Retirement marks the end of a career—and sometimes the end of a marriage as well. Marital satisfaction rates drop dramatically in the early years of retirement, while spousal conflict and divorce rates rise. It isn’t just long-troubled marriages that are prone to these struggles—even formerly stable, happy relationships can take a sharp turn for the worse.
Some retired couples caught up in this discord conclude that their marriages must not have been as strong as they thought…or that their retirement plans must be incompatible despite their many years of planning.
In truth, relationship problems that turn up in retirement tend to have more to do with the major life changes confronting retirees than with the strength of their marriages. Retirement can reshape how people see themselves and how they interact with their partners so substantially that the resulting strains often are comparable to those triggered by the birth of a couple’s first child—only this time the strain often comes as a surprise. They think, Retirement is supposed to be the time when the stresses of life magically melt away—why are we fighting?
But if the bad news is that retirement brings new relationship strains, the good news is that these strains need not doom relationships. Couples in and approaching retirement just have to be aware of the potential relationship challenges and take the appropriate steps. The most common challenges…
The retirement plans you’ve made might have to be remade. One common retirement mistake: Failing to have extensive conversations with your spouse about what each of you want from retirement. It is best if these conversations start before retirement and continue during retirement as it may be necessary to review and adjust them. Another common mistake: Having these conversations, then assuming that the decisions you reach are how your retirement actually will play out.
Maybe you and your spouse spent years shaping retirement travel plans…or choosing the town you’ll move to in retirement—but when retirement arrives, don’t be shocked if one of you decides you want something else entirely. Or maybe it will turn out that you and your spouse weren’t really on the same page with your retirement plans in the first place. Example: One couple spent years planning extensive post-retirement travels—they would rent an RV and drive across Europe. But when retirement arrived, they found themselves at odds—he thought the plan was to spend a year or more in Europe…while she thought the plan was to take multiple shorter trips to Europe, returning home in between to spend time with their grandkids.
What to do: Discuss retirement plans and goals with your spouse before you retire and create plans that are as detailed as possible—but also agree that any plans formed are just a first draft, not a firm commitment. Changes of heart and miscommunications are to be expected—neither of you have been retired before, so you have no way to know for sure how you’ll feel and what you’ll want when the time comes. In the end, it isn’t actually these changes of heart and miscommunications that strain relationships…it’s the way couples respond to them. When couples accept that retirement-plan modifications are likely and reasonable, they usually can renegotiate and find new solutions that work for both partners. It’s when couples view plan changes as betrayals that relationships are badly damaged.
Retirement could change your relationship with money—and that could damage your relationship with your partner. Retirement can alter people’s “money personalities”—some retirees become more frugal when the paychecks stop, worried about outliving their savings…while others become bigger spenders, seeing retirement as the time to enjoy the assets they worked hard to earn. Any changes to one spouse’s money personality can frighten or frustrate the other spouse, potentially leading to feelings of resentment…and/or throw the couple’s financial dynamic out of balance, triggering relationship-straining money troubles.
What to do: Create and adhere to a spending plan in retirement even if you and your spouse never previously needed a regimented budget. Keep an eye open for shifts in your partner’s money behavior when you retire, and be open to the possibility that your own “money personality” might have changed as well. Consider changes a normal consequence of retirement, not evidence of spousal betrayal—but reiterate the importance of sticking with the spending plan. If necessary, work with a financial planner to create a new spending plan.
Be ready for the sun to set on your retirement “honeymoon.” The first six months to two years of retirement tends to be a time when retirees enjoy their newfound freedom and indulge in all the travel and activities they couldn’t get to while they were working. But this initial retirement “honeymoon phase” often is followed by a “disenchantment phase,” when the appeal of frequent travel, daily golf and other things rapidly fades. This transition often creates tension for retired couples—one partner may become disenchanted before the other, leaving both feeling emotionally disconnected and at odds about how to spend their time.
What to do: See this for what it is—a temporary situation that’s likely to resolve itself when the second spouse reaches the end of the honeymoon phase. Until that happens, negotiate a compromise for how you and your spouse spend time together—continue engaging in some of the previously enjoyed honeymoon phase activities but not as much as before. Try volunteering for causes you both believe in—it can bring meaning and purpose to retirement, combating the ennui of the disenchantment phase.
Too much time together? Not enough? There’s no one right answer to these questions and plenty of room for hurt feelings. A husband imagined that he and his wife would spend every day together in retirement—but his wife had friends and interests that she didn’t want to give up. As a result, he felt rejected and she felt smothered.
What to do: When you discuss retirement plans with your spouse, don’t discuss only the fun things you’ll do together. To reduce the odds of misunderstandings and hurt feelings, also describe the time you expect to spend apart with your own friends and activities. Don’t let those divergent visions grow into festering resentment.
There inevitably are acceptable compromise solutions for couples who seek them—maybe the spouse who wants more personal time also is an early riser who can pursue these personal activities before his partner even gets out of bed. Or maybe the solution is helping the spouse who wants to spend more time together find outside friends and hobbies. One good way to find engaging hobbies is to consider which activities make time seem to slip away. And, as mentioned earlier, volunteering for causes you find meaningful is a good way to make friends in retirement—your fellow volunteers likely share your values, which is a great starting point for friendship.
The household chores might have to be redivided. By the time married couples reach retirement, what’s his chore and what’s her chore tend to be deeply entrenched—which makes it especially challenging when retirement forces change, as it often does.
Example: In many marriages, one partner did the majority of the housework while the other earned the lion’s share of the income. But when these couples retire, the income-earning work disappears while the housework remains. Homemakers tend to become frustrated if the division of chores becomes unequal at this point…while former wage earners might not understand what needs to get done around the home.
Even couples who do divvy up the retirement chores evenly can face problems. A recently retired spouse who is struggling with identity issues after leaving a successful career might discover that performing household chores is an additional psychological blow. Or a married person who hands off a chore that she has handled for decades might discover she is not happy with the way her spouse does the task. Example: A wife asked her recently retired husband to help with the cooking. He complied and discovered that he enjoyed spending time in the kitchen—but his wife didn’t like the mess he created and was upset when he used up ingredients she had intended for other purposes.
What to do: It’s reasonable to expect an even division of housework in retirement, but that doesn’t mean one spouse gets to assign the other one chores—the division of household tasks should be a topic of ongoing negotiation. If your spouse’s housework efforts cause you frustration, ca