Retirement for couples involves navigating the waters together and it could, possibly, be the most challenging period of your relationship. Communication is key. You and your spouse will need to discuss alignment and find ways to come up with compromises as required. Let’s be completely honest, the choices made (or not made) will impact your marriage and future happiness. Not only will this guide identify some common stumbling blocks, it will provide advice on how to transform your marriage.
Imagine retirement as the beginning of a journey. The railing of the upper deck is packed with everyone waving to the throng of well-wishers on the pier. Sara spies their son amongst the crowd. Pride flows throughout her seeing the man he has become. Everything is perfect. The loud blast of the ship’s horn announces that the “SS Retirement” is casting off.
The adventure has begun. Tears of happiness pool in her eyes as her beloved Tom hugs her passionately. Life has not always been easy yet, somehow, they have survived even prospered. Yet, there are still so many late-night conversations and challenges to work through. There would undoubtedly be stormy seas ahead yet Sara knew that, together, they would conquer.
Effective communication skills are the bedrock of a healthy happy retirement for couples. Your communication patterns may have served you well in the past or may be holding you back. In retirement, situations will arise that need to be discussed and resolved.
When she says “Honey, we need to talk”, most men feel like running for the hills. It usually doesn’t turn out well for us guys. Unfortunately, there needs to be those conversations to achieve understanding and compromises that work for both of you.
There is a lot of wisdom in that expression. Let’s say something is bothering you and you feel the need to talk about it. Probably, it will have emotional overtones that can easily make your partner defensive. Words like “You never” or “You always” imply blame. Your body language and tone often speak louder than the actual words uttered.
For those potentially difficult discussions, it is more effective to request a time to sit down and discuss an agreed upon topic. For each of you, the focus should be to gain clarity of your respective perceptions of the matter. Avoid assumptions as there is no right or wrong answers. It is helpful to begin the conversation with “I” and clearly state your concern. For example, “I feel hurt when you...”.
Most of us believe we are pretty good listeners. After all, we got through life this long. You may have been a great listener at work; however, it can become emotionally charged with the ones we love. It’s difficult to listen when there have been unresolved arguments and neither of you feel understood or appreciated. One of the fundamental problems is we, often, start formulating a response before someone has even finished speaking. In many situations, we miss the intent of what they are conveying. Effective listening requires understanding the intent behind the words and asking clarifying questions as appropriate.
Stephen R. Covey
For example, if she were to say that she wants to visit an elderly parent more often, you should pay close attention to why she is bringing it up. Perhaps the parent is ailing or she feels guilty for not spending more time. This is not the time to get defensive and say she just saw them last month or, even worse, that the parent is too needy.
Another aspect is being kind, respectful, and supportive of each other. Taking the time to listen with your full attention is not always easy. It is easy to interrupt or make assumptions, especially if you think you know where this is going.
Let’s be candid, you’re not going to agree on everything! How important is the issue to each of you? If there was something really important to my wife and I was arguing mostly on principle, you can bet that I would not die on that anthill. If we were completely polarized, giving in to keep the peace would fuel resentments down the road. Without a doubt, there will be impasses where you need to agree to disagree. There will, also, be opportunities where a creative solution can be found.
Taking the elderly parent example, a compromise might be to plan a weekly visit. You could drive (couple hours away), drop her off, and meet up with your golf buddies. In addition to her having the day to visit, you would be able to do something that interests you.
How extensively did you and your partner discuss your retirement plan? Undoubtedly, money was the main priority with the things you would see and do as an afterthought. You may or may not have discussed what it would be like being together 24/7. Probably, you both savored the thoughts of no more stress, the freedom to sleep in, putting your feet up, and doing what you felt like. Unfortunately, most people spend more time planning their next vacation than their retirement. Ironically, retirement is not a permanent vacation or I guess we would better plan for it.
Few couples actually discuss and plan their retirement.
