Life From This Point

A Blog About Retirement & Aging

I Do. I Don’t

My husband and I were woefully unprepared for his retirement. Our focus was on our finances and it never even occurred to us what else we would face.  We had talked about him leaving his job for a long while. We had run the numbers, talked to advisors and thought we were ready to take the plunge but we completely missed the dangers lying just below the surface. We treaded some rough waters before we got on solid ground again but other couples I’ve known have found themselves in seriously deep trouble and some of them haven’t survived intact. I want to give you some relationship life preservers to help you avoid that fate. 

Retirement changes everything.  All the buffers are removed and the differences between you and your spouse become glaringly apparent.  Buffers like jobs, kids, outside commitments and the responsibility of making a living.  During our working years we have routines and schedules that can collapse without outside pressures to maintain the structure.  If you have not reached retirement, think about how much time you spend at work, commuting to work and thinking about work.  And taking your children from one activity to another or attending their events.  It’s not uncommon for us to have only a few hours each night together and we may spend those in front of the television or computer. Weekends are likely devoted to chores, shopping and preparing for the next week.

Pre-retirement years may involve blissful fantasies of sleeping late, leisurely breakfasts and unlimited time for pleasurable activities such as hobbies or travel but have you asked your mate what he or she is dreaming about? Or considered how you are going to adjust to so much unstructured time together?  Are you two on the same page?  Or even in the same book?

“Retirement changes everything.”  

I’ve had more than one couple sit in my counseling office, bitter and resentful toward each other about what they perceive as betrayal. Here are some composite examples created from real-life situations:

Maggie and Jack

Maggie, 65, could barely contain her contempt as she described what she considered the ultimate betrayal by her husband of 35 years. She had known that Jack was unhappy in his job but then hers was no walk in the park, either.  She had assumed that they would stick to their plan of retiring at 70 when they were both eligible for full Social Security benefits to supplement their meager pensions. Then one day Jack came home to announce his boss had chastised him for the last time.  He was smug as he described the incident in great detail, relishing the part where he surprised his boss by quitting on the spot in grand “take this job and shove it” style.  Maggie was speechless.  How could Jack have taken such a big step without considering how it would affect her? 

Obviously there were more problems here than Jack’s insensitivity and irresponsible behavior and the marriage didn’t survive the fallout.  Uncommon?  Not anymore.  Divorce among people over 50, dubbed “Gray Divorce,” is on the rise.  This is due partly to the fact that women have more choices than in the past and partly because our expectations have changed and we are no longer willing to spend the rest of our lives with someone we no longer love.

Jan and John

Jan and John sat as far apart from each other in my office as space allowed and their body language was a further indication of the great divide that had arisen between them.  They had been married for 40 years, raised 2 children and had 4 grandchildren they both adored. Both had recently retired from long careers which they had enjoyed but were ready to leave to begin a new chapter in their lives doing just what they wanted to do.  The problem began when they discovered their dreams for the good life were polar opposites.

Jan had been looking forward to spending time at home doing long-delayed renovations and projects like starting that garden she had always wanted.  The house was old and too big for the two of them but she loved it and hoped she never had to leave it. It was where they had raised their children and she looked forward to filling it with her grandchildren as often as their parents would allow.

John had read magazines, talked to friends and attended a dozen RV shows in the past few years.  He had carefully researched and selected the perfect rig for the two of them.  He had dreamed of the adventures he and Jan would have and couldn’t wait to hit the road. He knew Jan had demonstrated little interest but he was sure she would be hooked after their first trip.  He hadn’t told her that his long term plan was to sell the old house, get rid of all the maintenance headaches and become a full-timer on the road. 

Incredibly they had not talked about their different dreams until they retired. John was shocked when Jan told him she did not want to buy an RV nor did she want to be away from home for longer than a weekend at a time. Each had assumed they knew what the other wanted but they missed it by miles.

Martin and Chris

Martin had worked in sales for 35 years and was more than ready to retire.  His job involved long hours and extensive travel and he longed for time at home. Because he was gone so much, he and his wife, Chris, decided early on that she would put her career on hold to stay home and take care of their 3 kids.  Chris was a great mom but as soon as their last child was old enough, she seized her chance to use her art degree when a job opened at a small graphic design firm. Two years later she opened her own firm and by the time her son graduated from high school her business was thriving.

Martin expected Chris to be ready to quit when he did and was stunned to learn that she was nowhere near ready to retire.  In fact, she was just getting started.  Martin was bitterly disappointed that his retirement dreams of spending time with Chris would be put off indefinitely.

Next in Part II:  Keys to effective communication

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