold all of our things in Seattle and packed up our never-live-withouts, like our cat (4) and our cycle race bibs and bikes. (Side note: We met each other during a bike race so, of course, this is the sentimental stuff we bring abroad.)
Fast forward to when we made it to our sublet in Berlin and when all of the previously mentioned bitterness happened. And there’s more …
On top of all that, when I finally was offered a job, I took it — but the pay was terrible, just barely minimum wage. I took it out of fear of not finding a job at all, knowing that in a worse-case scenario, I could be deported without work. In hindsight, I should’ve waited it out for something better, less early-age startup-y. Because in a matter of months, it burnt me out completely. I was constantly working overtime, which caused me incredible stress and resulted in me making my partner my emotional punching bag. Not at all fair to him, especially after putting up with Manic Meg for those first few months in Berlin.
You might be wondering how the hell our relationship survived such a move and the stress of settling in. Well, here’s how:
We talked ... a lot. In fact, we had what we called “check-in talks” to gauge our feelings and see how we could support the other in the moment. We stopped blaming each other for stress and chalked it up to the hustle of the big city. And, to be honest, during it all, we even broke up. But it wasn’t too long before we realized we were meant to be. It’s not every day you find someone who wants to move across the globe and go on an adventure with you. ;)
I will say that, blinded by the bitterness, it was hard to see the strength of our relationship during those first months here, but now our relationship has proved its resilience. I love my partner for his understanding and patience. I love him for his level head, for being able to balance me out when I got (and sometimes still get) into existential crises.
I’d like to leave you with a few pointers to help you keep it together, together if and when you move abroad:
Don’t be bitter. Be besties. You and your partner are in this together. You’re each other’s best friends in a new city. Know that you’ll acclimate at different paces, so be patient and understanding of the other’s struggles with the culture, just as besties would.
But don’t expect your partner to be your only support. Find a group. Enrol in German classes or attend your favorite hobby-related Meetups. Both are sure-fire ways to make new friends and to give you much-needed outlets.
Network. If you’re like me and followed your partner to a new land because he or she got the gig, don’t sulk on the couch. Get out there! There are so many networking events on any given night. Go by yourself or grab your tribe and rock those elevator pitches together!
Get professional help. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Mental health is your health, so take care of yourself. Personally, I found that talking to a third-party professional (5) really helped me out of my funk(s).
Keep your head up. There will be times when you'll feel defeated. Like when you receive rejection email after rejection email from apartment and job apps, or when you get yelled at by an old German for crossing the street when you shouldn’t have. Whatever the trigger, know it’s part of the experience and lean on your significant other for support and comic relief. You’ll definitely do the latter and laugh in due time. (“Remember when we had to go to East Jesus for an appointment to make an appointment?! …And we thought Germans were all about efficiency! Hahaha!”)
(1) My first stint abroad was in Spain to learn Spanish. I was 26. Some might consider this old to study abroad, but I didn’t care. I knew if I didn’t go then, I’d regret it, as it was always a dream of mine to become fluent in the language. The student visa allowed me to go for a year. Several years later, my company had a LATAM satellite office in Chile, and I made it clear from day one that when the opportunity came to move between offices, I’d be eager to go. The time came, and I went.
(2) This was because I knew that, being in tech, he'd have a better chance of getting an offer than I did in marketing. Highly skilled labor where workers are in demand versus the competitive job market in marketing.
(3) As a US citizen, we’re only allowed to be in the EU for 90 day stints unless we have a work visa or student visa.
(4) Don’t worry PETA, she was one of my carry-ons.
(5) A Grinberg Method specialist is who I go to, and I couldn’t recommend her or the method more.
Megan comes from Midwest USA (St. Louis, Missouri to be exact). Since then she's zigzagged across the globe — living on two other continents and in three more countries — chasing her dream jobs and getting her culture and travel fix. She began her career in the ad industry as a copywriter and has pivoted into international marketing over the years. For fun, Megan loves spending time in the great outdoors; hiking, biking, or simply just relaxing by a campfire with good company. At the moment, she resides in Berlin with her boyfriend, Eric, and tuxedo cat, Puffin.