Compromise is a key component in any happy marriage. It gets couples through the many roadblocks that life places in the path of a long-term, committed relationship. And while the ability to negotiate and reevaluate throughout the long haul goes a long way, even the strongest partnership can find itself buckling under the stress of retirement. The hopes and dreams of a what a life in retirement will look like can change over the course of a marriage. Couples who had previously expressed shared notions of what they want in their retirement may find themselves going in different directions when a life of work finally ends. Many couples who have had decades of marital bliss with little discord find themselves stressed and unhappy when retirement finally comes.
The level of marital stress during these years depends on which spouse retires first and if expectations of life in retirement have changed (for one or both partners) over time. The ability to “roll with the changes” certainly helps steady marital navigation during this often stormy time of reevaluation, but certain factors appear to have a significant impact on stress levels.
Who retires first?
While it can be tough to coordinate, couples who retire at the same time experience fewer challenges than those who retire at different times. When husbands retire first, wives – who still often maintain significant domestic responsibilities in addition to work – may feel increased strain over this new domestic division of labor disparity. But both spouses retiring at the same time also comes with a cost: the loss of regular work income from both spouses.
From an economic standpoint, it is prudent for one spouse to continue working after the other one retires. Having a steady, flowing stream of work income from one spouse can increase flexibility with preparing for Social Security benefits. In addition, many retirees find themselves floundering in the vast amount of time now available with work no longer occupying much of their days. Those who stay busy in retirement with hobbies, volunteering, and family are less likely to experience retirement related stress than those who find themselves struggling to fill the void left by retiring from their career.
The lack of structure in retirement can cause feelings of dissatisfaction and rootlessness for many. Taking the time to establish positive and satisfying new routines can be very helpful in decreasing stress and discomfort during this time of great transition. Spending time on the couch and in front of the television may be initially appealing to some after a lifetime of work, but settling into a “couch/tv/snacking” routine can turn even the most vibrant retiree into exactly the kind of person their spouse does not want them to be in retirement. Newly retired people who work to strengthen some already existing routines (such as keeping a regular bedtime and dinnertime) stand a better chance introducing new, healthy routines in retirement and making these changes stick.
Talk openly and often
One of the top things men report looking forward to in their retirement is being able to spend more time with their wives. For some husbands, the golden years are not what they imagined they would be if their wives continue with their careers instead of spending time together with them in retirement. The most effective way to ease the stress that occurs when spouses retire at different times is open communication. Psychologists suggest that couples spend as much time as they need talking bluntly and openly about their hopes and expectations regarding their lives together in retirement. Vague questions and answers will be of no use to a couple trying to effectively address the challenges and stressors that accompany easing into retirement. Only honest and frequent communication over retirement expectations will yield a productive and amenable compromise.
While retirement expectations run the gamut (from where to live in retirement to how all the extra time will be utilized), one of the thorniest areas can be financial expectations. This is an area where many couples struggle to address their concerns due to the gravity that is at the heart of financial issues. Simply opening up the conversation to financial concerns in pending retirement can be so stressful that many spouses choose to sidestep the issue. However, ignoring these concerns only causes them to fester and the increased stress can lead to many feelings of disappointment and resentment in the long run if financial retirement plans do not come to fruition.
You’re not alone
Although it may not initially seem to be the role of a retirement planner, bridging the gap between goals and expectations that spouses have regarding financial concerns can be facilitated by a skilled professional. Frank discussions about this issue are common when having goals based discussions during the planning process. Even the most stress averse individuals should be comfortable knowing that these conversations are expected and welcomed when collectively discussing retirement goals and expectations. Having an objective mediator can help resolve differing expectations among spouses that experience stress and anxiety over financial planning issues.
Keep the golden years golden
Retirement marks the end of one’s working career, but it also signals the start of a well-earned fresh start after a lifetime of working, planning and saving. Keeping things fresh among those out-of-sync retirement couples is made easier by taking the time daily to spend with each other. From planning-heavy trips and vacations to simpler impromptu activities like cooking, gardening or taking a walk together, keeping an open mind towards healthy ways to fill up the “work void” with new routines that decrease stress and increase happiness are key to continued marital satisfaction in retirement. A successful marriage needs a lifetime of compromise, and honest communication with each other about all things retirement will increase your chances of the golden years being some of the finest in your married life.
Contributing author AES Virtual Consulting
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