Rethinking Love

As a traveler who is also very social and outgoing, both romantic and platonic relationships are a huge part of the travel experience for me. This includes people I meet while traveling and working abroad as well as the relationships back home that I continue to maintain while I’m away.

In this article, I want to focus on romantic relationships in the context of traveling as well as in the greater context of what we value in society because it is a topic that has been particularly relevant for me lately. Traveling has a tendency to up the ante with relationships and can lead quickly to deep connections as there is often a greater sense of urgency and excitement when you know time is limited. In addition, doing lots of new things together can create pretty strong bonds, which you tend to do a lot more when you’re in a new place. This can be both super awesome and kind of scary and I find it important to delight in the experience while remembering that there are amazing people everywhere and it’s not the end of the world if you have to leave one of these intense connections behind. The key is learning how to cherish and enjoy such romances without smothering them under the expectations of a traditional relationship or forcing them to be something they are not.   

An abundance of love

From when I first started dating until only a couple of years ago, every relationship seemed like the perfect fit and every break-up left me feeling convinced that I would never find another person so well suited to me so I may as well just give up and buy 10 cats instead. I am happy to say I have finally reached a point in my life where I no longer believe that to be true. Break-ups still suck of course and I have gotten quite good at mourning them deeply, which generally looks like alternating between periods of sobbing into a pillow while listening to Taylor Swift (she just gets me) and rage blackouts where I throw those same pillows around the room, kick inanimate objects, and shout loudly at no one. After allowing myself a few days of this self-indulgent behaviour, I find it much easier to move on because I have let myself feel whatever I needed to feel, as deeply as I possibly could. And because I recognize that even though I may never be able to replace that exact person in my life, there will always be more wonderful men to meet and love and each of them will have something different and unique to offer.

Something that helped me realize this simple fact was looking back at a journal from five years ago and seeing what I had written about a boy I had briefly dated, which had not ended well. I was pretty bummed at the time and wrote something about never being able to find someone like him again. Reading this five years later, I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud and thought “Him!? I thought HE was the perfect person for me who I would never be able to replace?” Because since I had dated him, I had dated several other wonderful men, each one seeming more perfect than the last, always thinking I would never find anyone better. It finally dawned on me that it is ridiculous to believe that there will never be another man as amazing as the last one I dated, just like it was ridiculous to believe I would never find more friends like the ones I had in high school. When you live an authentic life and focus on doing the things you love doing, you will draw amazing people to you who will fit into and compliment that life. It may not seem like it sometimes, but there is an abundance of people in this universe just waiting to meet and love and cherish you as long as you are open to receiving them in your life.

This is not to say that the deep, loving friendships and relationships you have created throughout your life are simply disposable. I am fortunate to have an incredible community of friends and family back home who I miss very much when I travel and the support I receive from them is not easily replaced. There is something very different about the bond you have with a friend of fifteen years versus the bond you make with someone you just met, no matter how deeply and how quickly you may connect with someone new. What I am saying is that there is an abundance of wonderful people in this world and following your passions will help lead you to others who are passionate about the same things, no matter where you go.

Stupid travel advice

When I first went on exchange to England in my fourth year of university, several people jokingly advised “Don’t fall in love!”. I can only assume this is based on the assumption that falling in love in a foreign country will either lead to heartbreak when you have to end the relationship and come home or it will tear you away from your friends and family when you decide to give up everything and move to that country permanently to live out your days with the love of your life.

Either way, I hate this advice. I hate it even more now that I have traveled many places and loved men in other countries (and have amazingly survived in tact!). I hate it because it assumes that the only happy option when you fall in love is to get married and spend your life together. And I hate it because it assumes that it is better not to fall in love, not to become attached, to forge deep connections and strong relationships, than it is to have those experiences and then have to say good bye in the end. What is so bad about saying good bye and why does it have to be a tragic affair? I decided long ago that I would never hold myself back from love simply because I knew it wouldn’t last. Whether it’s for two days or two years, I choose not to value my relationships based on their length of time, but on the love, joy, and growth that comes out of them.

Almost a year before I came to New Zealand, I had a two-month relationship with a lovely man whom I was pretty stoked about. Things were going great – I’d never been in such a seemingly stable actual relationship – and then one day he broke up with me out of nowhere because it ‘just didn’t feel right’. I was devastated (cue: pillow crying and rage blackout) and it would have been easy at that point to assume that those two months together had been a lie and a waste of my time. I could have deemed it yet another complete failure in a long list of relationship failures, which were failures simply because none of them had ended in marriage. Fortunately, I had learned by this point that this was a ridiculous way of thinking about things. He and I had spent a really great two months together, during which I had felt very loved and supported by him. It sucked that it ended so abruptly, but I had learned some important lessons from being with him and had even made some great connections with his friends. In addition, rather than staying in Portland to explore our relationship further, our break-up made space for me to move to New Zealand, where I am currently living and having a fantastic time.

The idea I want to get at here is that a relationship does not have to count as a failure simply because it did not end in marriage. If that were the case then we would be failing at almost every single romantic relationship in our lives – how depressing is that? Judge the worth of a relationship by what you got out of it and how it helped you grow, not by how long it lasted or if it ended with a ring on your finger. If you’re lucky, you might even come out of it with a really close friend, regardless of whether or not the romance is gone from your relationship.

