A neighbor I'll call Leslie told me recently that she feels crowded now that her husband is home all the time. A former corporate project manager, he is restless, not sure what to do with himself. And he is driving her crazy He has been busy utilizing his project management skills in a new way: telling her how to load the dishwasher, how to organize the laundry room, more efficient ways to tackle housecleaning -- all things that were of no interest to him whatsoever in the 40 years of their marriage before retirement.
"We need to get away from each other," she told me. "I have this fantasy of us living in two small houses, side by side. Mine would be filled with books and cats. His would be spare and immaculate with a big screen t.v. tuned perpetually to sports. And we'd visit each other regularly, amorously and otherwise, but we would also enjoy solitary splendor in homes perfect for us."
Then there was my friend Beth and her husband: he had been corporate CEO, she had built life of volunteer and community leadership -- serving on the local school board and heading the board of directors of the local symphony. Life was full for both. However, when her husband was forced into retirement in a corporate merger, he sat around all day clutching the t.v. remote, calling from the couch "When's lunch?" or "What's for dinner?" or "Bring me a beer."
All that passive t.v. watching after such an active career made me think that he might be depressed.
"Depressed???" Beth was nearly screaming. "No, he's fine. He's happy as a clam. I'm the one who's depressed! I can't stand him being around all the time and expecting me to drop everything to wait on him!"
Not surprisingly, the 43-year marriage disintegrated two years into retirement.
While other marriages remain strong and frustration is less pronounced, I've heard other wives worry about husbands feeling lost and at loose ends after retirement. Many had no hobbies or interests outside of work. Some have become more dependent on their wives for entertainment, social planning and general activity management. And some of the wives report feeling tied down or crowded.
Sometimes old issues surface for the first time after retirement. Martha, a lifelong homemaker who says that her career prospects as a journalist were destroyed by her husband's highly mobile corporate career, has little patience with his grumbling about the inconveniences of their recent relocation to a retirement community. "I've had to adjust all these years, not being able to pursue my own interests and career ambitions," she says with more than a little bitterness. "Now it's your turn to adjust."
What can a couple do before and after retirement to minimize the possibility of relationship claustrophobia once full-time togetherness becomes a reality?
Taking steps to prepare for this major lifestyle change -- preferably well before retirement -- can help to prevent feeling overwhelmed and crowded when marital togetherness becomes full-time.
If you don't have any hobbies or interests outside of work, find some well before retirement. Don't expect your spouse to take full responsibility for keeping life interesting. Think about things you enjoyed as a child or young adult. Would any of these activities please you once more? What have you always thought you'd like to try if you only had the time? Try it now -- preferably before retirement. If you go into retirement with interests, hobbies and a plan for your leisure time, the transition is likely to be much smoother. Sleeping and television watching don't count. Look for activities that engage your interest and skills in a new way.
Discuss making positive lifestyle changes with your spouse. Maybe you can divide the household work to create more leisure for both. If you're both retired, is it fair that one person still gets stuck with the housework? Or all the cooking? Unless one of you prefers to take on or retain the total responsibility for these tasks, it might make sense to renegotiate.
Create little retreats for each of you. One couple told me that once they realized they were fighting to create space and alone time, they decided on a more peaceful solution: they made little retreats for themselves at opposite ends of the house. Even if you're planning to move and scale down, look for a new home with the possibilities of room for both of you to enjoy solitary pursuits as well as shared interests.
Give yourself some structure as well as freedom. Transitioning from the structure of work life to the freedom of retirement can be a shock. Ease the passage with some structure: a morning work-out, a walk, a time to read the newspaper. Bob and I make work-outs our first morning priority (before we change our minds or come up with excuses not to go to the gym) and after that is free time. We've retained our Wednesday major housecleaning time from our working years. Bob goes to the movies on Tuesdays. We take the golf cart out for a trip to the local McDonald's for a Sunday morning Egg McMuffin.The clear priorities and little scheduled treats ensure that we get daily exercise, have a clean house and always something to look forward to. In between is a lot of free time for shared interests, socializing and individual pursuits.
Give each other a break. You don't have to share all your interests. But it can help to be supportive of each other's choices. "My husband Joe loves golf and plays nearly every day," my friend Pat said the other day. "When he's playing golf, I love to sit down, read and just enjoy the quiet. The t.v. is never on when he's gone. As soon as he comes home, he turns on the t.v. That's okay. That's what he likes. What makes it work for us is that each of us gets to enjoy time alone and time together."
If you find you're not quite ready to retire -- after retiring -- look for new outlets of satisfaction. This might mean more community involvement, more volunteer work or part-time employment.
Don't expect your spouse to meet all your needs. Though your husband or wife may be your best friend, closest companion and true love throughout your marriage, it's quite likely that from youth to older age, friends and family members have enriched your days as well. Maybe there's a special ease sitting down to talk with a sister or close cousin. If your wife can't stand fishing or your husband hates shopping -- friends can come to the rescue. Think of how this has worked for you all your life. Why should things be different now? Even if you've moved to a new location, it's important to make an effort to make friends, reach out and connect with others.
Having more time together is a dream for those of us who had far too little time to enjoy each other when we were working. But it takes careful planning, personal reflection and talking together about daily tasks, activities and priorities to make sure that your time together reflects this dream of togetherness -- not a claustrophobic nightmare.