Do You Believe in Forever?

Two friends we made here in Ecuador decided to sell their homes and move back to the US recently. They enjoyed their time here, but for various reasons had to move on. We will miss them, but wish them the best in the continuing adventure of their lives together.

Their departure reminded me of an interesting discussion I saw a few months ago in social media. A blogger was convinced that the “retirement/travel industry” was hiding a deep, dark secret – some people who retire overseas don’t stay forever! Some even end up getting divorced! This post surprised me in several ways. First, as a writer for the “retirement/travel industry”, I felt left out. I was completely unaware of this conspiracy. Must have missed a memo.

The bigger shock, however, was finding out I had apparently signed up to live in Ecuador “forever”. I don’t recall my wife and I deciding this was the last time we would ever move, anywhere, now and forever more. After all, according to the number crunchers at the website FiveThirtyEight, the average American moves 11.4 times in their life. Even those over 60 average almost 2 more moves before settling on a spot.

This idea that if you move overseas and don’t stay put you have failed somehow, is something that I’ve run into before. You also don’t need to spend much time in expat hangouts to hear that this couple or that couple split up. But where did this notion that your move overseas was going to guarantee you a happy and perfect life “forever” creep into the discussion?

At the heart of this issue is a major flaw in Internet conversations, and indeed in other aspects of the American experience. The Internet can be a wonderful source of information, but it can also cause a lot of confusion and conflict through not just misinformation, but with the American public’s failure to understand some basic facts about information itself.

Specifically, in some Internet discussions there is little or no distinction drawn between anecdotal and empirical data. Someone hears some expats have left a particular area, or that this couple’s relationship is in trouble (anecdotal data) and concludes that they are witnessing a trend. But they lack the empirical data (actual numbers) to confirm, disprove, or define this.

Reliable empirical data for expats is notoriously hard to find. For example, at the moment I cannot tell you how many expats are living in Ecuador. I can give you reasonable numbers on the ones living in my building, and I can quote guesses from other expats about the numbers in various cities, but the fact is there is not a single source where we can go and find out there are now X number of expats living fulltime in Ecuador. In May of 2013, US officials estimated there were between 10,000 – 15,000 US citizens living in Ecuador. That’s a pretty big margin for error. Imagine if your banker told you that you had between $10-15,000 in your IRA.

Even less hard empirical data is available on the details of those living in Ecuador. How many are married, how many moved here single but met someone and married here, or how many lost a spouse to divorce or death? Similarly, there is no way to track reliably where an expat has moved. Did they decide to move somewhere else in Ecuador? Or try another country? Remember, leaving Ecuador does not necessarily mean you went back to your home country.

Murkier still are the reasons for the changes. How many moved because they decided it just was not right for them, and how many because of some unexpected life change? How many divorces or separations still would have happened if they had stayed in the US? For that matter, how many relationships improved from a move overseas? Personally, I think if you have a bad marriage, introducing any change can make it worse; if you have a good marriage, it can make it better. But that is just my opinion.

Because nobody really knows. We simply don’t have the data. Even divorce statistics in the US are problematic. Everyone has heard the “50% rule”, but statisticians will tell you that is not accurate. According to the Center for Disease Control (and let me stop here to assure my wife that I for one do NOT consider marriage to be a disease), their data shows that out of every 1000 married women, 3.6 will divorce in a given year, and that for every 1000 single ladies in the house, 6.8 will get a ring on it. This says nothing about any individual’s personal odds of getting a divorce. There are many stats to show whether you are more or less likely to get a divorce based on a variety of factors, but again, there is no single empirical figure to state how likely YOU are to divorce, or how many people getting married this year will stay married forever.

I can’t tell you that if you move to Ecuador, 100% of you (or 75%, or 50%) will live happily ever after. Life is what a math teacher friend of mine calls “a multi-variable non-linear equation with an indeterminate solution set”. In other words, nobody knows what is going to happen tomorrow. Your life is not guaranteed. Even the Declaration of Independence only promises you the pursuit of happiness – no one promises that you will achieve it. I have no empirical data to offer you.

What I can tell you is what I have found to be true for me, for my wife, and for my family. I can travel and interview other expats, and share their experiences and yes, even their difficulties, with you. In short, others and I can provide you with anecdotal data about living in a foreign land. We can share the stories of what it has been like for us, but we cannot tell you what it would be like for you.

I can tell you that my wife and I have lived in Ecuador for almost three years now. We have faced challenges, but overall the longer we have lived here, the happier we are with the decision we made to move to Salinas. We have travelled around Ecuador, and will continue to explore. Although we have seen many places we liked, we have not yet found a place that we think we would like better than Salinas. Once we get our Ecuadorian citizenship next year, we plan to also travel around Central and South America, seeing new things and talking to the locals and expats.

Does that mean we plan to stay in Salinas or Ecuador forever? We don’t know. What we do know very well, especially since we both lost our first spouses to cancer, is that nobody knows what tomorrow may bring, and nobody knows how long they will have their health. We are happy right now, and we are enjoying to the fullest our lives as expats. I think if you learn anything at all from living in a different country, it’s that where you live is really not important. It is how you live that matters. If you are content with yourself and with your relationship, then you can live anywhere and be happy.

Forever.