People who move a lot attach more importance to their romantic relationships

By Emily Reynolds

Moving house can have significant psychological effects — and not just because it’s stressful. Moving can create long-lasting memories, good and bad, while moving frequently is associated with lower academic achievement and poorer physical and mental health among children. 

It’s this second experience — moving frequently — that a new study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, explores. Looking at “residential mobility” in the context of romantic relationships, the team finds that those who have moved away from their place of birth or who have frequently moved throughout their life are more likely to see their partners as central to their lives.

Over three studies, the team explored three factors relating to how central to their life someone views a relationship: the extent to which a partner is a confidant, a source of a deep bond, and a source of wellbeing. In the first, the team gathered data from a life satisfaction survey, conducted in Turkey annually since 2003. Among other things, participants indicated whether or not they had lived in the same district since they were born, and who they preferred to confide in about work, money, and health — their spouse, their family, or their friends. And results showed that those who were more residentially mobile were more likely to prioritise their spouse as a confidant above their family or friends.

In the second study, participants in exclusive romantic relationships were recruited to explore their attachment to various figures in their social network. First, they reported how many times they had moved neighbourhood, city or country during their lifetime. They then listed people in their life who played different roles: those they speak to frequently, who they see as a “safe haven” and contact when they need help, those they see as a secure base who will always be there for them, and those they miss when they are not together. For each category, participants listed up to four people in order of significance.

Again, those who had moved frequently ascribed more importance to their romantic partners in all categories, again suggesting that residential mobility is associated with romantic relationships being more central to one’s life.

In a final study, participants again indicated how many times they had moved, before taking part in a number of other measures. First, they indicated how responsive they felt their partner was — whether they felt listened to and understood. Next, they rated how satisfied they were with their life on a scale from 1 to 7, and indicated how positive or negative they’d felt over the last six months. Finally, they completed a scale measuring “eudaimonic” wellbeing, or how much one feels that their life has meaning and purpose; this measured participants’ feelings of autonomy, their capacity to manage their life, their level of personal growth, the feeling their life had purpose, and how much they accepted themselves.

The perceived responsiveness of romantic partners played a significant role in participants’ wellbeing, predicting both their life satisfaction and eudaimonic wellbeing. And for people who had moved more in their lives, eudaimonic wellbeing increased more dramatically as perceived partner responsiveness increased, suggesting that for these people, their relationship was again more central in their lives.

As to the mechanism behind these results, there are a number of suggestions. Firstly, moving around a lot limits one’s social network: if you don’t live in the place you grew up but your family does, then you may be less likely to rely on them. Moving may also allow you to develop a higher level of independence, fostering “relationships of choice” rather than obligatory kin relationships. And if you are a high-frequency mover, your social networks may be more shallow and casual than those of someone with deeper ties to a place — meaning your romantic relationship is likely to be the most intimate.

The team caution that their results demonstrate only correlation, not causation, and that further research should take place outside of Turkey. However, overall the results seem to suggest that there is an important relationship between how often we move and how central our partner is in our lives.

You Mean the World to Me: The Role of Residential Mobility in Centrality of Romantic Relationships

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest