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?


Dear J.B.,

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 compatibility.

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.

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