The Mixed Retirement Couple - June 2019

In recent articles I have written about the challenges for couples with children to find time for their own relationships and to make it a priority, but what happens when the children have finally left home and the couple are alone, but one of them is still working and the other has retired?

Mixed retirement relationships are very common and it is not unusual for these situations to create some tension as both parties learn to adjust to this new arrangement.  A range of circumstances may lead to unexpected retirement by one partner.  Redundancy, major changes at work which propel one of the partners to suddenly decide to retire or illness or injury which makes them unable to continue working, are just a few scenarios.  For men who have always worked, we know that retirement can be a difficult time as they may not have done much planning for this..  Women are more likely to have spent periods of time out of the workforce due to childrearing and so the adjustment for them is often easier as they prepare for a state which is familiar to them.

When both members of the couple have been used to working and spending time away from each other during the day, it can be a big adjustment for one of them to find themselves waiting for their partner to come home, having spent much of the day alone.  In the past it was more likely that once a man retired his partner would retire soon after so they could spend more time together.  However, these days many women have found that once their children are off their hands, they have been free to pursue their own careers and they are enjoying this new found satisfaction and don't feel ready to give it up yet.  This role reversal brings with it a new set of challenges for the couple if they are to avoid growing apart during this time.  The working partner can feel guilty leaving their spouse at home and feel a need to hurry back to keep their partner company if they see them struggling to occupy their time with satisfying and meaningful activities.  Unfortunately, this does not help either of them and can lead to frustration and resentment.

It is not unusual for the early stages of retirement to be easily filled for the retiree who often has a few projects they want to engage in such as home maintenance/renovations, spending more time with the grandchildren, playing golf or learning a new skill.  For some, this is a welcome change from the demands of work and brings a feeling of freedom and joy in being able to choose how to spend their time.  However, for others there can be a sense of disappointment and puzzlement that all this extra leisure time they may have dreamed about when they were busy working, leaves them feeling unsatisfied and they find themselves lonely and bored.  There has been much written about the losses that can accompany retirment, even when the decision has been made freely, but it is much harder for those where retirement has not been their choice and has come prematurely.

Retirement, like other life cycle stages, brings with it a new set of challenges and mixed retirement couples need to talk about how they will make this ransitional period work well for both of them.  It is not uncommon for dual-career couples to retire at different times.  This may happen where there is a significant age difference or if one spouse retires sooner than planned due to an unexpected layoff or an irrestible early retirement incentive package.  In other cases, one spouse may feel burnt out and ready to throw in the towel while the other spouse is at the peak of his or her career and wants to keep going for a few more years.

Whatever the circumstances, mixed retirement marriages are situations ripe for resentment and stress if not managed properly.  For a time, you and your partner will have to co-exist in different realities, something for which you may be ill-prepared.

Here are seven tips that will help you and your partner adjust to the situation:

1.  Go to bed and get up at the same time as each other

The retired spouse might prefer to be a night owl and may relish the idea of not waking up to an alarm clock, but maintaining separate sleep schedules will lead to a decrease in closeness and quality time for you and your spouse to share.  In addition, waking up or preparing for bed while the other spouse is trying to sleep may lead to interrupted sleep and annoyance.

It may be helpful for the retired spouse to get a part time job that starts at the same time as the working spouse's job or find a regular volunteer or activity commitment that involves a similar start time.

2.  Re-negotiate household chores

Perhaps the greatest potential for relationship conflict occurs when the working partner feels that the retired spouse isn't doing enough around the house.  The retired spouse may feel that he or she is etitled to a life of leisure after decades of working.  If the working spouse is coming home to a lot of undone chores there is potential for resentment and conflict.

Have an honest conversation about sharing the chores which is acceptable to both of you.  Perhaps the retired spouse can take on a greater share of chores or maybe cook meals.  The working spouse will appreciate this and it will allow the couple to spend more time enjoying each other's company during evenings and weekends.  However, if you are the working spouse you should be prepared to accept that your partner may approach some chores differently to you.  Letting go of the need to control the way domestic chores are performed will lead to a greater willingness by the at home partner to share these and create a more harmonious environment.

3.   Talk about how the change in income will impact both of you

Most people will receive less income from their retirement savings than they enjoyed when they worked.  You and your partner should discuss how your spending patterns will change as a result of having less income.  Decide what you may need to reduce or cut out and discuss your priorities.

4.   The retired spouse can focus on projects that do not include the other person

Chances are the non working partner will have a list of projects/activities that they have been hoping to get to someday when they have the time.  If you are the spouse who retires first you have the opportunity to check these items off your to do list.

5.   The retired partner needs to remain engaged with the world

Once you are both retired, you will be able to spend time doing things together, but until then the retired spouse should take steps to avoid being trapped at home alone all day.  Some retired people find part-timne jobs primarily to get out of the house and stay engaged with others.  If you are the retired partner, limit your time watching TV or using the computer so that you don't form sedentary habits that are unhealthy and may be difficult to break later.

6.  Remain aware of the working partner's needs

Once you are retired you may have little interest in hearing about job related matters, but your working partner may appreciate being able to talk about their work day.  Be aware that the working partner may just want to relax after a day at work, while the retired partner may be eager to start doing things together or be desperate for some conversation after a day alone.  Compromise is vital here and respecting each other's needs.

7.   Be patient while your partner adjusts to retirement

Everyone goes through a number of adjustments when they retire.  If the retired spouse was accustomed to a highly scheduled day, he or she may find it challenging to adjust to a much less structured routine.  Generally the retired spouse will experience less contact with other people during the day, especially in cases where most of his or her friends were co-workers.  The retired spouse may struggle with a loss of purpose or identity.  All of these changes may be difficult for the working partner to comprehend, but it will be helpful for them to have empathy for the changes the retired spouse is experiencing as it is likely they too will go through this themselves once they stop working.

The mixed retirement couple is a very common phenomenom and with a little planning and some honest communication about the different needs of each partner, it can be managed well and set the scene for transitioning to a happy, satisfying shared future retirement for the couple.

Note:  I acknowledge the work of Dave Hughes in his book "Smooth Sailing into Retirement:  How to Navigate the Transition from Work to Leisure" for some of the ideas presented in this article.


© Dawn Vincent