Even if you could afford it, full-time vacation mode would start to get boring real fast. For instance, I used to think how wonderful it would be to retire on a cruise ship. Five-star meals, a new port every day or so, fun activities, entertainment every evening, and even bed turn down. What a way to retire! Except, what I noticed after a 21-day cruise was I was actually looking forward to getting home and the projects that awaited me.I suspect many retirees have convinced themselves they are content with puttering about each day. Also, I believe some feel like something is missing and desire more. The days have become lackluster and they are searching for something that is meaningful and invigorating for them. This can be referred to as a “sense of purpose” and usually extends to making a difference for themselves as well as others. The added benefit is that it gives them happiness in retirement.
I’m sure you are familiar with a retirement calculator. Punch in your numbers and out spews the, potentially, dismal reality of your financial health. At that moment, I suspect everyone wishes they had saved more or that their investments had done better. For better or worse, this is the income that will support the two of you for the rest of your years.
It is often stated that money is the root of all evil and an underlying factor of marital stress. It is not surprising that discussions about money create the most arguments and hard-feelings. For example, he decides they need a new vehicle whereas she wants to go on a cruise. There is not enough money for both so it degrades into a heated debate into how selfish the other one is being.
The #1 source of conflict in retirement is money.
There needs to be open honest conversation in retirement for couples where each of you can express your desires and the reasons why they are important to you. He might identify that their current vehicle has become unreliable and the upcoming repairs will far exceed the cost of replacing it. Further, what he really wants is to drive across the country seeing all America has to offer with his wife. From her perspective, she has dreamed of a Mediterranean cruise for the past 20 years. Close friends of theirs booked a great deal and she wants them to go with them. For her, it would be the trip of a lifetime.
So, who is right? I would argue both are correct and deserve to live their dreams. This situation requires a creative resolution while underscoring the importance of communication. Only by gaining the true intent behind your spouse’s words will either of you be able to resolve this.
Ideally, you have discussed your expectations and desires for how you want your retirement as couples to look. The reality is most of us have been so immersed in work and day-to-day “busyness” that we haven’t seriously thought about retirement, let alone discuss it. The common theme is it’s all going to be good and we’ll figure it out as we go.
Your retirement expectations have been influenced by your life experiences. As well as all the things you have seen and heard from your parents, family and friends. Even a generation ago, retirement was commonly viewed as the beginning of the end, the inevitable decline.
Everything will be good and work itself out.
I believe mindset plays an even greater role in shaping your expectations of retirement. Research substantiates that happy people live longer healthier lives. Maintaining a positive attitude and embracing the next season of your life will help to set the stage for you to begin working through these retirement expectations and achieve retirement happiness.
The first thing to understand is, what are your expectations in retirement as a couple? Most people have a basic idea of what they want and will work through it as things arise. For instance, when to retire, where to retire, how will they get along, and even what to do. These are discussions that need to take place to achieve harmony and alignment in retirement for couples. These may not be easy as neither of you may have fully thought it through. It will require patience and understanding to gain the other’s perspective. There may be opposing thoughts where compromises will need to be thought through.
Most people plan to retire when they achieve their financial numbers and / or when they reach that magical age (for more detail, see Baby Boomer Facts). In spite of the best laid plans, stuff happens and too many people are forced to retire earlier than they planned. This may be due to company layoffs or when health issues arise. For myself, corporate downsizing forced my retirement at the age 53. Obviously, I have moved onto new opportunities such as this website and helping people with retirement.Also, we observe voluntary retirement with companies offering incentives for retiring early. In other situations, the stresses and work environment are not worth the paycheck anymore. My wife recently retired due to the toxicity of a bad boss and being completely undervalued. When it becomes a soul-sucking environment that begins to affect your health, it is time to leave.
Increasingly, few people retire when they planned.
All these factors heighten the need to have meaningful discussions about retirement as a couple. Financially, it may not be viable for both of you to retire at the same time. Your partner may love their work. How will that play out with your retirement dreams?
