You’ve probably heard about (or maybe even experienced) the classic retirement problem that many couples have. A spouse (let’s say the husband) who has been working outside the home retires and is suddenly home all day, while the wife who has had complete charge of the house during workdays and, with the children grown and gone, pretty complete freedom over her own routine, is suddenly beset by the constant presence of her husband, who is at loose ends and is full of needs and suggestions.
My favorite version of this story, told last year by a colleague, is about a bored newly-retired husband who thought it would be a great idea to surprise his wife by totally reorganizing her kitchen one day while she was out with friends. I probably don't have to tell you how well that went over...
Cautionary tales like this can be amusing (or not, if they’re happening to you), but they are only the tip of the iceberg – and I do mean iceberg.
The broad class of spousal tensions in retirement points to two underlying needs.
First, planning for retirement before it happens is very important. Yes, you know that already, because everybody knows it. That doesn’t mean that they do it, though. And if they do, they think it means talking with their financial advisor.
Which is good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t prevent these inter-spousal issues. The bored retired spouse getting underfoot, or expecting to be served or entertained by his or her partner, is not a financial planning failure, but a life planning failure. The retiree did not put enough effort into imaging what retirement would be like, or what s/he wanted it to be like.
A lot of us – OK, most of us – look forward to the day when we can simply lay down all the travail of working life, whether it’s getting up early five days a week, commuting in traffic, slogging through the tedious tasks that all jobs involve, putting up with annoying co-workers or customers or bosses, and so on. When we think of retirement, we often think of it as liberation from all that. But we also need to think ahead of time about what’s going to replace it. Not just what we’re retiring from, but what we’re retiring to. If we fail to do that – and a whole lot of people do – then we’re probably heading for a very unpleasant time when we retire, whether we are married or not.
Second, couples facing retirement need to communicate, and they need to do so early and often. This, too, is not news to anyone, but again, more often than not it fails to occur.
And the two problems often combine. One of the most common failures of marriage communication is failure to discuss retirement ahead of time. From time to time, either spouse might make random comments about being retired some day, and how nice it’s going to be to do this or that, or escape from something else. Very commonly, if you ask a married person (ahead of retirement) if s/he is on the same wavelength with his/her spouse about retirement, you will get an affirmative reply. But if you ask for specifics about when the other spouse expects retirement to occur, or what will happen next (how will the other spouse’s time be filled, does s/he want to live somewhere else in retirement, are there intentions to travel or pursue other new activities, etc., etc.) you discover that they haven’t actually talked about those things.
This, of course, is trouble waiting to happen.
One of my favorite recent books about retirement is The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle, by Roberta Taylor and Dorian Mintzer, both of whom live and work in the Boston area. Their volume, which you can find on Amazon, is subtitled “The 10 Must-Have Conversations for Transitioning to the Second Half of Life.” These ten conversations concern:
- If, when, and how to retire.
- Talking about finances
- Changing roles and identities
- Time together and time apart
- Intimacy and sexuality
- Relationships with family
- Health and wellness (including possible future caregiving issues)
- Choosing where and how to live
- Social life, friends, and community
- Purpose, meaning, and giving back
Roberta and Dori do a great job of telling you what these conversations should be about, and how to have them in a productive, loving way. They also provide lots of interesting, instructive stories – sometimes from their own lives, sometimes from others’ – about situations that started going off the rails until the appropriate conversations led to adjustments that were workable for both spouses.
It is surely true that some of the biggest problems in relationships are caused by assumptions we make about ourselves or the other person, and that such problems could be solved and usually even avoided in the first place just by a little bit of timely conversation.
When we see retirement not as an event, but a stage of life, then it immediately becomes obvious that these same issues, problems, and preventatives apply. A modicum of deliberate planning ahead for that stage of life, and a modicum of ongoing communication, can make all the difference between a stressful retirement and a happy one.
Chuck Yanikoski is a retirement adviser who lives and works in Harvard. For more about him, visit http://www.ChuckYRetirement.com.