Married Life After Retirement
Introduction: I receive very few e-mail letters from couples who are having trouble
adjusting to retirement. But I know from my counseling experience that many marital
problems are created by this sudden change in life, so I decided to write this week's
column on that subject.
Dear Dr. Harley,
I work for a newspaper with a readership of senior citizens and am working on an article
about marriage after retirement. It will be about how much the dynamics of a marriage
change after retirement. What are some issues that I should address in my article?
Retirement, as you probably know, often has a sudden and stressful impact on marriage.
Many retired couples spend their remaining years together miserable because they cannot
adjust to it.
I'm not sure that we're supposed to retire. Throughout recorded history, people worked
until they died or were physically or mentally incapacitated. In fact, the older people in
society (elders) tended to rise to positions of authority, using their experience to direct and
train younger people.
With the advent of Social Security and work rules that have forced retirement, people in
America have been encouraged to consider retirement as not only inevitable but as a
welcome reward for a lifetime of service. What's overlooked is that most of us don't
want to stop serving. We gain great satisfaction in knowing that we make a difference to
others, and retirement often takes that opportunity and satisfaction away from us. The
reward for service comes in the service itself, not in retirement from it. While many of
retirement age are happy to leave a job that may have been unfulfilling, the solution is to
find a better job, not to quit work entirely.
We also don't want the loss of income that retirement usually brings. I've been
amused by insurance salesmen who explain to me that in order to maintain my quality of
life, I will need to save a bazillion dollars by the time I retire. They can help me achieve
that goal by taking half of my income over a period of 40 years. Don't get me wrong, I like
insurance salesmen -- some of my best friends are insurance salesmen. But I, along with
most Americans, have chosen to ignore their draconian advice and have inadequately
prepared for the day that my income will stop.
In our society, that day ultimately arrives for most of us the day we retire. With it
comes a host of changes that dramatically and often tragically affect our marriages.
In your letter you ask "how much the dynamics of a marriage change after retirement."
There are a host of lifestyle changes in retirement that affect marriage. We could discuss
loss of self-esteem that comes from unemployment, or health-related issues of aging, or
how the loss of income affects a marital relationship. For this letter, though, I will select the
change that may turn out to be the most important of all: More time for husbands and
wives to be together.
The longer a couple is married, the less likely they will divorce, even if they suddenly have
serious marital problems. After many years of marriage there are just too many incentives to
remain together, many of them having to do with needs of the extended family. Often
couples who can't get along simply avoid each other, rather than divorce.
But it's sure a lot easier to avoid an annoying spouse when you or your spouse are busy
working. As many as 60 hours a week can be lost in gainful employment. The rest of time
can be shuffled around so that eventually all 115 waking hours are spent doing something
other than being together.
Retirement, of course, ruins all that. Now you find yourself face-to-face with someone you
haven't gotten along with for years. You can blame it on retirement, but the truth is, you
have never learned to accommodate each other, and you are now forced to do something
that should have been done from the day you were married: Create a lifestyle that takes
each other's feelings into account.
If you want a quick measure of how compatible you and your spouse are, try being
together 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The chickens come home to roost. That's the
test that couples usually take immediately following retirement. The years that a husband
and wife have spent creating independent lifestyles comes back to haunt them on that day,
because they are faced with the fact that they have little in common. Throughout their
married lives, they failed to create common interests -- they did nothing to create
compatibility. Rather than building a relationship based on mutual respect and sensitivity,
they had ignored each other's feelings, missing out on a lifetime of marital happiness.
Now, on the day of retirement, they have a choice to make. Do they develop yet more
sophisticated ways of avoiding each other, or do they learn to become compatible?
I have counseled many couples within the first few months after retirement who are faced
with the stark realization that they do not enjoy the time they spend with each other.
Employment had postponed the inevitable. Now they have to fish or cut bait. My strategy
for their reconciliation is described in my basic concepts,
but the key to it is the Policy of Joint Agreement (never
do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse).
These retired couples learn to create, for the first time, a lifestyle that they both enjoy and
that meets the emotional needs of both of them. They learn to eliminate personal habits that had
made their relationship miserable for decades. After they learn to avoid hurting each
other, and learn to meet each other's emotional needs, they no longer dread being with
each other day in and day out for the rest of their lives. They become the best of friends
and look forward to their years of companionship.
However, most of these couples are greatly saddened by the realization that they could
have had this loving and intimate relationship throughout all the years of their marriage.
If they had only been forced to spend the time with each other that retirement required,
they could have discovered compatibility much sooner.
I encourage all the couples I counsel to spend a considerable amount of time with each
other, giving each other undivided attention. Couples that have grown to become
incompatible react to spending time together the same way my retired couples react to
retirement. They hate it at first. But as they learn to avoid habits that hurt each other, and
learn to meet each other's needs, this time together becomes increasingly fulfilling until
they are eventually thrilled to be with each other. At that point they have created
But even marriages that have been relatively good during the years of employment often
struggle somewhat when husbands and wives spend most of every day with each other.
That's because retirement changes so many aspects of life that adjustments must be made.
Many couples feel that the solution to their initial discomfort together is to spend less time
with each other. They feel that everyone needs some privacy in life. But I recommend
adjustment. I don't think spouses need privacy from each other -- they need to develop
habits that accommodate each other's feelings when they are together. Again, my
Policy of Joint Agreement comes to the rescue. It
helps these retired couples create a new lifestyle that is suited for both spouses without
having to avoid each other. With successful accommodation, couples spend almost all of
their time with each other because they have created such a mutually enjoyable environment.