I keep stressing the importance of communicating with your better half. Unbelievably, the other day I heard a story of a 62-year-old husband announcing to his wife that he officially retired that day. Surprise would be an understatement! “Honey, I’m home” now had taken on a whole new meaning.
As mentioned above, there are numerous situations where one partner might retire before the other. Based on financial need, it is common for one spouse to remain in the workforce especially when the other has been forced into early retirement. In addition, the one still working may love their work and have no intention of retiring anytime soon.
An example is Jack’s story, a hard-working pipe fitter with a nagging back injury who retired early at 57. He knew they would be comfortable enough on his small pension, their savings and eagerly looked forward to spending more time with his wife. The travel plans they discussed over the years excited him and he couldn’t wait until Jill retired.
She felt tremendous guilt because she didn’t want to retire. Only now was she making a real difference in the community. Literally, she was helping thousands of under privileged children every day. After completing her Master’s Degree, she had risen to the position of Director. There was so much work still to be done. Jack was proud of and adored his wife, yet he felt miserable and resentful. Neither knew what to say as Jack became more sullen and difficult to be around.
Resentments can build after one partner retires.
In other situations, the one needing to wake up and go to work each day may become resentful. Especially if work has become little more than a paycheck. They may dread returning home after a long work day because:
It might be considered optimal if a happily married couple retire at or near the same time. They will enjoy the “honeymoon” period together and can do anything they want. They might choose to travel or undertake long delayed projects together. After several weeks or months, reality does begin to set in and being together 24/7 may start to wear thin. Inevitably, there will be an adjustment period that impacts the relationship dynamics.
The lack of personal space often becomes a bone of contention. When you worked, you each had busy separate days. Now you are under the same roof every day. Perhaps you have heard complaints such as “He pads about the house like a lost puppy trying to be helpful. It has been exactly one month and he is driving me crazy!” It is healthy and good for your relationship to agree upon some privacy and personal space for each of you.
Keep in mind that each of you has your own unique needs. Your spouse may be feeling a little lost and never gave any real thought to retirement. You may observe them struggling to find things to fill their day and, in effect, looking for you to entertain them.
One of the greatest challenges in retirement for couples is what to do. In fact, what to do is often touted as the number one challenge. And you need some separate activities. Lots of retirees find themselves bored without an interest or hobby. If your partner is in this situation, encourage them to explore further into something that is meaningful to them. To help you get started with some ideas, go to our article What to do in Retirement.
Also, it is important to have some interests in common to share quality time together. Besides ensuring your relationship prospers, it could be fun. Maybe try something new or that you haven’t done in a while. Examples could include fitness activities such as walking or swimming, dining with other couples, dance lessons or attending cultural events. Regardless, it should be something you both enjoy.
In our modern enlightened age, one would expect to find an equal division of household chores between couples. This is not always the case as some men still perceive the kitchen and household duties to be the wife’s domain. Thus, all this falls upon her shoulders, even in retirement, leading to resentment as he putters about aimlessly. Although less common, the reverse situation can also occur.
Unequal division can create ongoing frustrations.
I expect most men perceive there is a, somewhat, fair distribution. After all, they have always taken out the garbage and mowed the grass. In their defense, they are doing what they have always done. And there is a genuine lack of awareness of all the things that need to be done. Even worse is when he gets so involved in his new-found interest / hobby, any thoughts of helping out dissipate.
To deal with this situation requires tact educating him about all the tasks that need to be done. Make and share a list encouraging him to identify what tasks he can better assist with around the house. Be supportive and acknowledge his contributions.
This can be one of the more contentious issues to agree upon for couples in retirement. You may each have differing opinions on where to live. Never before have there been so many options on where to live in retirement. Whether to stay-in-place, downsize, move closer to the kids, join a senior’s community, or even become RV nomads. Besides impacting your happiness, making a wrong decision can be costly.
