Sunday, November 27, 2011

Couples Claustrophobia

It's a common side effect of retirement: the emotional claustrophobia that happens when couples are thrown together for far more time than they have ever had together, sometimes in a smaller home than before.

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.


  1. These are really good tips. I have seen my parents make the very best of their retirement, but I have also seen others who plunge into misery during what should be the best times of their lives. Thank you sfor sharing!

  2. Dear Kathy,
    As Shelly says, "these are really good tips" for any group of people living together--whether they be a married couple or simply friends who rent an apartment or house together to make their Social Security stretch farther.

    I live alone, but I've observed how well my brother and sister-in-law have handled his retirement. They instinctively seem to have come up with some of these tips that you are offering couples. What a service you've done for your readers.

    Thank you, Kathy, for your comments on my blog. I so appreciate your understanding of monasticism.


  3. So much of this post resonates with me! Fortunately for us we each are able to have our own study and both of us have a bit of a 'loner' mentality. But still we can drive each other crazy. Like so many men I've heard about, my husband doesn't have 'mates', while I have 'girlfriends' to share burdens and feelings. And I made a rule a long time ago about meals0 -- though it's not written in stone and there are exceptions: I'll take care of dinner, but you get your own breakfast and lunch -- at least most of the time. And that rule applies to guests as well!!

  4. Well said. I really worried that my husband would never adjust to retirement and would be under foot too much. I couldn't have been more wrong. While we both get on each other's nerves at times, we seems to have settled into a routine that works for both of us. He does his thing at various times, and I do mine. It helps that we have a large home that allows us to have our own space in which to work, read, relax, or get away from each other at various times during the day.

  5. Great advice Kathy. I keep telling my husband not to retire until he figures out what HE'LL do with HIMSELF when he's not working. I won't be his social secretary and he's not allowed to follow me around :-)

    Of course, he'll never retire because he can't imagine what he'll do with himself.

    Cheers, jj

  6. Reading this makes me glad that I didn't remarry. My favorite bumper sticker is:
    Retired: Half the money, twice the husband.
    I have friends who have adjusted quite well-- others are struggling. Think I will send the strugglers your post. Well done.
    Arkansa Patti

  7. We know the rules. Sometimes we break them, to our detriment.

    Our main rule is, between 8 and 5 we're on our own. We can be in the same room, but we're on our own. Unless something comes up!

  8. All excellent ideas, Kathy. Rick and I often joke that if we lived in the same house, we'd probably kill each other! Different living styles and I suppose when one retires, that becomes all the more prominent! Seriously, though, it really makes a different to have "your thing." You may know what you want to do and not be able to till retirement, but at least have a plan.

  9. I guess, despite our differences, we've managed to live amicably most of the time and do respect each other's space. I'm the social butterfly and he's the recluse. We get together at 5:00, have a drink, fix dinner together and talk about what's been going on all day.Fortunately for me, he's an attentive and respectful listener.
    Your advice is so valuable, Kathy, and we appreciate you.

  10. Good suggestions. My husband isn't retired yet, so my transition to retirement has been fairly easy. It will be a big adjustment when he finally does retire. Thank goodness he has his workshop with all his tools and toys, cable TV, a fridge with beer, and a woodstove for those cold Oregon winters. When his friends come over they all head to the shop to socialize.

  11. Kathy,
    Your post came at just the right time for my hubby and me. He's been forced compelled into a semi retirement state of mind. First thing he started doing was bugging the hell out of me!
    I've been semi-retired for 11 years, so I have it down pat. Have hobbies, interests, social events already in place. he was like a deer caught in the headlights.

    First thing I told him (other than look for work & I printed up free business cards for him) was to get a hobby. Our barn still needs electricity, so I am giving him the money to finish that project! Then, he'll be out of the house. LOL! Inside that barn is a 2 year unfinished project of putting a new engine inside a 2000 jeep and then selling it. Couldn't do it without electricity, now hubby has something to do & keep him busy.

    And away from me.

    In the interim, he started reading in the afternoons, listening to talk radio as I forbid any TV on before 4PM.

    We'll get there. Thanks for the tips.

  12. Awesome advice for couples dealing with having their spouses home after all their years away keeping themselves busy.
    Unfortunately I don't have that problem since I live alone but I have noticed even in myself that since I lost my job I need more in my life that what I am doing now.
    I took you up on your kind offer and wrote you a long email. I don't know if you got it or not. But I do appreciate you so much
    Oh I almost forgot I wanted to tell you I am having a long over due giveaway so I hope you can enter

  13. Dr. Kathy, this is the best advice everyone should read before and during their first few years of retirement. These are all big changes we never planned for.

  14. Audrey Hepburn always said couples should live next door to each other and visit occasionally. Luckily for me my husband is potty about woodwork and although he has still to work for another two years, we already plannning and setting ground rules. I see that the most important thing for me will be a knowledge of first aid - I shall have bandages/plasters cut up and ready for him in the garage! (Past experience has prepared me).