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How to Avoid Living Unhappily Ever After in Retirement

Couples need to discuss their plans, expectations, hopes and fears before it's too late

By Miriam Goodman | March 7, 2013

As 75 million Americans approach retirement over the coming decade, they might be in for a rude awakening. Many long-married couples take it for granted that when one of them retires, the other will retire at the same time, or soon thereafter, and that their life together will be wonderful and fulfilling.
 
Yet according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, less than 20 percent of couples retire in the same year. This means that many are out of sync out of the gate. What if she wants to move across the country to be near the grandkids and he prefers a cabin by the lake so he can fish?
 
You wouldn’t dream of retiring without a financial game plan, but what so many couples fail to realize is that they also need an emotional playbook. Tremendous conflict can arise when partners fail to articulate their hopes and dreams for retirement, as well as their candid fears about the future.
 
(MORE: The Retirement Talk Couples Need to Have — Now!)
 
Communicating Your Hopes for the Future
 
For better and for worse, retirement imposes major changes on a marriage, and change is always stressful. Ending a career, especially one that has been rewarding, is a major life transition. On top of all the lifestyle shifts that come with it, it’s ultimately a loss, so people need time to mourn. Couples cannot pretend that they or the marriage are the same. 
 
As a writer "of a certain age," i was curious about my peers' attitudes toward retirement, so about seven years ago I began interviewing them. I spoke with several hundred men and women over 60 who were either already retired or just starting to think about it. What I found most shocking was the level of denial and postponement in thinking about the togetherness issue. While many people had been diligent about saving and investing, few had considered the psychological jolt that usually accompanies the end of a career.
 
And the more people I talked with, the more I heard the same concerns.
 
I wound up writing two books on the subject: The first (Reinventing Retirement: 398 Bright Ideas About Family, Friends, Health, What to Do and Where to Live) covered general issues. But because I saw how much the marital relationship changes at retirement, I also wrote Too Much Togetherness: Surviving Retirement as a Couple.
 
Interestingly, this life transition doesn’t seem to affect women the same way it does men — even those who’ve enjoyed a long and fruitful career. The end of women’s working lives is often less traumatic because so many are multitaskers, and work is just one of many fulfilling things in their lives.
 
At the same time, almost every woman expressed anxiety about her husband’s post-retirement life. Even though a large percentage of the men said they were looking forward to days of “puttering around the garden” and enjoying their hobbies, almost none had considered how so much time together might affect their marriages.
 
The big takeaway was the “dirty little secret” that so many were reluctant to express: that 24 hours a day together is too much. I could almost boil the book down to this one sentiment: “I really love my husband, but sometimes when I’m driving down the street and see his car in the driveway, I want to just keep going.” 
 
(MORE: Survival Guide for Couples Who Are Always Together)
 
Men and Women Have Different Expectations
 
For many unhappy-together couples, the problem starts when they don’t have the same expectations of retirement, then it gets exacerbated when they don’t talk about it. For some people, this is a long-awaited time for new adventures, new or deeper connections with loved ones and discovering a new purpose. For others, it means a lot of time relaxing: in the hammock, at the computer or on the golf course.
 
To not drive each other crazy, couples need a mutually acceptable game plan for the future. They need to think about and discuss how they want to spend their time, including how much time they want to spend together. These talks should begin long before retirement.
 
It’s important to acknowledge the gender differences. Many of my male interviewees had made their careers the primary focus of their lives. It was how they measured themselves against others and was the main source of their self-image. Some admitted that they felt less valued if they were no longer bringing in money; others were clearly apprehensive about doing “nothing” for a while.
 
Difficulty adjusting to retirement is not a uniquely American problem. Two decades ago, a Japanese physician found that as many as 60 percent of wives of Japanese retirees were suffering from similar physical symptoms, which included depression, tension headaches, stomach ulcers, rashes and other signs of stress. He dubbed this "retired husband syndrome," and researchers speculated that the women were becoming ill because their retired husbands were treating them as if they were still the boss. This is why communication is critical.
 
Of course, not all women find the transition to their own retirement easy. Some reported feeling like they were playing hooky if they visited a museum in the middle of a weekday. “Will people take me seriously if I am obviously not working?” one asked.
 
Others found it hard to find female companionship as their friends were still working or were absorbed with grandchildren. More than a few were disappointed that their husbands were not sharing in the housekeeping. One said that she felt she must either learn to play bridge or golf or face a future without friends. “I feel so isolated when my friends drop everything to spend time with their grandkids because I'm not blessed with any yet. Where are the other adults who want to do adult things?” 
 
A 60-year-old writer in New Mexico whose husband has been retired for two years told me he seems “stuck in neutral” and that their time together is stressful rather than joyful. “While I respect his right to retire, I am struggling to find a way to enjoy my own life. I’ve adjusted my schedule and tried every way I can think of to negotiate and communicate. I love him, but I need to be a person in my own right. Our marriage has suffered more in the past two years that it did in the previous 35.”
 
7 Tips to Survive Retirement as a Couple
 
Whether you and your partner’s plans for the future are 100 percent on the same page or totally out of sync, these suggestions will help you create a balancing act and happier future.

  1. Take time to adjust to being retired. You don’t have to do everything you’ve been planning the first month. And be patient with each other, especially if you want to get up and go and he wants to sleep in without an alarm clock for a while.
  2. Express yourself if your partner wants to do something that you don’t. If you are used to accommodating just to keep the peace, it is not too late to change that.
  3. Stay connected to the outside world by taking classes, joining clubs, volunteering or being involved in your community.
  4. Negotiate sharing more household responsibility. If your partner didn’t help with these duties before, suggest he start with the things you dislike the most and take it from there.
  5. Stay active. Exercise, play sports, go to the gym and consider beginning each day with a walk — together. It’s good for your health and can be a nice ritual for discussing your plans for the day.
  6. Make sure you each have enough “alone time” and respect each other’s schedules.
  7. Plan, but don’t overplan or overschedule. Leave time to do the unexpected or to just hang out.
Miriam Goodman is a San Francisco writer, public relations consultant and award-winning radio and TV producer who has produced features for NPR and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.