Thursday, January 10, 2013

Whose Retirement Is It Anyway?

The buzz is all over the community -- the ladies locker room, the outdoor pool, and the community center's cyber cafe where groups of women -- and men, too -- linger over coffee and talk.

And the talk is that couples are finding themselves at odds over what kind of retirement they want now that retirement has ceased to be a dream and is now a daily reality.

And some of these realities were definitely not anticipated in anyone's retirement planning.

Many of the women I've talked with are frustrated with husbands who:

  • Are reclusive:  There are some women who want to be active in community social events that their husbands regard with horror. One neighbor started last July asking other women in the community if they are planning to attend the New Year's Eve dinner dance here and if so, would they have any objection to dancing together at the event from which some of their husbands were recoiling. "One of the reasons I wanted to move to an active adult community was to be active, not isolated," one neighbor told me. "But all my husband wants to do is to hide in the house and make hobby models. This isn't the retirement I had in mind!"
  • Don't do anything around the house "because I'm retired": This seems to hit particularly hard for couples where the wife has been a full-time homemaker or who has worked outside the home but has maintained a traditional lifestyle at home, taking on all the cooking and cleaning. "My husband won't lift a finger to do anything even, or especially, when I ask," one gym buddy complained the other day. "I always did do all the cooking and housecleaning before, but that was because his job was very time-consuming and he traveled a lot. Now I'd like to have a little leisure, too, and share responsibilities. But he says he's retired and shouldn't have to do anything. And he doesn't do anything. He watches t.v. He just sits and stares at the wall. But heaven forbid, he should pick up a broom or cut vegetables for a salad. My question is 'When do I get to retire and relax?"
  • Live to golf: There are some husbands who have built their new lives around golf -- and this isn't always a welcome development for their wives. "We never do anything together because he lives to golf and I don't really care for it," says one disgruntled wife. "When he gets home, he turns on the golf channel and watches that non-stop. And our socializing seems to be with other golfers who just want to talk about the game and nothing else. I envisioned us getting involved with some worthy causes and taking some fun trips that had nothing to do with golf. "
  • Are critical and hovering:  With husbands and wives home alone many more hours in retirement, things that escaped a husband's notice during his working life have now become major projects.  "I'm almost at the screaming point!" one neighbor told me. "As a homemaker, I've been doing housework and cooking for years now. But my husband the engineer and efficiency expert now is observing my efforts and telling me how I could be doing all these old tasks better: like how I could load the dishwasher more efficiently or the more logical way to mop a floor -- without volunteering for these duties, of course. Just telling me how I could be doing them better!"
And husbands, too, have their complaints that their wives:

  • Are too controlling and inflexible.  One friend at the gym envisioned increasing his technical skills and spending more time on the computer and online, but his wife gets angry hearing the click of the keys or when he wants to spend time on the computer instead of watching t.v. with her. Another complains that he and his wife moved to this community to lead active lifestyles -- or so he thought. But once here, she decided she didn't want to work out at the gym or hike or even take walks in the neighborhood -- and she resents the time he spends working out.
  • Are not sensitive to the limitations of retirement income: Whether it's a matter of a wife's compulsive shopping or gambling or wanting to move to ever more upscale neighborhoods, some men in this community fear that retirement savings are dwindling faster than expected and are wondering if they might face the prospect of having to go back to work in their seventies or beyond.  One friend who is in his late 60's and in poor health recently did go back to work because his wife, who is in her forties, so enjoys the retirement lifestyle here that she refuses to go back to work in her high-demand field as they had planned when they moved here. As he watched their savings dwindle and her resolve not to work persist, he finally gave up his long-dreamed retirement just to keep them solvent.
  • Spend too much time complaining about moving away from family and old friends. Some men here complain that their wives aren't open to making new friends or enjoying quality time together as they yearn for more proximity to family and old friends. "When we lived in Wisconsin near our kids and grandkids, we never had any time for the two of us," one friend told me. "We were always babysitting the grandkids or attending their activities or doing errands to help our adult children. Our time wasn't our own. Now that we're here, my wife is always planning trips to see the kids or to have the kids visit us. Don't get me wrong: I love our kids and grandkids. But now that I'm retired, I want to have time to do things I've put off for far too long and to spend time with my wife, reconnecting in a way we haven't since we became parents, then grandparents."
What can you do when your retirement realities are at odds?

Talk with each other. Although it may feel safer and easier to complain to others, change isn't likely to happen unless you take a deep breath and talk with your spouse about what isn't feeling quite right or fair or what you had hoped.

