One of the more complicated aspects of living together in retirement is what couples do with their 24 hours, every day, without the diversion of work.
Even in the happiest of marriages, husbands and wives have to deal with a much more intrusive co-existence, and there’s likely to be some bumping into each other along the way. Things usually start off well enough. In the early stages, couples are happier, have better sex lives, and feel their relationships have actually improved. But like all honeymoons, that can end, and quickly.
One potential pitfall stems from over-dependency. Being socially connected is essential for mental health, and women seem to grasp this better than men. As a rule, they’re generally more socially integrated and have more and stronger emotional ties to friends and family. Many men, in contrast, have fewer close relationships, and will look to their wives to keep them active and socially involved.
A certain amount of social dependency is normal in a marriage. But some newly retired husbands might expect to be the primary focus of their wives’ attention. That’s not realistic or healthy, and in fact some wives might become angry and resentful if they have to surrender more of their personal time than they’d like to. That’s particularly the case for a wife who hasn’t been in the workforce and has a well-established personal lifestyle.
Husbands and wives might also have very different ideas as to how they will live individually and as a couple. A wife might presume more help with household chores, or either spouse may anticipate more involvement from the other in their preferred leisure activities. Disappointments resulting from out of sync expectations can lead to hostility if either partner feels neglected or is not getting fair consideration of their needs.
Incompatibility can be another risk. Some partners might come to feel they don’t have as much in common as they once thought. Underlying differences can be hidden when attending to careers and raising a family, but can come to the forefront when couples are focused just on each other. One retiree, Michael, summed it up this way:
“My wife loves the big house in the suburbs while I want a smaller place, preferably an apartment in the city. My ideal retirement has European travel as its centerpiece; hers, I suspect, is centered on grandchildren and home improvement projects. I’m just not interested in our house becoming my lifelong mission or a day care center. I hope we’ll be able to work things out.”
Such issues are not uncommon, and they’re not suggestive that your marriage is falling apart. Many of these problems can be solved with frank and honest conversations, and these should take place well before retirement so you have time to work through solutions. By spelling out what each wants from the other, you eliminate ambiguity — partners can manage their expectations, establish the rules for co-existence, and minimize their disappointments. Such discussions can cover time spent together and apart, and even such mundane topics as household chores.
If you feel your interests have diverged, look for common ground. There’s likely to be more you share with each other than you realize. Find activities you can do together and those you’ll do individually, and keep in mind to be fair and split time equally. While you’re at it, participate in your partner’s activities honestly, and by that I mean like act you want to be there. That’s called emotion work — pretending to be completely engaged in your partner’s interests even when you’re not — and that’s done all the time in marriage.
I should mention that it’s healthy for husbands and wives to pursue their own interests and have some separate friendships. Along with providing space, individual goals and friendships adds to your personal growth and help you maintain your own identity. Besides, the time you spend apart gives you something to talk about when you’re together.
Rob Pascale is a retired research psychologist and author of three critically acclaimed books: “The Retirement Maze,” “Taking Charge of Your Emotions” and “Making Marriage Work.”
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