Frequent Relocation & The One-Body Problem

A post about leaving, and then leaving, and leaving again — and how frequent relocation can exacerbate the issue of social isolation. Written for the March Carnival of Aces.

In academia, the term “two-body problem” is used to describe a set of logistical hurdles faced by academic couples: When landing a job in your field is hard enough as it is, how do you both coordinate to land two jobs in the same city? Usually, what ends up happening is that one person out of the couple finds a job first, and the other one settles for underemployment. As you might expect, there’s a gendered pattern to how that usually plays out. And even in couples where just one person is an academic, relocating for someone else’s career can be hard on a trailing spouse.

Extrapolating from the same concept, I went looking for articles and blogposts talking about a “one-body problem”… and found some applying it either in terms of navigating a limited dating pool, recruitment issues (due to a limited dating pool), stress management/mental health issues, or even the exact same thing as the two-body problem, except where the couple in question involves an academic partnered with a non-academic. This ChronicalVitae article at least mentions some other problems that may be faced by single academics, such as a heavier workload and personal insecurity, but the focus is still mostly (again) on that limited dating pool.

For the purposes of this post, I want to apply the term in a different way altogether. If the two-body problem describes the logistical hurdles of relocating together and pursuing academia as a couple, then the one-body problem is relocating solo and pursuing academia alone. You might assume that being single would negate the whole issue, but to the contrary, I figure the demands of academia can only make sense within the breadwinner-homemaker model. The two-body problem arises when a couple tries to operate with two breadwinners instead of one; on the flipside, if you try to operate as your sole breadwinner and homemaker both all on your own, you’re going to find yourself straining to fulfill both roles at once. That’s certainly how it felt for me in my MA program, trying to keep up with extensive reading, grading, research, writing, and other assignments while also cooking enough food to eat, doing the dishes, doing the laundry, cleaning the kitchen, getting enough sleep, and connecting with other people enough to keep from losing my mind. Not quite sure I managed that last one.

Realistically, though, who has time for all that? I’ll tell you who: a person with a trailing spouse or homemaker figure they can offload some of the work onto. If you’re in grad school, or academia generally, it’s functionally expected that you have a support system to absorb some of those demands.

But this isn’t just a post about that. This is also a post about getting there in the first place — before the work, before balancing act: the struggles of repeatedly uprooting yourself and relocating while single.

This level of transience is a new development for me. For most of my life, until my mid-twenties, I had lived only one area of one singular U.S. state. When I got into my top choice of a MA program, though, I packed up my things and moved halfway across the country to attend. After two years, I finished my degree there and moved out of town to another state — not back to where I started, but somewhere else, again, completely unfamiliar to me. A year after that, now that I’ve been admitted to a PhD program, I’m going to be moving across the country again, for a third time. And if and when I finish that degree, I’m probably not going to be sticking around in that city, either.

That’s a lot of moving, from my perspective, which is lamentable because moving is the worst. Worse still is having no one to share the burden with. For me, the most agonizing part of moving by myself is that once I set out, I’m completely alone. I’m never as lonely as I am on the days when I have to spend hours on the road, focusing on the task of driving, unable to chat or text or blog or even passively experience the company of familiar people. It’s just me and the highway, for hours upon hours of mind-numbing boredom. One of these days, I’d really like to coordinate with someone else, buy a set of radios, and move in tandem as a caravan.

Since cutting contact with my family, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my current (lacking) support system and what to do about it, and in retrospect, it’s hard not to notice the impact of repeatedly uprooting myself. To begin with, I’ve always been an unhealthily isolated person, and I try to work on that, but the problem is that the going is slow and that each time I move, I have to start all over again. In my home state, at least I was part of a few different communities (including my local ace group). At my MA program, I tried to find more of the same, but my social world essentially narrowed to just the fellow members of my graduate cohort. Since finishing that program and moving away, that social world has shrunk even further. And now I’m planning to move again — I can’t not — and I have to wonder what’s going to happen to me, at this rate.

Each time I move, I lose what connections I had in the place I’m leaving behind. The friendships on the basis of shared interests and shared identities. The friendships with coworkers, sometimes merely civil, sometimes more than that. The community members who helped me fix my car and refused to let me spend Christmas alone. Many of these relationships take a lot of time and effort and awkward vulnerable putting-myself-out-there to build, and then just like that, they’re gone.

Maybe that sounds too fatalistic. Sure, we could still text each other sometimes. Realistically, though, many of these are relationships formed through proximity and wither without it. In most cases I feel like I never really reach the stage of intimacy with people where I could reasonably count on maintaining the connection long-distance. Which, individually, is fine, but in aggregate, it functionally feels like I’m in a downward spiral, way too slow at putting down roots compared to the rate at which I’ve been pulling them up.

