Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Making Marriage Work in Retirement

He approached me quietly at the gym not long ago. His voice was urgent and barely above a whisper. "I've got an idea for something you should write in your blog," he said, glancing over his shoulder and leaning in to keep the conversation just between us.

"Write something about making marriage work in retirement."

And then he was gone.

It's a rich topic. Many couples dream about retirement for years and yet find the reality can bring unexpected challenges to marriages that have weathered many previous life events.

But some of the challenges of aging and retirement are unique.

  • There is the reality of being in a long marriage. There may be some bitter feelings scattered through the very real joy that a long marriage can bring: you have the pleasure of shared experiences and of knowing and understanding each other well, but you can also harbor old anger and resentment.
  •  There are the losses and challenges of retiring:  For many, there is the loss of a career (and those who did not choose to leave their jobs voluntarily can feel especially poignant feelings of loss). There is the quest for new ways to make life meaningful. There are changing or challenging roles within the home. How does an executive who had everyone at work doing for him segue into a new life at home? How does a woman for whom the home was her domain react to sharing her time and space full-time? How do two-career couples whose frantic schedules grind to a halt in retirement come to terms with big stretches of time alone together? And how does a couple work out their differences when one of them is embracing the freedom of retirement while the other is grieving the loss of his or her career?
  • There is the pervasive possibility of loss: It's always there and we see it, feel it, as we age and retire. We face the prospect, at some point, of losing not only each other, but also our strength and health and vitality. And we face the loss of some dreams with those new limitations. It isn't just a matter of not having that chance to be a young prodigy, but also the opportunity to pursue a new career or do a lot of traveling as energy and financial resources diminish. And sometimes we grieve these losses -- both present and future -- together and sometimes they may come between us as one partner becomes frail while the other is still vigorous.
  •  There is new isolation. Especially if you move to a new place, you may find yourselves relying more on each other as you settle in and slowly build new support systems. Even you have decided to age in place, there is still that sense of the world speeding by, of children and grandchildren busy with own lives at a time when you have more time than ever to enjoy being with them.
  • There is increased togetherness: While this can be wonderful, a dream come true, it can also be a challenge when all the time you once enjoyed with co-workers and friends has now become time for the two of you together. This new togetherness can be a decidedly mixed bag: it can delight and can also grate on the nerves. Especially if you have also decided to downsize your home during retirement, you may find yourself feeling more than a little couple's claustrophobia.
There are no easy answers or quick solutions to these marriage-in-retirement issues. However, there are some ideas to ponder as you work through some of the rough spots that may come up in your marriage at this new phase of life.

1. Emphasize the positive and make a decision to resolve old anger or let it go.  Some couples find themselves in marriage counseling for the first time after retirement and quite often, it is due to residual hurt and anger that surface during the stress of moving on to a new phase of life.

One couple I know have old issues around the husband's constant travel and frequent relocations during the working and child-raising phase of their marriage.  Due to his business travel, the husband was loving, but largely checked in on his wife and kids for years, not having much significant daily involvement in their lives. And the family's frequent relocations meant that the kids were constantly (and sometimes unhappily) adjusting to new schools and that the wife never had a chance to establish her own career. When they were making a decision about retirement relocation, the wife insisted that "I get to choose this because I've never had a chance to choose anything else!" And she has a short fuse when she hears him complaining about the stresses of adjusting to a new place.

A short course of couples counseling helped them to empathize more with each other -- she with his sense of loss over the end of his long career and difficulty adjusting to life at home in a different place and he with her long-time frustration in feeling that she didn't have a voice in their life choices as she functioned as a married single mom and mourned the career she never had. Both have encouraged each other in new pursuits: he as a community volunteer and she as a fitness instructor at a local gym. And they report that they are happier than they have ever been in their new life.

