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Retirement Can Lead to Relationship Problems

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: My husband and I are retired for two years.  I find my attitude about being at home is changing.  I have become irritable, sleeping late, prefer to read rather than watch TV with my spouse, feel unmotivated and exhausted, have headaches and trouble sleeping.  And we seem to have less to talk about with one another. Is this typical?  With many more years ahead, how do I (and my husband) get back on track to quality “couplehood”?        

Answer: Thank you for your candor. Life in retirement often holds surprises, and not all of them are financial.

When it comes to retirement planning, the least discussed topic is relationships with one’s mate.  Somehow, most of us believe that if there is a good financial plan of estate, investments and taxes – and good health benefits – retirement should be a smooth experience.

Yet there is more.  Perhaps the bumps in relationships come as a surprise because most of us believe that relationships are exempt from discussion.  In working with more than  10,000 employees preparing for the nonfinancial aspect of their retirement, I have found that most couples had not spent significant time discussing their relationship with one another during their child-raising and working years.  There was no need to.

Retirement brings on an entirely new environment that is unique for most couples and individuals.  It allows for greater focus on identity, self-worth, fulfillment, challenge, love and connections.  Preparation for this new time typically is minimal.

Psychologist Sara Yogev, author of “For Better for Worse – But Not for Lunch” (Contemporary Books, 2002) writes about why couples have problems in retirement.

The value of work:
Work for many has meant more than a paycheck.  It was a source of identity, self-esteem and satisfaction.  Individuals defined themselves by their work and felt important and productive because of their jobs.  It is easy to lose that sense of identity and purpose in retirement.

High expectations from retirement:
In the past, people had modest expectations from retirement.  The status quo was considered sufficient.  Having relatively good health in retirement was considered an achievement. Today, expectations are higher.  Boomers and many from the Silent generation (those born between about 1925 and 1945) want a better quality of life compared to their working years.

Few role models:
Most people do not have role models from previous generations. Articles about the 65-year old who earned a Ph.D. and the 87-year old who completed the 2007 New York marathon are feature stories, exceptions to the norms and our expectations.  Retirement still needs to be redefined and accepted as a time for opportunity, growth, learning and meeting new challenges.  The human potential has not yet been fully defined.

The Women’s Movement:
We cannot discount the impact of the women’s movement on expectations and relationships.  Many of the women who are now retired lived before and after the publication of “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan, a key figure in reshaping attitudes about women’s lives and rights.  They lived the traditional life as wife, mother and community leader and then faced challenges of establishing a career and balancing work, family and community.

They became more independent and many developed interests different form those of their husbands.  It is not unusual to find couples who have grown differently as they face each other at the breakfast table with little to discuss.

Dual career couples:
Because of choice and necessity, dual careers have become the norm.  Many women have worked in jobs that are professional and prestigious, and which became part of their identity and a source of self-esteem.  In retirement, their losses and expectations may be similar to those of their mates.

Some of these trends can cause problems in retirement.  According to Yogev, “They’ve created relationship tensions that are far more common today than in years past.”

There is no easy script that can provide the solution.  However there is information available on effective communication, possible signs of depression and resources that can increase the likelihood of creating a wonderful “couplehood” in retirement.

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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