If I’m going to put a stop to the cycle, I’m going to need to build something of a more permanent connection in my life that won’t fade away again as soon as I move. Problem is, I feel like there’s really only one category of connection that you’re guaranteed to take with you wherever you go (or that’s expected to sustain itself long-distance), and that’s family. I’ve already lost mine. If I’m going to join another one, then traditionally the simplest way to go about that is to find a partner. If I’m going to find a partner, then I need to make myself a more desirable prospect. And if I’m going to do that — well. I need to figure out a way to mitigate or compensate for everything that makes me undateable, including my sexuality, ’cause there ain’t a lot of fish in the puddle for me.

It’s funny, you know, all these articles about the two-body problem and how relocation is so hard on a partner, and yet here I am still feeling like all this relocation is exactly why I need to find one. It’s not an easy life either way, but like I said, academia functionally operates on the expectation of a trailing partner — a role I would be willing to take on myself, if I had a partner to trail. Without one, I find myself facing what I consider to be the real one-body problem: the problem of being just one person, with only myself to fall back on.

8 responses to “Frequent Relocation & The One-Body Problem

  • Sara K.

    Yeah, relocation without a social support network trailing you (or receiving you when you arrive) is rough. When I moved to Taoyuan/Taiwan, I didn’t sever my relationship with my family, but they were all in the wrong time zones, and I found myself in a city where I barely knew anyone (and I didn’t know anyone beyond a surface level). And I haven’t even experienced the cumulative effects of doing that over and over again.

    • Sennkestra

      Yeah, I feel like the aspect of also not having a strong social support network receiving you when you arrive is another thing that makes me wary of ever doing a big cross-country move.

      So far the only big move I’ve made is going from my hometown to my undergrad college town, which is where I basically just ended up staying until now (and through the forseeable future). But that move away from so many of my old friends and family was largely mitigated by the fact that the 4-year university I was moving to join was basically a well-oiled social machine with all sorts of welcoming committees and student group portals and freshman meet and greet events designed to help like 6000+ lonely scared freshmen immediately find like-minded folks to build new communities and social support networks with – and since we were all in the same boat, there were thousands of peers around me in the same position who were eager to do the same.

      As long-graduated adult, though, without that kind of built in student-group social structure it’s hard enough just to maintain my relationships with friends who stayed in the area, let alone build new friendships. Things like having a thriving local ace community certainly help, but most of the relationships I have there still took years to form to the point where I started really feeling comfortable asking (some) other members for help or advice with stuff.

      I’m constantly apprehensive about how difficult it would be to rebuild the super-specialized social niche I’ve found, which is part of why I’m fairly averse to moving out of the area (even if that might be the only way to achieve other types of life goals, like being able to independently own a house) because I realize that a lot of the non-coupled social support I currently have is relatively rare (especially when it comes to having trustworthy non-partner roommates I both like and like living with) and not something I can ever guarantee having again somewhere else, at least without serious time and work.

  • aceadmiral

    I don’t have anything particularly useful to add, except: maybe try to make space for shallow relationships? I have spent my entire life being uprooted, so I do suspect my perspective is more blasé than others’ might be, but for the handful of people I really care about (including, admittedly, my (nuclear) family of origin), I’ve managed to work around the time zones and what have you. As I realized I was maybe more isolated than I wanted to be a few years ago, I took a few chances in reaching out to old classmates or coworkers, and people are surprisingly fine to catch up with you even if you haven’t spoken in a few years? Especially on low-stakes social media like linkedin or twitter. That doesn’t help with the laundry, but I think it can definitely help with when you’ve just gotten to a new city and haven’t spoken to anyone but the grocery store cashier for two weeks and just want some simulacrum of human contact.

  • Carnival of Aces – March 2020 Link Roundup: Leaving | The Ace Theist

    […] Frequent Relocation & The One-Body Problem by Coyote […]

  • Lily Bart

    Thank you so much for posting this. I’m also an unpartnered ace-spectrum academic, and the fact that I’m (supposedly) going on the job market this fall has really brought all of the fears and challenges you’ve mentioned into stark relief. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way, but I really wish it was a thing where it was normal and institutionally supported to move to a new position with a group of friends.

  • Rachel

    Oh God, I feel this.

    I’m a single aro ace and while I’m not in academia, I am in STEM, which has significant overlap. As of this posting, I have moved three times across 3 different states since the beginning of 2018 because of getting a job, losing said job, and gaining another one (which is going well, thank God). While I benefit of having access to healthy, supportive, and financially well-off family, the upheaval of moving has brought a mounting awareness of just how socially isolated I really am.

    My only friends are those I have retained, at lower contact than before, those from undergrad and high school. And they are all in other states. Since I am no longer a student, I can no longer rely on school/college/grad school to give me a network of friends with anyone even close to being a peer (my current coworkers are good and all, but most of them are married and older and more experienced than me – not my peers). Since my parents are retired and planning on moving away from the city I grew up in, that removes my family as a focal-point to justify seeing friends over the holidays.

    And my lack of options as an aro ace for acceptable long term relationships means this problem is only going to get exacerbated as I get older. Or how this exact “one body problem” can make you afraid of setting down any roots at all – I know that is something that I struggle with, at any rate.

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