Some marriages strain a bit as the partners age and become more themselves than ever before. I see it daily. People who are selfish and self-centered become more so. People who are warm and gregarious glow through their later years. And those of us with an eclectic mixture of traits might become a bit more annoying or endearing depending on the various traits. Packrats may become hoarders. Those of us who love to tell stories may repeat ourselves more often than we would like. These and other possibilities may keep our partners on edge.

As well as making an attempt to reign in behavior that threatens to drive a spouse crazy (my personal project is to be more circumspect about political ranting -- my liberal-Democrat-lone-voice crying-in-the desert-of-a-very-conservative Republican state -- that can drive my husband, a moderately conservative independent voter, wild with frustration), it can also help to focus on a spouse's positive aspects when his or her other traits are driving you nuts. When your spouse isn't being a grump or a wild-eyed political fanatic, he or she may be wonderfully kind and supportive, have a great sense of humor or simply be all around good company. Focusing on the positive can get a couple over a lot of rough spots.

And, at this stage, perhaps one of the greatest positives and daily blessings is that you still have each other.

2. Try to understand each other's losses and struggles for meaning. These are highly individual. And they come up when least expected. Don't ever diminish or demean a spouse's mourning the past or trying to reframe the future.

Besides the former corporate executives struggling with lost power and prestige, there are men and women who simply miss aspects of their working lives even as they embrace retirement.

For example, I found myself having such a moment while spending an hour in a psychiatrist's waiting room recently while my husband had a consultation about medication for his epilepsy-related depression. I watched as patients came into the waiting room and the mental health professionals -- psychiatrist, psychologist, marriage family therapist -- welcomed them into their offices. And I felt a twinge of sadness, remembering how very much I enjoyed seeing patients and working with them through an incredible variety of life crises. There are several reasons why I'm choosing not to practice in Arizona (though my California license remains valid). One is that Arizona has, essentially, no license reciprocity and I would have to go through a 1500 hour internship and take a licensing exam as if I were just out of school in order to practice. No thanks. The second and most compelling reason is that, at this stage of my life after many years of working multiple jobs at a time, I want to devote myself to my writing -- and to good health, family and good friends.  But there are moments -- like this one in the doctor's office -- when my heart aches for a moment about leaving a cherished part of my work life behind.

As we drove home, I expressed my sadness and my husband hit just the right note of empathy -- validating my sadness as well as my joy at having a chance to spend more time writing and accepting my bittersweet feelings for what they were -- without feeling he had to come up with a solution or criticizing me for longing for a career I quite deliberately chose to give up.

I see spouses in this active adult community spar over their losses and longings. One wife complains that her husband "just doesn't know what to do with himself now that he's retired. He watches t.v. or just sits doing nothing. Or he tells me how to do housework but doesn't move off his rear end to help." If she could recognize the mourning and depression behind his inertia, she might be able to offer more emotional support -- as well as eliciting some help around the house. Planning fun things to do together to break out of the inertia or encouraging new interests and pursuits can go a long way in restoring marital peace and harmony.

3. Make peace with the reality of physical loss and the challenges that entails.  There are so many things we long to do in retirement, some things postponed until now. But, at this stage of life, so much can happen physically to alter the scenario of active adventures while seeing the world. Sometimes one spouse is still robust while another becomes frail. And there can be resentment and frustration as well as devotion. Resolving these issues can take a lot of compassion and generosity from both spouses.

Some neighbors of ours, both of whom love travel and who had hoped to do much more of it, have come to the conclusion that their traveling days are largely over. The husband has mobility and balance problems that make it impossible for him to explore destinations, even on a cruise. And the wife is about to start kidney dialysis, which will limit the timing and locations of any future trips. They agree that they have many lovely memories of travel and are content now to be home with each other.

Another couple -- where the husband is active and the wife is increasingly frail -- has resolved matters in a different way. The husband has joined the community hiking club which takes day trips as well as overnight hiking adventures while the wife stays home, content with various, less strenuous community activities.

It can help to encourage each other to do what is possible and to be compassionate with each other about what isn't possible any more.