We all have retirement dreams and plans. Some prove possible once we retire while others fade away in the light of everyday reality. There are bound to be disappointments and disagreements. But if disparities in what you want in your retirement and what your spouse wants are starting to erode your contentment and good will, it's time to talk.

While the best time to talk about expectations is before you retire, some realities don't surface until you're actually retired. Then, perhaps, you find that assumptions and unanticipated developments are leading to disappointment.

"I assumed that when we were both retired, we would share both the chores and the pleasures," one neighbor told me. "My husband has got the pleasure thing down. But he is allergic to housework, cooking or yard work of any kind. I feel like I'm spending my whole life doing the scutwork of our lives while he roosts in front of the television."

Once she was able to tell him about her assumptions for retirement and her disappointment, she was able to offer some alternatives: that he share in the housework and food preparation so that they could both enjoy more leisure time together or that they examine their budget to see if hiring a once a week housecleaning service made sense. When she stated that her greatest wish was to spend more quality time with him, pursuing day trips and new interests, he listened. And they arrived at a compromise: they would cut down on some impulse buying and meals out to hire a housecleaning service. And because they would be having more meals at home, he agreed to work with her in food preparation. They also began to make plans to see local sights and make some day trips they had long postponed. Six months into the compromise, they are both happier. There have been some adjustments: the housecleaning service comes once a month for the heavier cleaning tasks while the husband and wife are beginning to share more daily cleaning tasks -- in the interest of getting the work done so they can play and in having more disposable cash for local travel and meals out. 

Recognize that retirement takes adjustment and is a process of letting go of old ways and embracing new ones. Spending so much time together, structuring a new life free of old work and commuting routines sounds enviable from afar, but once you're living these changes, there is a period of adjustment. Women whose major domain has been the house may feel crowded and frustrated when their husbands are home full-time.

"What's the old saying 'I married him for better or worse but not for lunch?'" my friend Barbara confided a few years back after her CEO husband retired. Although they had a lovely home and plenty of money to do anything they wished in retirement, Barbara felt trapped. "I have this life of my own," she told me. "I'm on the school board. I'm president of the local symphony. I'm not ready to give all that up and sit home with him. He wants three meals on the table daily. He never lets go of the t.v. remote control. It drives me crazy. After traveling for work all these years, he isn't into travel. He just wants to sit home and be waited on -- by me!"

Retirement can be a major adjustment for those leaving careers and the power and perks of those careers behind. My former neighbors Linda and Jay used to make observations about "FIP (Formerly Important Person) Syndrome" that seems to afflict many in this -- and, I'm sure, many other -- retirement Meccas.  You can see it in the lost expressions of men (and some women, too) floating lazily in the outdoor pool for many hours on a summer day. You can hear it in the pontificating on world affairs in the Cyber Cafe. You can sense it in the imperious manner with which some people conduct themselves around mere mortals like community center employees or neighbors they deign to be less than...less successful, less fit, less affluent. And some are simply still straddling the past, still living emotionally in the careers they left while adjusting to life in retirement.

It reminds me a bit of the early days in my college dorm freshman year. When we were adjusting to being freshman again, to being little fish in a much larger pond and to making our way in a totally new environment, we talked a lot about who we had been not so long ago: the high school triumphs we clung to so relentlessly for a while to soothe our fright and insecurity.

It's not so different now. Some of us cling stubbornly to old identities and past successes as we face a new way of being without those professional props and titles, as we face, in a sense, the terror of not being.

In talking with our spouses about our fears and disappointments, it's essential to hear what the other is saying without judgment or jumping to the conclusion that you are being criticized. Particularly in the early years of retirement, it's important to be compassionate with each other as you both struggle with this major life transition and find what works and doesn't work for you as individuals and as a couple.

Give each other space, remembering that retirement is "yours, mine and ours".  We all need the time and space to live our own retirement dreams as well as experiencing the ones we have together. One of the major assumptions about retirement that may need some revising is the concept that constant togetherness is desirable. If your interests differ, if your tolerance for social interaction doesn't match with your partner's, find ways to compromise so that each of you can pursue your passions and meet heartfelt needs.

Bob and I have differing needs for social interaction and have worked out a routine that meets his needs for solitude and my needs for socializing. If there is an open house or party that I really want to attend -- and he doesn't -- I simply go. If he wants to go see a horror film with a male friend, I happily plan a day of writing. We share a passion for reading, but Bob has more extensive hobbies that he is free to pursue. I spend a good amount of time writing, but also share his enthusiasm for working out and for day trips around Arizona. We've made a vow to spend more time together exploring Arizona in 2013.

