Love or Something Like It

 |  July 29, 2013

One of the perks of living abroad and travelling means you’re meeting a whole world of people who you might otherwise never have known existed. The opportunities for connecting with someone from another country and culture are limitless, and there is a certain dreaminess to carrying on a romance abroad. 

But these relationships often come with a built-in expiration date that can make things… problematic. You have to decide whether to dive into this whirlwind relationship, knowing you’ll be hurting in the not-too-distant future when it’s time to say goodbye, or if you’re going to “keep it casual,” not wanting to get too close when you know you’re only asking for heartbreak at the end. 

Up to this point in my travels, I’ve chosen the latter. On the face of it, this seems a sensible option. If you keep things fun and don’t take the emotional involvement too far, it shouldn’t be so hard to move on when the time comes.  

This is great in theory, but in my experience, it rarely works out that way. A short-lived affair can often create feelings of rose-coloured nostalgia and longing far beyond the relationship’s so-called conclusion. 

The expat lifestyle lends itself to this kind of Golden Age thinking because when you haven’t fully explored whether or not someone would be a good romantic partner, a premature goodbye often feels like you haven’t gotten closure on the situation. It’s very easy to put someone on a pedestal and count their virtues, conveniently blinded to all the reasons you weren’t convinced the relationship had long-term potential in the first place (which is part of the appeal of the short-lived romantic endeavour), or why you didn’t decide to drop everything to follow this person around the world. 

Last summer, I reconnected with someone I dated a few years ago, when I first moved abroad. We had fun together, but knew from the beginning that our relationship would be short-lived, since I was leaving for a new country a few months later. We kept in touch after I moved, with the occasional “I miss you” and “wish you were here.” But, we both dated and hooked up with other people and generally moved on with our lives. 

However, when we started talking again last year, the tone was far more romantic and flirtatious. I think that on some level we genuinely did miss each other, but it had been two years and we had both grown, changed, and had new lovers and life experiences. The zealousness of our reconnection was likely a product of many factors. In my case, I was single and travelling alone, and the rekindling of our relationship was both a balm and a danger zone. 

When I started talking frequently with this old flame again, I noticed a marked drop in desire to go out and meet new people in Chiang Mai, and found myself torn over getting out of the guesthouse to explore the city or spending hours online flirting with him and talking about how we missed each other. The latter was fun for awhile, but after a couple of weeks, I realised that Golden Age-ing our connection made me feel stuck between the past and present, with no reward to show for my nostalgia. Entertaining the idea that our past feelings for each other would automatically translate into something promising was flawed thinking. I started to reconsider my penchant for long-held attachments and think that a firm letting go of the past was the healthier option in the long run.

Letting go doesn’t mean you don’t care about the person or that a reunion with them somewhere else in the world wouldn’t be really fun (and likely, bittersweet). Even brief romances can be deep and meaningful, and provide beautiful opportunities for learning and connecting. But to get caught up in nostalgia and romanticising what might have been, is to remove yourself from the present and what is, and can even keep you from seeing the potential partners you could be meeting now. 

I’m the type of person who falls hard. If I’m interested enough to start dating someone, my feelings aren’t going to disappear when things come to an end. “Out of sight, out of mind” has never been a habit of mine. And that’s fine – up to a point. However, my tendency to let my feelings linger sometimes blinds me to the person’s flaws or prohibits me from fully embracing all there is to experience around me in the present. 

Perhaps continued travel will help me bring some of my lifestyle’s ebb and flow to my relationships, and learn to appreciate people and circumstances for what they are, and not what I retroactively want them to be.