Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Retirement: Giving Marriage The Time It Deserves

May 14, 2007

Retirement represents one of the greatest transition points in the life cycle. Retirement generally means leaving the structure and demands of a 40 hour plus work week. The sharp contrast between available time and formerly available time necessitates a complete reordering of goals and priorities.

Beyond meeting the challenges of losing identity, meaning and structure, retirement challenges previously comfortable marital relationships that were buffered by schedules, children, and busy lives. What exactly are you going to do with all your time together? How do you deal with individual differences that now seem omnipresent?

Retirement can intensify old marital problems and create some new ones to boot. It is also an opportunity, if handled right, for even greater marital satisfaction than has ever been possible before. Finding workable solutions is imperative. With my experience in counseling retired couples and drawing on my fledgling experience in this role I offer the following advice.

- Renegotiate tasks in the home. It is likely that the wife has borne the primary household maintenance responsibilities whether she was in the work force of not. With both partners being at home or if the husband retires first, he needs to do more in performing regular duties in the home. This will promote equality and fairness. Expecting the old pattern to persist will lead to anger, resentment and conflict.

There is a big difference between a thoughtful request and a selfish demand. There is a big difference between expecting to be taken care of and looking for ways to please and put your spouse’s needs ahead of your own.

- Respect for previous roles. In Japan, the medical profession has identified the "Retired Husband Syndrome" for women who come in with assorted ailments and depression following their spouse’s retirement.

A male without his former work role tries to squeeze meaning and structure into his life by becoming an expert on how things should be done in the home. He attempts to take over his spouse’s role, nitpicks, and criticizes without regard for her knowledge and experience.

Men, don’t try to solve your identity problems in retirement at your wife’s expense.

Some women hold on tenaciously to their household duties and don’t allow their husbands a chance to be helpful and useful in the home.

- Discuss and merge retirement goals. Share your retirement dreams and aspirations. Take each other into account and try to make each others dreams come true. Unilateral decision-making and refusing to take a spouse’s desires into consideration creates emotional turmoil and alienation.

Both of you have been looking forward to this time with great anticipation. Be open to compromise and find a way to meet your spouse’s retirement goals without sacrificing your own.

- Don’t be obsessive about retirement goals. Don’t jump on a "hobby horse" and ride it all the time. Life should be lived in balance with time being devoted to new goals and experiences, your marital companionship, grandchildren, friends and family, service to others, and recording and preserving family history and legacy. Doing one thing at the exclusion of others that matter to your spouse will invite trouble.

- Find avenues of mutual enjoyment and give them priority. Find common interests. Do joint creative projects. Make new memories. Make time for recreational companionship, fun, and excitement. Travel. Get outside your comfort zone.

Be playful, affectionate, romantic, flirtatious and keep sex pleasure a part of your mutual bond. This is priority time for individual interests and activities. Learn to live and be in the moment - and share those moments with your loved one.

- Soften up communication and minimize daily conflict. Be unfailingly polite and show respect in dealing with differences.

Deepen your communication. Learn to speak and listen with the heart. Make it safe for your partner to talk and take risks in sharing their deepest feelings. Create the emotional closeness you’ve always wanted.

- Respect your spouse’s need for individual time and space. Accept your spouse’s need for personal goals, friends, interests, hobbies and activities. Don’t be jealous or controlling. Make your joint time together special and then solve your own problems when it comes to finding meaning and being busy with worthwhile goals.

Be a team. Be there for each other in dealing with health concerns, adult children and their problems, and meeting obligations with each other’s extended family. As a couple, you need to share and support each other in any caregiving responsibilities with elderly parents or siblings, cooperate with money management, and meet the various challenges of aging and disability.

Get help. If you have poor communication and problem-solving skills, unresolved hurts from the past, depression, destructive habits, or a long pre-retirement history of not getting along, retirement is likely to bring you to face-to-face with problems you’ve been trying to avoid or deny.

Get medical help. Get mental health services. Get counseling. Get help for substance abuse. Help is available. Don’t sit around, bicker and take out your anger on each other. You won’t create change by proving your spouse is wrong. You’ll just be getting resistance and retaliation.

Retirement can be a glorious time in your marriage. This is a wonderful opportunity to discover one another anew and to discover new joys in companionship. Retirement gives marriage the time it deserves.