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Don’t Be Retiring About Retirement – Communicate!

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I just retired from a law practice and love every minute of my new freedom.  The daily tennis games, books groups and lunch with friends make this time of life just terrific.  My problem is that my husband, a small-business owner, won’t discuss any part of retirement.  He has made no plans and just keeps coasting with no hobbies or outside interests. How can I get him to even discuss the subject?  

Answer: We have few role models on how to retire well as a married couple with dual careers.  This is the first time in history so many women are working in careers that produce income and benefits similar to, or even surpassing, their husband’s, allowing women to retire — almost as an independent.

In working with over 10,000 employees preparing for the nonfinancial part of their retirement, I have observed a major difference between the genders regarding retirement issues: Women talk, men don’t.  (Clearly there are exceptions.)

One theory about the origin of communication styles goes back to the hunting and gathering days. When men banded together to hunt big game, they had to walk silently for long periods of time.  Silence was imperative so they would not scare away their prey.  Their only communication was expressing facts and information about the hunt.

Once the hunt was completed, they returned to their base camp and discussed their prowess as hunters and their adventures, increasing their status with other hunters.

In contrast, women were able to freely chat.  Some women were likely pregnant, carried infants or had adolescents around them who would play, frolic and make noise.  The groups typically were loud, with sounds of games and yelling children.   Women stayed together rather than wondering as a safety measure to avoid becoming prey to carnivores.

Talking was a way to maintain the location of women and their children.  It became the glue that bonded the women together.  They likely discussed their children and husbands and were allowed to express their own feelings to those who also valued talking.

Perhaps our communication styles are rooted in our DNA.

Let’s now discuss relationships in retirement.

Phyllis Moen, sociologist at the University of Minnesota, found that when one spouse retires while the other remains employed, regardless of gender, the situation is related to “heightened marital conflict.” The ideal is when both mates retire at the same time.  And even then, the first two years of retirement can be turbulent.

Consider some of the following tips for effective communication.  Maybe they can entice your husband to chat.

Create the environment: TV, cells phones and BlackBerries should be off.

Speak: Preferably, the “talker” should not speak while sitting in front of the computer or reading the newspaper.  Seeing the whites of your partner’s eyes is important.

It is hard to listen while doing a crossword puzzle or watching the Dodgers.   Active listening means you really hear what the other person is saying.  You cannot listen and speak at the same time.

Trade roles:
The talker needs to become the listener, and the listener needs to become the talker.  If either assumes only one role, we have a monologue rather than a dialogue.

Show appreciation: Express your appreciation for what he is doing or has done.  The work place has a policy manual for showing appreciation.  You take the boss to lunch, have an office party or give a bonus.  There is no manual that tells us how to express appreciation in our personal lives.  Simple thank-yous actually work.

Share feelings rather than judgments:
This is not a touchy-feely exercise.  However, reserving criticism and sharing how you are feeling about the situation is productive.

The important question is, “What will he do?”  This takes time, thought and even some experimentation.  Ideally, your husband could explore some meaningful activities while he still has his business.  This approach would allow for a smooth transition from full-time business owner to something else.

Thank you for your good question.  We know we can’t make people do what they don’t want to do – at any age.   Hopefully your dialogue will provide some opening for your husband to think aloud about his future.  The rest will surely follow.

Best wishes for success – and keep playing tennis

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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