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Life as a long-distance couple: arguments and arrangements between Mexico and the US

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‘Transnational families do not break away completely with the mainstream model of the modern nuclear family; rather, they challenge some of its features, combining change and continuity.’ Picture by the author.

Since I was a girl, I’ve been told that ‘if you love someone, you have to let them go’. However, that personal and romantic freedom forgets the unequal world we live in. On Saint Valentine’s Day, we should look at other experiences, such as transnational families – a way of ‘doing family’ where some or most of the members live separated by long distances, usually in different countries, without physical contact. For them, the decision of ‘letting go’ is economically and emotionally ambiguous. This article explores the construction of conjugal ties at a distance. Some of my thoughts are linked to my empirical work, a multi-sited observation of long-distance conjugal bonds of Mexican couples, between Mexico and the US, in 2011 and 2012.*


The study of transnational couples brings together several perspectives (focusing on family, emotions, gender and migration) that yield some important ideas. First, transnational families do not break away completely with the mainstream model of the modern nuclear family; rather, they challenge some of its features, combining change and continuity. For instance, there are ‘absent’ parents who still fulfill the traditional role of breadwinners, and couples who are open to occasional infidelities but uphold the value of monogamy. Second, in order to describe conjugality, and given its empirical diversity, we have to conceive the bond in an abstract and inclusive way, accounting for its many possibilities.


In that sense, there are two analytical dimensions that define the philosophical and historical aspects of a couple’s relationship: intimacy and family structure, which ensure emotional proximity between family members, subsistence, and the proper functioning of domestic life. This third argument rejects the idea that the migration of one of the partners would lead to family disintegration. The way they live is different from other conjugal forms and from the link the couple had before their geographic separation, but this is, as we will see, an arrangement mediated by intimacy and family structure. Therefore, conjugality at a distance is just another form of conjugality, and not a sort of ‘anti-conjugality’.


The fourth point involves emotions and practices as instruments of social change. Following Raymond Williams’ notion of ‘structures of feeling’, emotion is anchored to a normative order or culture: it has history and memory. This normativity determines which emotions can be felt in a particular context and which ones would be inappropriate between partners.


However, understanding conjugality requires observing its specific practices, its exchanges. In order to describe arrangement processes, we can use the idea of ‘internal conversation’, coined by sociologist Margaret Archer, consisting of the production of a continuous mental commentary about what is going on in the individuals’ daily lives, in relation to themselves and their social contexts. In this way, the process of social change can be understood as a continuum ranging from internal conversations to practices, to eventually challenging normative structures, depending on their creative content. This is how social change is built in the case of normative family models.


Finally, the fifth argument about multi-sited life as a couple encompasses creative forms of intimacy and family structure, resulting from the tensions between family practices (ideally nuclear and presence-based) and the context of migration.


My empirical results can be summed up in the idea of arrangement. Arrangements are specific practices, ways of saying or doing, which are a product of the individual’s thoughts in relation to their personal and social contexts. Individuals consider social expectations about conjugal ties against their own projects, values and beliefs. An arrangement is, therefore, a socio-emotional assessment by flesh-and-blood individuals, looking for creative solutions to situations that are seemingly driving them to a family breakup.


In this case study we can distinguish four family arrangements that challenge the normative order in which individuals are embedded, as well as its very definition. First, there is an intimacy based on the reinforcement of the symbolic and communicative components of the couple’s relationship. This way, the belief that the success of the relationship relies on physical presence is replaced by a belief in communication and trust. This challenge combines elements of a romantic model of conjugality with a more modern one, where companionship and mutual understanding are key.


Secondly, it is possible to think of a home situated in several geographic spots, which can be understood as a family, and which organises itself for daily life, negotiating and sharing responsibilities. The sense of home does not get lost despite the multiple locations of the domestic unit, while family structure changes with respect to the previous one when the couple lived together.


Thirdly, there is a challenge to the socialisation of the couple’s children. On the one hand, parenting continues from afar, even though migrant fathers and mothers lose authority over and information about what happens in their children’s lives. The relationship becomes more emotional and its routines become more original. As a consequence, the work of socialisation and disciplining falls mostly on the parent who stays. On the other hand, the ‘wives of deportees’ prefer to socialise their children in what they call a ‘Hispanic’ culture. This tendency points to new dynamics of socialisation where the nation may have once been a relevant paradigm, but which has weakened in favour of a wider cultural identity.


Emotions and practices constitute the fourth challenge. Not knowing a part of the life of their partner affects individuals. As a result, an important change to communication routines is the expression of feelings, even getting to discuss issues considered taboo in the society of origin, such as infidelity. There is a greater flexibility on staunch fidelity, although monogamy persists.


Thus, in a more or less conscious way, the situations of modern daily life change and social transformation is forged ‘from below’.

*  For more details, see my book Conyugalidad a distancia. Resignificaciones en la intimidad y organización de familias transnacionales (Santiago de Chile: RIL Editores, 2017).

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    Dr Javiera Cienfuegos Illanes

Dr Javiera Cienfuegos Illanes is a Professor at the Academia de Humanismo Cristiano University (Chile) She obtained her Ph.D. in Sociology at the Free University of Berlin. Her main research areas include the sociologies of family, migration, and emotions, which converge in the phenomenon of transnational families, an issue in which she has worked intensively since 2007. Her dissertation was awarded the triennial prize Friedrich Katz of the Latin American Institute of the Free University of Berlin. This work has been published as a book, Conyugalidad a distancia. Resignificaciones en la intimidad y organización de familias transnacionales (Santiago: RIL Editores, 2017).

Furthermore, Dr Cienfuegos promotes family diversity throughout an academic and community visual project called ‘Familia Glocal’, whose main objective is to render visible the variety of forms of ‘doing family’, rescuing quotidian experiences and issues.

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