it's complicated

Becoming a Digital Nomad Meant Changing My Definition of ‘Boyfriend’

Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to itscomplicated@nymag.com.)

“I’m going to have a boyfriend in every country,” I joked to my friends at dinner one night a few summers ago. Really, as I considered the immediate future of my love life, I assumed that the opposite would be true. I’d been dreaming for months about foregoing my Manhattan apartment to become a digital nomad, someone who traveled nonstop while working remotely, and I accepted that this probably meant staying single for a while. In fact, I was excited about that part, too: after two years of OKCupid dates that had gone nowhere, embracing singlehood sounded like a welcome change. I craved the freedom of being tied to nobody and nothing.

So, of course, that’s when I fell in love. The week after that conversation, I took a trip to Ibiza, where I met a man I’ll call Lukas. I considered him a one-night stand until he emailed me the next day and invited me to a party on Playa d’en Bossa. We spent the rest of the week together, talking on the beach and dancing in clubs and going out for ice cream. I broke down in a puddle of tears at the end — since he lived in Germany, I didn’t think we’d ever see each other again.

On the plane ride home, still blinking back tears, I thought back to that dinner proclamation. I decided then and there not to renew my lease when it expired two months later.

But my plans ran into trouble before they even got off the ground. A few weeks after I got back, Lukas came to visit me in New York. The next few days were filled with emotional conversations over cake in the park and mornings waking up to heart-filled notes. On the last night, when he asked where I’d begin my digital nomad adventure, I blurted out the name of his city. I couldn’t stand the thought of being without him.

As my departure date drew nearer, I started to panic. I didn’t want my quest for freedom to turn into just living with someone across the ocean. So I promised myself I’d set a time limit: stay with him for two weeks, then move on.

In preparation for my arrival in Germany that September, Lukas bought me an outlet adapter, got me a German phone plan, and learned to make iced coffee. We spent those first few days together going out to techno clubs, celebrating my birthday at a bar with him and his friends, and relishing the new-relationship highs; I jumped up and down each time he got home from work at night. One afternoon I introduced myself to one of his friends as his girlfriend. “Was that okay?” I asked him the next day. It was.

Weeks became months. At one point, while I was back visiting the States, he got my name written on his door. When I returned to Germany, I got a residence permit. Before I knew it, five months had passed there — I’d gotten so comfortable, and staying put seemed so much easier than making travel plans and heading off to unfamiliar places by myself. Plus, we’d been together long enough that I felt guilty about leaving him for long stretches at a time.

But my dream still nagged at me. Eventually, the giddiness I’d felt faded into boredom, then suffocation. I began to deeply resent Lukas. I didn’t mesh with his friends and had few of my own there. I considered breaking up, but I knew that wasn’t the answer. Maybe, I thought, the answer was to move somewhere else together.

The moment I suggested it, he was onboard. “Where do you want to go?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “New York?” He said he’d start looking for jobs there.

But as soon as the idea of the move became real, that panicked suffocation sunk in again. Moving wouldn’t solve anything. I didn’t want to be tied to a different place — I wanted to be tied to nowhere, free to hop around whenever I wanted.

And, to be honest, I didn’t want to be around Lukas all the time, either. My version of needing space is needing weeks or months alone.
When he said he’d approach his boss about moving to New York, I told him I couldn’t go through with it.

I felt trapped. Staying put with Lukas felt like my only option — that’s the only way I’d learned to be in a relationship, and the people around me enforced it. When I described weeks’ worth of plans that didn’t involve him, people would ask, “What about Lukas?” When I’d go on trips without him, they’d ask why he wasn’t with me. And when I told people I wanted to be a digital nomad, they’d say things like, “that’s good to get out of your system when you’re young.” Few people viewed the lifestyle I wanted as a valid one, especially for someone in a long-term relationship. So I started to think it wasn’t.

But in spite of all that, I knew “settling down” wasn’t for me. The nomadic lifestyle was not a youthful dream to get out of my system before I found love. It was something I wanted to sustain. No matter how much I loved my boyfriend, he wasn’t going to change who I was and the kind of life I wanted.

So eventually, I realized I didn’t have a choice — if I wanted to be happy with Lukas, I had to strike out on my own. I braced myself for his disappointment when I told him I was leaving, half-convinced he’d break up with me. But to my relief, he understood: “Go wherever you want,” he said. “I would do it, too, if I could.”

That conversation was a turning point for me: I’d already committed to taking the digital nomad leap for real, but now, I wasn’t just committed — I was unafraid. Spending time apart, I realized, wouldn’t make us less close or committed. It would make our relationship all the more special, because it meant I could be with him without sacrificing who I am. It’s pretty great to have someone who would offer to move across the world for you, but it’s even more amazing to have someone who supports the lifestyle you want, even when they’re not a part of it.

I spent the next few months traveling through the U.S. and Mexico alone before meeting up with Lukas in Paris and following him back to Germany. But after three weeks, sick of the cold, I began itching for another change of scenery. Once again, I wondered if I was a bad girlfriend for wanting so much time apart. And once again, he reassured me that he understood. I booked a flight to Marrakech, grateful and guilt-free.

Things ended up working out for both of us: I didn’t know it at the time, but Lukas had long dreamed of being nomadic, too — he didn’t think it was possible because he worked in an office. But my honesty about my desires inspired him to work toward his, and seeing me make a nomadic lifestyle work made him believe that maybe it was possible. After he stopped looking for jobs in New York, he began talking to co-workers about starting their own business. He’s leaving his 9–5 in the spring to work on his start-up full-time, and then he’ll be location-independent, too.

In the meantime, I’m getting bolder about pursuing what works for me over what I’m expected to do. I realized how far I’d come a few days ago, when I learned I’d be spending the week of Valentine’s Day in Amsterdam for work. I briefly contemplated inviting Lukas to take the train in for a romantic dinner and hotel stay, then remembered I’d be spending several weeks with him nonstop after that trip — for me, a lot of time to go without a solo break. So, I decided to invite two friends, also nomads, to a Valentine’s dinner instead. I’d go out with Lukas when I rejoined him.

That may not be a conventional way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Or to have a relationship, for that matter. But there’s no model for being in a relationship as a digital nomad. I hadn’t heard of this lifestyle at all until I was 24, and even then, all the nomads I knew were single or traveled with their partners. And so I’m continuously figuring out how to forge a path in between — how to provide the attention he needs and the independence I need, how to resist the pressure to “settle down,” and how to remember our relationship is valid even if we never do.

Being a Digital Nomad Meant Redefining How I Dated