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Couples Should Discuss Retirement Concerns

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: My wife, a former teacher, has been retired for five years and still hasn’t found her “post-career self.”  I am an engineer about to retire with a concern:  My wife has announced that I better be spending time in my woodshop and that she has her own routine.  We’ve had a good marriage, but now I am a little worried.  How do you begin to talk about this subject?  I just attended a retirement planning workshop and the subject was not addressed.     

Answer: You are approaching an issue that is relatively new, with few rules in the marriage playbook.  Unfortunately, the subject is rarely discussed in retirement planning workshops for various reasons:

  • The thinking is that if a couple has had a good marriage for 25 or 30 years, why have a discussion about relationships?  In reality, retirement is a new life stage. Expectations are high, and time is available.  Taking a proactive approach makes sense, as it does in all life planning.
  • No one else seems to be talking about it, so why address it?  In reality, women seem to speak with other women about it.  What’s missing is that they are not talking to their husbands.
  • It’s too complicated.  It can be difficult to communicate on an honest and personal level if you have never done this before.  Habits are hard to break.  However, it is never too late.
  • Every case is unique.  Even if there were discussion about relationships in a workshop, how can it apply to more than one person or couple?  The good news is that it is never too late to start the dialogue.

That dialogue is particularly important considering 55 percent of all married couples have two incomes and a growing number of spouses are retiring at different times.  The issue is not only about living on one income, but what happens when the second spouse retires?

We know that the timing for the retirement of couples is changing.  A 2004 study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found that in less than one in five couples both spouses retired in the same year.  In most cases, the husband retired first.

Richard Johnson, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, was quoted in the 2010 AARP Bulleting as saying that formerly, “Women would follow their husbands out of the labor market…As women’s employment becomes more important, they are more likely to keep working even after their husbands retire.”

Researchers also have found that the most satisfying retirement is when husband and wife retire at the same time.

Although this information is interesting, your situation is a bit different, so let’s take a broad approach – called effective communication.  That’s a starting point.   Here are some characteristics of effective communication you might share with your wife:

  • Conversation: This requires three elements:  two people, someone talks, the other person listens.  If only one person talks, it’s called a monologue.
  • Consideration: That means being thoughtful and kind to the other person.
  • Appreciation: To show appreciation means to express gratitude. It can be in a simple form such as “thank you.” Even after 30 years of marriage, a thank-you is important, whether for a wonderful meal, paying the bills or filling the gas tank in your car.
  • Flexibility: That’s a give and take, meaning you can’t always have it your way.
  • Listen generously: To listen generously requires paying attending and actually having eye contact.  It cannot occur if one person is texting, reading the newspaper, surfing the Internet or is in another room.
  • Be curious rather than critical: Ask why, or what were you thinking, before offering negative comments.

According to George Valliant, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development and author of the classic book, “Aging Well” (Little Brown & Company, 2002), a good marriage at age 50 is a better predictor of successful aging than low cholesterol levels.

Thank you for your candid question and best wishes for a wonderful next chapter that includes an improved relationship with your wife.

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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