4. Find new ways to connect to children, grandchildren and extended family.  The desire to stay close to kin can play itself out in relationship conflicts.

I see this in couples who have moved away from kids and grandkids -- and one spouse grieves the distance while the other spouse celebrates the fact that loved ones are farther away now. I see this in couples who have pulled up roots to move closer to the younger generation, only to find that their kids are so busy with working and child-rearing that visiting time is limited.

While some neighbors have made compromises that please both spouses like periodic trips back to see the kids or a shared family vacations, others are finding new joy through technology. Skype and Facetime are big hits in this community as a way to have face-to-face visits across the miles with those they love most. While one may miss hugs, the chance to have a virtual visit in real time can help fill the gap. Now that my brother and his family are returning to live in Thailand for the foreseeable future, I have enjoyed -- and look forward to many more -- virtual visits. The last time we talked, I showed my brother the waves rolling to shore at Napili Bay in Maui and he showed me the skyline of Bangkok from their 37th story condo in the middle of the city. And I got to see his daughter Maggie -- waking up and a bit cranky before she started smiling -- in very real time.

Some retired couples come to realize that family plans must be revised. One very dear friend of mine has a lovely guest room in her beach condo that I have enjoyed quite a few times. However, her kids, both of whom live in different states and who are busy with careers and growing children, have spent much less time there than she had hoped. As we talked over holiday plans recently, she told me that she had come to the conclusion that if they want to see the kids and the grands, she and her disabled husband will have to go to them. It's something her husband has been wanting to do for some time while she has held off, daunted by the physical logistics.

Now she is changing her mind."While it's physically easier for them to travel than it is for us, I'm increasingly aware of the fact that we have the time to visit them while getting away is just so hard for them," she told me recently. "So while it's still possible -- if challenging -- for us to travel, we're going to go to them rather than continuing to expect them to come to us."

5. Create space -- in time and location -- to decrease irritability.  Especially for couples who have not spent a lot of time day to day together, retirement can be a shock. It can be particularly difficult if they have relocated away from family and old friends and are suddenly more dependent on each other. This increased familiarity can mean new closeness or, at times, it can truly breed contempt.

"When we realized that we were fighting more just to create some comfortable emotional space, we decided to find a less stressful way to do that," a college friend of mine confided not long ago. "We fixed up the small basement of our townhouse to make it a retreat for one of us to use when we need time apart. So far, so good!"

My husband and I love spending time together, but were mindful of the fact that we both need considerable solitude as well as togetherness. Our small, 1300 square foot house in California was great for us when we were working and commuting long hours and saw each other mostly on weekends. While many couples downsize their living quarters in retirement, we went in the other direction: buying a new, less expensive home in Arizona that has nearly twice the square footage of our previous home. The special spaces for Bob's art and music, my writing, our prodigious reading have led to much contentment and calm in our retirement.

Other couples I know create space in time -- enjoying time away with special friends or activities as well as time together. Paying attention to your need to take time for yourself or time out with a friend can help rather than hurt your marriage.

How you make marriage work in retirement is very much like how you make retirement work for you: it takes co-operation and planning and an open mind for the myriad of possibilities. While this profound life change can be a challenge, it can also be a chance to celebrate your life together -- and to rejoice in the fact that you still have each other.


  1. This is such an excellent post, Kathy. I can relate to every one of your points and your advice is absolutely right. Sometimes I think that couples plan too much of their retirement before they are actually living it-- I don't think you can know how it will be for you until you are living it. But it does help to have plans for those 'eventualities' that are going to happen once we age.

  2. These are very compelling and thoughtful. Even with me considering retiring (and embarking on a second career) very soon, my husband will work probably another decade or so. Still, it's not too early to consider this and making not just physical preparations, but emotional and mental ones, too.

  3. My husband is a long way from retirement. I really haven't gave it much thought as to what we would do at that time. I know we will stay living where we live or at least that is what we want to do. Our kids are still in school so we have no idea where they will go once they graduate. We'll just have to wait and see what happens.

