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An Emotional Playbook for Couples in Retirement

6 tips to navigate a time of life that brings so many changes


We’d only been retired for a few weeks when the questions started coming.

“How’re you doing with so much time together?” we heard from friends, both the still-working and the long-retired alike, their voices knit with concern.

I was a little puzzled. My husband and I had been married for nearly 35 years and got along just fine. What mysteries could possibly await us?

Yet apparently we’d stumbled onto new ground in Elder Country, where each couple must blaze their own trail. We met one pair who can’t get enough of each other, traversing the country in the close quarters of an RV and spending months at a time volunteering at national parks, often living in remote sites with no TV, cell or Wi-Fi.

And on the other end of the spectrum, we met a couple who’d agreed to more or less ignore each other until 5 p.m. on weekdays, mimicking the schedule they’d kept during their working lives. This was not done with any hostility; it was simply a pattern of interaction that worked for them.

Where would we fit in?

As time went on, I realized that our concerned friends had a point: Retired couples do need to hash things out.

The stakes are high. While nearly 80 million boomers are retiring at a rate of some 10,000 per day, according to the Social Security Administration and other sources — the divorce rate of older Americans is also rising. Among people ages 65 and older, divorces have roughly tripled since 1990. At least some of that discontent is caused by problems that surface in retirement.

Couples in Retirement: Preparing for the Next Stage

“Due to our heightened expectations of marriage and also to our healthier life spans, most people are no longer willing to stay in a boring marriage ‘until death do us part,’” noted sociologist Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Austin, Texas-based Council on Contemporary Families.

But even if divorce is not on the menu, couples need to prepare — beyond finances and health care — for a life stage that brings so many changes. Most of us don’t blithely stumble into marriage or childbirth, perhaps because those transitions carry so many obvious red flags. Retirement, on the other hand, seems like 100 percent ease, a hard-earned gift of time. In spite of that, couples need an “emotional playbook,” said Miriam Goodman, author of Too Much Togetherness: Surviving Retirement as a Couple.

Navigating the Challenges, Enjoying the Experience

Luckily for all of us, a number of sociologists and other experts have weighed in on marital harmony in retirement. Here are six key pieces of advice:

Communicate clearly  “It’s not you, it’s me.” If one of you needs more alone time, make sure your partner understands it’s a part of your nature, rather than a rejection of his or her company. Presumably, your spouse knows a bit about your temperament after so many years together, but a whopping 40 hours a week of newly freed time can be a wake-up call to each partner’s needs and plans. A need for “more space” can be addressed quite literally by designating separate rooms for each partner as mostly his or hers, if possible.

Cultivate separate hobbies and friendships  “Couples should focus on building their individual social lives to avoid becoming too dependent on each other or spending too much time together,” advised sociologist Rob Pascale, co-author (with Louis H. Primavera and Rip Roach) of The Retirement Maze: What You Should Know Before and After You Retire. “In addition to maintaining and strengthening existing friendships, retirees can consider joining clubs and organizations so they have opportunities for developing new independent relationships.”

Spend time with others as a couple  “People report the happiest feelings when they socialize with their partner and other adults, not just with the partner,” said Coontz. “And a whole lot of studies show that having friends beyond your family or spouse as you age is an extremely important contribution to people’s mental and physical well-being. It’s a protective factor on the same order as keeping physically fit and not smoking.”

Understand that retirement brings different challenges for men and women  By most accounts, men have the tougher time. Many women have moved in and out of the workforce while raising children, and, culturally, have been encouraged to place a higher value on close friendships. They’ve also been assigned more of the day-to-day domestic activities that await the retiree.

The emphasis of men’s role as providers first and foremost, spending less time cultivating friendships and managing the home, leaves many men more at a loss when the workweek vanishes. That, in turn, can become a problem for women who find their husbands suddenly underfoot.

Couples can kill two birds with one stone by: a) agreeing that each partner will pursue new activities and friendships and b) negotiating an equal division of domestic chores, even if the woman had done the lion’s share while both partners worked.

Partners who both work should retire at the same time, if possible  “Researchers have found that when spouses retire together, the marriage is seldom affected by their joint decision; good marriages will stay good and bad marriages bad. But problems can occur when only half of a two-income couple retires,” said Pascale.

By retiring together, partners avoid such issues as changes in the dynamics of the relationship  —only one person “bringing home the bacon,” for example, can cause problems — or interference with the retired partner’s ability to participate in certain types of activities or social events. Retiring together also provides each partner with some emotional support as they try to adjust to their new living arrangements, Pascale noted.

Allow yourselves time to adjust  “Be patient with each other,” said Goodman. It takes time and experimentation to find a groove. Maybe one partner will decide to take a part-time job or a significant volunteering commitment that feels like a job, while the other is happy with less structure.

It is sobering to recognize that retirement represents our last years of life, our time to finally do whatever we wish — health and resources permitting. That freedom is a tremendous gift; one that, with good communication and understanding, couples can make the most of together.

Joan Fischer
By Joan Fischer
Joan Fischer is a freelance writer specializing in higher education, nonprofits and travel/discovery.

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