PV Mirror, Jun 11-17, 2011, issue # 138

Last week I discussed the challenges of retirement and considered the impact of finances, physical health, and general lack of preparation. Many people are surprised at how difficult it is to adapt to being retired after so many years of working and/or raising a family. Retirement also greatly impacts the couple.

Before retirement comes along, most couples face the “empty nest” period in which the children move out, go off to college, get married, and leave “the nest”. The “parents” survived, but did “the couple”? Life can get so crazy that they wake up and realize they don’t know or like each other and choose to divorce. If they stay together, they live separate lives; she adapts to life without the kids and he dedicates 10 or 15 more years to his career.

Adapting to retirement lifestyle as a couple

Assuming the couple survived, the next big challenge is retirement. Now, that empty nest couple finds the newly retired man waking up every day at a loss of what to do or he does something that takes a few hours and then is bored the rest of the day. She has already built a “retired” life; has her interests, activities, set of friends…and she isn’t bored.

He’s needy and bored: It is so common to hear her complain that “He’s bored and I’m not”, or “I can’t stand it, he’s too needy” or “If he had his way, we’d be together 24 hours a day”. Many women describe similar situations in which their husbands fail to put together a retirement lifestyle. They feel like they are the mommy dealing with a toddler helping set up play dates or helping a school-aged child who needs to be encouraged to become involved in extra activities. Their arguments usually include two opposing expectations: his neediness and dependence versus his accusing her of being too controlling and mothering.

Pick, pick, pick:Other couples feel like they are fighting all of the time. They’re suddenly spending way too much time together and they start to pick everything apart. One or both have become very judgmental and highly critical…of everything. They’re constantly bickering and growing less tolerant of each other … “What are you doing it that way for?” or “Are you wearing that?” or “All you do is talk on the phone” or “You spent how much?!…”. They are so focused on what they don’t like that they have lost sight of their partner’s good qualities.

Nothing in common:Do you complain to your friends that “all he wants to do is golf or watch TV” or “She spends hours in the garden or going out to lunch”? Are you frustrated that you have nothing left in common? Maybe you have opposite priorities such as working out at the gym while the other one is overweight and eating whatever they want, or one wants to travel and the other wants to stay home and attend every grandchild’s sporting event all summer long.

It may seem like there isn’t anything left to do together, but that’s probably an exaggeration. It’s true that you may not enjoy the same friends or activities and you may have developed new interests over the years, but neither of you have changed completely. Take the time to rediscover what you do have in common.

Is the marriage really falling apart or are you just in the next stage of married life?

The first thing to do is realize that you still love each other even though you may feel hopeless or desperate and the next thing is to be honest  about what you want this phase of your life to be like and feel like. Share the list with each other and instead of hearing all of the differences and imagining all of the obstacles, think about ways of helping each other achieve their list. Collaborate. What better time to put to use all of the great life skills (problem solving and creative negotiating with children, teachers, employees, business partners, upper management) you’ve acquired along the way.

Can you find your way…together, by spending time apart?

So what if he wants to sail to Fiji all summer and you want to attend every one of your grandchildren’s sporting events? What difference does it make if she wants to take cooking classes in Tuscany and you’d rather not go along? What if he wants to visit his adult son and you can’t stand him or she wants to visit her mother for a month? Let him goTake a breakGive each other space! Give each other the freedom to find fulfillment and happiness without suffocating and demoralizing the other.

Couple time

This also applies for weekly activities in and around home. It doesn’t matter if the reasons are lack of interest or physical incapacity. Sit down and make a weekly or monthly schedule. Decide what you want to do every Tuesday or how many times a week you are going to go play tennis and then consider what you can do together. Literally, schedule “couple time”.  For example, which evenings are you going to eat together, are you going to the farmer’s market together, are you preparing it together, are you inviting any friends over, etc. Create a “date night” and allow one to plan it one week and the other the next week. Which friends do you both enjoy? Is there something new you’d like to learn together?

This schedule also helps with communication, accountability, and predictability. Each of you will have an idea of what the other one is doing and more or less when they will be home. It also eliminates the “I forgot” or “I didn’t know” conflict. There is much less resentment towards the other when you are meeting your needs and that of the coupleRetirement can be an exciting wonderful time of life!

Written by: Giselle Belanger, RN, LCSW  (psychotherapist)