  4. You have covered many topics here, all very useful and appropriate. I'd love to see this available to the bigger world. Won't you send this article to AARP or other magazines that serve seniors? It would be most appreciated by many.

  5. BRAVO!! Once again you have nailed it. I am thankful that you are spending time writing and blogging about your observations of our lives being married and retired. This lifestyle certainly makes us do a gut check and a reality check...and the outcome of each can be painful. Having an understanding and compassionate spouse makes the pain less painful. Since you are not going to get licensed in AZ...how about workshops or discussion groups to help us get a grip?

  6. Life is for living and unless you are sick, there are tons of stuff to get into together or not get into together, depending on who you are and what you do.
    One thing I learned in this world is no matter what you do, there is never time to get bored.
    My grand mother told me that if she knew, when she was young what she knew then as an old person, she would laugh at all the things she got mad at.If her husband had lived, she would never argue with him and treasure him as her life mate.
    For old people it's the same as for young people.
    You never know what you had till it's gone, so treasure what you have, love it, enjoy your time in the sun.

  7. The separate and together time issue is still being worked on. I'm a talker and my husband i not. It's hard for me to be silent while my husband reads the paper, but that's what he needs.

    We are beginning to adjust our travel schedule as well so we are both comfortable with the activity level that's right for us.

  8. Some great food for thought, esp. for my situation, #4. Our kids are all moving away, developing new relationships, and I have to keep reminding myself that they're not teenagers anymore. For me, keeping a positive loving relationship with my significant other is easy compared to watching the kids grow up. Man, that's hard!

    P. S. Re. your previous post. I got a kick out of seeing Martha Stewart's picture at Macy's the other day. She's over 70, but (I don't know how they do it) they make her look mid-40s in the photo.

  9. Dear Kathy, of course, I don't have a husband, nor have I ever. So I didn't retire with someone. But as I read your blog I thought of my brother and his wife, my sister-in-law. They've been married for 52 years and they so support one another in their interests.

    They are, for me, the model of how to retire and build new lives: my brother joined a neighborhood golf club and has met many golfing "buddies." My sister-in-law has joined the local garden club and served in many positions on its board. She has monthly meetings and garden shows to prepare for and the two of them listen to one another as they share their plans: his problems with his drive off the tee and her problems with design for a show and whether she'll get a blue ribbon. They truly are lovely together. Peace.

  10. Such a wealth of information here. It also applies to when a spouse is between jobs, in which case there can be additional, or maybe just different, pressures. I'll be back to re-read :)

  11. I just discovered your blog and found this post to be especially timely since my husband and I are just months away from retirement. Thank you for your insight. I have a feeling I will refer to this post often as we enter this new phase in our lives.

  12. There can be Resentment and Frustration as well as Devotion... WOW, well said in a nutshell! As The Man's Health became Frail, Mom grew increasingly Old & Frail & more Dependant upon me, and I inherited two G-Kids to raise that have a lot of Health Baggage, my Dreams, Career & Goals came to a screeching halt and I became "Full Time Caregiver" in a Role I was not fully prepared for since it consumes you and isolates you Socially and you find yourself doing almost everything Alone... both in the Caregiving and the precious rare Free Time you can manage. YOU get lost in the minutia and there's no Care for the Caregiver since all the focus & social compassion & help tends to be on & for those being Cared For. Bora-Bora is at the top of the Bucket List but looking less and less likely to happen before I kick the bucket for a vast variety of reasons and that part TOTALLY SUCKS! *Le Sigh* Dawn... The Bohemian

  13. How helpful, especially the segment about habits becoming more pronounced with age.

  14. This is insightful. When children leave the nest it is daunting. We have been part time parents so we have had to make ourselves comfortable with each other. Keeping :ME TIME" is very important. we do a lot of things together, yet find time away from each other great for our soul. I found this blog, as I am a lay counsellor and wanted to read up on this aspect of life. Never knew it was this serious.. Thank you for your commitment to human kind.