We have also worked out our different needs in terms of old connections.  I am more tied to our previous life in California than he is. So every two to three months, Bob happily stays home with the cats while I fly to L.A. for a few days to visit my friend Mary whom I miss so much and with whom I take walks on the beach and visit old haunts. This arrangement works out well for all of us.

Keep your sense of humor -- and perspective.  Because retirement also coincides with growing older, there are some surprises that can change some of your plans and dreams. I never imagined that I would struggle with some physical decline early on -- arthritic feet and knees, significant hearing loss -- that change some of my active retirement scenario -- even as Bob continues to dazzle those in the gym with his jump roping, weight lifting and running abilities. And yet, because of side effects of his lifelong epilepsy, he is feeling more vulnerable emotionally these days. We find that humor helps. We joke with each other about our lists of physical complaints and our increasingly noticeable limitations of aging and find both comfort and security in our mutual acceptance of these changes in ourselves and each other.

It's also important to keep the fact of being able to retire together in perspective. So many people we know never got that chance. Some aren't financially able to retire. Some have retired as widows, widowers or late-life divorcees. Being together and sharing this life experience is a blessing -- even when daily reality falls somewhat short of one's retirement dreams.

Create a new, revised compromise retirement lifestyle. Building a new life together and crafting a retirement lifestyle that pleases you both much of the time isn't always easy, but it's possible.

I've seen couples discover new interests and hobbies -- both together and apart. I've seen those who have the courage and commitment to talk with each other, to say what they want to do and ways they're willing to compromise create new harmony out of early retirement conflicts.

Creating a new, reasonable retirement lifestyle can be as simple as learning to tolerate the clicking of computer keys (or buying earplugs) if spending time online pleases your spouse. I've seen "golf widows" unite and enjoy lunches out or local excursions together. For some couples, who had hoped to travel more but find that diminished savings preclude this, making home more inviting -- with hobbies, a new pet, redecorating together, creating special spaces in the home for the interests of both partners -- has proved to be a suitable compromise. For other couples, both focused on differing pursuits, compromise may mean carving out time for shared leisure, for little excursions, for good talks, for discovering new interests together.

Caring, commitment and compromise can lead to a shared retirement lifestyle that brings more joy to your days than any of those pre-retirement dreams ever could. 


  1. Yikes, you have made me quite happy that I live alone. Thanks. My favorite bumper sticker "Retirement--Half the money--Twice the husband."
    I didn't realize how difficult retirement could
    be as a pair. I think you ought to hold seminars at the village. You have such great advice and it sounds like that is really needed. Wonderful post.

  2. Thanks for this,mat 55 I'm beginning to dream of retirement from a high stress job as an LCSW. My husband is an artist and works out of his studio in our home, hence this article is very timely as we plan the 2nd half of our lives.

  3. This advice is also applicable to couples who are unexpectedly spending more time together through job loss. Some of the same kinds of problems arise. And the answers, I believe, are the same too.

    Thank you for your encouraging pieces, Kathy.

  4. I always enjoy your incite comments. I am looking at retiring soon and thinking about the resulting changes. LOL - living with someone else is always a challenge for me but a rewarding one.

  5. We've been retired for two and a half years and so far we seem to have worked it out. We both worked full time and had already broken out the chores so they were fair. We've continued that.

    I've just spend a week and a half with my husband, as we drove from Seattle to Tucson and then settled in. By yesterday we were ready to be apart. Sure enough, I've got a separate activity today and so does he. Such a relief!

  6. One other version of retirement is when "personal choice" is limited. My retirement began with 5 years of care giving for my aging mom - a severely limited state of being as it turns out. And now that she lives in Assisted Living, my husband's eyes are failing - not just reduced vision, but a stead march towards blindness ... so what we thought we would be doing together in retirement is nothing like we planned.

    Retirement is nothing like I envisioned. We have learned to enjoy what time we have for leisure as separate individuals - enjoying different things. After 43 years of marriage, it is an odd situation - not what we thought it would be.

    Thankfully we are not at odds - we respect the limitations and just move on. But when I looked at my retirement about 15 years ago - it imagined a very different life.

  7. I am regular reader, how are you everybo&X64;y?
    Thіs paгagraph pοsted at this site is genuinely

    Αlso visit my webpagе satellite tv pc

  8. A well written article regarding how couples need to learn to compromise on many things in life, especially in their retirement days when they tend to become sensitive, insecure and lonely.This makes them irritated and often they end up blaming each other for not sharing work at home. Moving to a Senior Living Community is a good solution because you will feel more happy by mingling with like minded people of your age and engaging in activities of your choice which will keep you occupied.Also you will not be over burdened with responsibilities and household chores since assistance is provided as per need.So you can spend quality time with your partner.