Moving to Colombia with a partner/boyfriend/girlfriend is like one giant leap closer to walking up the aisle. In fact, as far as Colombians are concerned, by taking the lift together up to your apartment that you plan to share, taking your first steps across the threshold, you’ve symbolically already been up the aisle and back down again. You see, most couples moving abroad together for a while will normally plan to live together, and you should know beforehand that living together in Colombia is as good as being married: be prepared for people to start referring to your other half as your esposo/a (husband/wife), whether you like it or not.
I believe this cultural quirk stems from the fact that, here, children are extremely consentidos (a word you will hear on a weekly basis at least, meaning ‘spoilt’), and it doesn’t particularly have the negative connotation that we associate with the English equivalent. It basically just means that parents love their children [almost] to death, and aren’t afraid to show and tell them that. Most parents (ok, mothers) seem desperate to keep their [adult] children at home for as long as possible, cooking for them, washing their clothes, allowing them to live cheap (or free, in many cases), and usually this is an incentive for them to stay until they get married and/or have children (often not in that order). Flying the nest in Colombia is a huge thing – moving to your own apartment in the next street from your parents is viewed as a stronger, more permanent sign of independence than moving abroad to study for a year or two – in the latter case, there’s always a guarantee that they’ll come back to the family home on their return.
Choosing to leave your mother – her nurturing, reliable presence, her cooking, your home – to move in with a partner is a BIG deal. In the UK, it’s very normal to live with a boyfriend/girlfriend for a couple of years before choosing to take the plunge (or not) into married life; in Colombia, if you move in with your better half, you ARE married, or might as well be as far as Colombians are concerned. For them, co-habitation is a synonym for marriage. And indeed, the law enforces this belief. Once you have lived with a partner for two years in Colombia, they have the same rights by law as they would if they were your married spouse; separating from a long-term unmarried partner here involves more or less the same legal process as going through a divorce, especially if you have children and assets together.
When my boyfriend and I were looking for a flat together a few months ago, one landlady looked us up and down doubtfully and warned me in a low voice (in Spanish) “(You do realise that if you live together for two years in Colombia, you’re as good as married in the eyes of the law?)”. Grateful as I was for her concern, we actually already have a legal civil union, which makes us ‘as good as married’ anyway.
Yesterday I was in a taxi, and having the usual conversation about where I was from, how long I’d been in Colombia, whether I liked it and why I was here. After explaining about my Colombian boyfriend the taxi driver was quiet for a minute and then said “Do you mind if I ask you something impertinent?” As most Colombians don’t bother asking permission before unashamedly thrusting their impertinence upon me, I told him to go ahead. “Are you actually boyfriend and girlfriend, or are you esposos? [husband and wife]. I then explained that by my cultural (British) standards, we were boyfriend and girlfriend, as it’s very common to be in a relationship and live together in the UK without being presumed married. Where I’m from, marriage comes only with a ring, a priest/civil marriage official and a church/registry office. It’s not the same as in Colombia where partners who live together are automatically baptized esposos.
“Wow.” said the taxi driver raising his eyebrows. “You learn a new thing every day!”
So anyway, yes. Get used to having people asking you about your esposo/esposa, or ‘husband/wife’ if they happen to speak English. And I wouldn’t bother to correct them – you’d be wasting your breath!
Photo by Petar Milošević