Rather than thinking of this as a one-time decision, understand things will change over time. Assuming you are healthy and active and subject to financial ability, the choices are limitless. As we age and slow down, access to health care and other supportive services will take priority.
As a child, I once asked my father if he could live anywhere he wanted, where would that be? I later realized it was a naive question. My father had traveled extensively and had built our home on the acreage he loved. If you are happy where you live, you should stay. Having said that, some of the questions that should be discussed include:
Downsizing to a smaller more manageable property may be the best decision you ever made.
Friends of mine had a beautiful acreage they sold to purchase a condominium. I thought they were nuts at the time! As they shared with me, they were tired of all the upkeep such as snow removal, cutting the grass, house cleaning, etc. There were also significant upcoming costs over the next few years such as replacing the roof and the septic system. They got a good price and were easily able to afford a new condo.
Their new neighbors (all retired) and the community spirit delighted them. In fact, they have been on numerous trips with their new friends including a Rhine river cruise. In addition, now they have more time to spend with family and pursue their golfing passion.
The most common regret is making a hasty decision.
On the other hand, one of the most common mistakes retirees make is rushing headlong into downsizing. All too often, they sell their home and many of their belongings only to discover they are not happy in their new place. There are many situations where this could occur and it is highly recommended you do your homework. Choosing your lifestyle in retirement as a couple should be discussed in depth. Also, it should be something that excites both of you. As well, a poor choice can erode your retirement savings.
Of all the conversations, intimacy is like the elephant in the room. Most of us grew up in an era where “Birds and Bees” topics were never openly discussed. Certainly, my parents were uncomfortable how to explain any of it. Perhaps your parents, also, left out a book for you to learn on your own. It raised more questions than it answered, but my school buddies filled in the blanks for me. Did you know a girl could get pregnant if she sat on the same toilet seat as a boy?
Little boys modeled themselves after their strong silent fathers and were taught to never show weakness. On the other hand, girls quickly learned that to be popular they needed to be pretty and slim. Raging hormones and the unspoken words “Good girls don’t …” became another conflicting message.
Intimacy discussions are like the elephant in the room.
With all this social conditioning, it’s no wonder that we’re uncomfortable having open discussions about intimacy. Intimacy is much more than “dropping our drawers and getting it on”. Even after years together, it can be a minefield trying to discuss the emotional and physical aspects of intimacy.
When you first got together, the romance flowed easily. Then came the kids and the treadmill of grueling careers. As the years flew by, romance slipped onto the back burner. Most retirement advice given on how to rekindle passion is by simply scheduling “date” nights. Whereas this sounds like a good solution, there may be underlying issues that need to be addressed and resolved first. For instance, one partner may feel neglected and feel less emotionally connected. They may not feel comfortable expressing their concerns (at least yet) and just hope it gets better. Their partner may sense something wrong but instead of discussing it, they pull back with a wounded ego. The gap widens until a way can be found to talk it through.Emotional intimacy heightens feeling safe and secure in your relationship. Also, knowing and trusting that your partner has your best interests at heart. On a daily basis, show you care with an understanding smile, a gentle touch, or just taking the time to listen.
For the majority of people, sex drive diminishes as we age. Weight gain or hair loss can impact self-esteem making us feel less attractive. This becomes a double whammy if your partner comments on it especially in an unkind manner. Also, medical conditions, menopause, hormonal changes or even medications can reduce the desire for physical intimacy.
Likely, your spouse won’t understand what is happening and may internalize it upon themselves if they view you as pulling back. We all need reassurance and validation that love is alive and well. Again, this can be another difficult conversation.
In conclusion, couples in retirement may experience many challenges during this transition. Open honest communication can transform your relationship as you enter the next phase of your lives. The next 20 – 30 years of life can be the best of your life or become a unending period filled with misery and misunderstandings.
The choice is up to the two of you. Undoubtedly, there will be difficult conversations and compromises that need to be made on your journey. Bon voyage!