Romance on a pedestal

So the question I keep coming back to lately is this: why do we put so much importance on our romantic relationships? Why is it that once we get married, our spouse suddenly takes precedent over all the friends and family we had been building our life with up until that point? Why do so many people either disappear off the face of the planet or cease to exist as a singular unit once they find a romantic partner? Why do we set them on this pedestal above all other relationships, so much so that people who travel and fall in love are expected to uproot their entire lives and move to a new country just to be with that one person, or else die of heartbreak? What makes a romantic partner more of a soulmate than my best friend of fifteen years or my sister?

I recently experienced a very intense and awesome but challenging relationship with someone I met here in New Zealand, one that made me consider staying in the country longer than planned. As uncertain as the relationship was, I found myself wondering about a possible future in which things “worked out” and we stayed together for the long haul. I thought about what it would be like to actually move my life to New Zealand, which was charming until I started picturing the reality of what I would have to give up to stay here. I thought about my sister eventually having kids and not being around to be their auntie as they grew up. I thought about expensive flights home once a year and only seeing my parents on the holidays. I thought about how much I love Portland and the Pacific Northwest and how it would suck to know I would never settle down there.

In all of this daydreaming, I realized something very crucial which I feel should have been obvious long ago: romantic relationships are not more important than all the other deep and meaningful connections in my life and they are certainly not worth giving up everything I have back home for. I realize that not everybody has a home they want to go back to, but I am lucky enough to have a home and a community that I ache for whenever I’m away. I will continue to travel because I gain so much from it and because, as much as I love Portland, I get antsy when I’m in one place for too long and I’m not ready to stop moving yet. In addition, traveling helps me appreciate what I have back home and had I never left, I probably would not be aware of how special my home and the people in it really are.

So why would I even think about giving all of that up for someone I’ve only known for a few months, just because we have a deep romantic connection? I probably wouldn’t do that for someone I had become really close friends with, so why is it different? And besides, why couldn’t I just enjoy the relationship in the present without trying to plan what it would look like in the future? We have been programmed to believe that everlasting romantic love is the ultimate goal and that people who choose to be single are really just giving up and must be sad and lonely. The truth is that my friends and family have given me more reliable love, support, sense of worth and validation than most of my romantic relationships have. I have amazing friends who I want to spend the rest of my life with, live in a community and raise children with, travel with, cry and laugh with, share my dreams with and do all the other things you do with a life partner. Why does your life partner have to be someone you have sex with in order to fulfill all of those other requirements?

All of this being said, I still recognize that there is something special one gets from a romantic relationship, other than sex, that I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s something chemical, maybe it’s something deeply ingrained in us from all the social programming we grow up with, or maybe it’s just something beautiful that has no explanation we can see. It’s not that I no longer want any romantic relationships or think they don’t have value, but I am working on not putting a higher value on them than the many other important aspects of my life. I want my romantic relationships to add to my current community and leave space for me to be my own person and nurture all the other important relationships in my life rather than take away from them.

Closing with a sweet analogy

I once came up with a pretty clever relationship analogy while I was super high and was very pleased with myself to have remembered it in my sober state the next day. I pictured a neighbourhood in which every person had a single shrub in their front lawn. Each person in the neighbourhood could see how perfect the other neighbours’ shrubs were and wanted their shrub to look exactly the same, so every shrub was pruned to be exactly the same height and shape. In my THC-induced state, I imagined that each shrub was a romantic relationship being forced to grow in the same way and end up looking exactly the same, regardless of who was pruning it or what kind of plant the shrub actually was. I thought about how beautiful it would be if each relationship was allowed to simply grow and be wild and become whatever shape it was meant to be. But instead we stifle our shrubs by trying to make them uniform and getting upset when one twig or leaf does not conform, because we want it to look like everyone else’s.

Now, I’m no shrub expert, and shrub is one of those words that starts sounding really weird when you say it over and over, but I feel like this analogy is pretty apt for how we treat our romantic relationships today. There is basically one form of romantic relationship that is portrayed in the media and held up as the ideal we should all to strive for and if we are unable to reach that ideal we are made to feel as if we have failed in some way. People who allow their shrubs to grow without pruning them to look like everyone else’s are made to feel like they are somehow weird, or perverse, or incapable of real love. And that makes me a sad panda.

If this entire post has left you feeling like I am a cynical, jaded person who believes that romance is dead and love is a worthless pursuit – think again! Remember that advice of “don’t fall in love?” I want to give you the opposite advice: fall in love with as many things (and people) as possible. Fall in love as deeply and as often as you can because it is an essential and unique part of our human experience here on earth and there is nothing else quite like it – just remember that it is only one part of our experience, not the only part that is worth anything. Fall in love and get your heart broken and know that it’s ok because there will always be more amazing people who come along and your worth is not tied up in having a romantic relationship in your life. Fall in love even when you know you’re only here for two more months and you would never move to New Zealand to spend the rest of your life with that person, but you’re not going to let that stop you from enjoying every minute you have together.

And most of all, fall in love with yourself and be in love with your life, every minute of it.

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