Retirement - Transition Time for Couples


Retirement can be one of the best times in life. Finally, there's time to do the things you enjoy — including spending more time with a spouse or partner.

For some couples, retirement offers a whole, wonderful new world. But just as time together can make for marital bliss, retirement can also be hard on a marriage, especially during the first few years. Two people who have lived relatively separate lives are suddenly thrust together — not just for a few hours at the end of the workday, but now for days on end. New conflicts and frustrations may arise that can threaten a previously happy marriage. When it's time for you or your spouse to retire, take a good look at how the change may influence your marriage.

When a spouse retires

Routines change dramatically at the start of retirement. A working person's perimeters and professional status are gone. Once a person leaves the office or place of employment, a number of questions often surface:
"What's next?" "How will I keep busy?" "Why do I miss work?" "Who am I now?" "Is this all there is?"

"Retirement has many challenges," says Robert M. Morse, M.D., a psychiatrist who retired in 1999 from Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. "It's a big change in one's life."

As chairman of Mayo Clinic's retirement planning committee from 1990 to 1999, Dr. Morse has had many opportunities to study retirement and its effects on a person's well-being. He sees retirement as a normal stage in life.

"Retirement can be compared to leaving home for college, starting a first job or getting married," says Dr. Morse. "It's simply another lifestyle change."

Some adults move into retirement without missing a beat, but many do not. It can take up to 3 years for some people to figure out what it means to them to be retired. During this time, personal relationships change and it's not uncommon for the quality of a marriage to suffer.

If unprepared for the adjustments that retirement brings, some couples spend their time engaged in marital combat. Instead of enjoying each other, they fight more often. With the distraction of work gone, the risk of annoying each other increases. At the root of such marital tension may be the issue of how the newly retired person and their spouse — who may or may not still be working — should spend their time.

Planning is everything

Because retirement often brings the loss of a significant social group, the change is likely to have the same psychological effects as other kinds of job loss. Therefore, it's not uncommon for someone newly retired to be uncertain of his or her identity. Retirement, in the worst case, can resemble bereavement and trigger severe depression. However, like other milestones in life, retirement may best be viewed as a process rather than an event.

Planning ahead about such change can help a retiring person and spouse avoid trouble. Pre-retirement programs can offer some benefit for planning post-work years. Many programs direct most attention to financial planning, but there's actually much more to consider than money. A person considering retirement should anticipate other issues such as: Constructive use of time such as hobbies, traveling or volunteering Maintaining a sense of purpose Interaction with family and friends Watching out for retirement-related depression

My space, your space

It's also important to consider how the retirement of one spouse will affect the other's quality of life. In retirement, a person's schedule is no longer mapped out by work. As more time becomes available for a couple to spend together, it's common for the retiring spouse to think they should do everything together. However, the need for individual time and space remains important.

"Time apart should be not be taken offensively by either spouse as if he or she is being ignored," says Dr. Morse. "You have to respect each other's individuality. And, if a marriage has already gone through several lifestyle changes successfully, retirement should be no different. Even though one spouse's life has changed dramatically doesn't mean the other's has to."

A success story

Retirement can make marriage more meaningful and fulfilling. Many people see retirement as an opportunity to strengthen relationships and home life.

Cal Smith, 83, of Rochester, Minn., was a little concerned about retirement. After managing the city's auditorium for 24 years and spending almost every day and night overseeing community events, suddenly being without the structure of his job was a big change.

"Since I never had much time for hobbies, I decided to relax the first year," says Smith. "I just tried to feel my way along and volunteer a little."

Cal's wife, Inez, 84, is a homemaker who had become accustomed to having the house to herself much of the time. Although many homemakers often worry about their spouses returning home full-time, she was nothing but pleased.

"I was happy to have him around more," she says. "Some wives say their husbands come home and want to rearrange the cupboards, but Cal wasn't that way. He started right out volunteering, and I continued my life as usual."

For the Smiths, staying busy has been the key to successful retirement. Both Cal and Inez volunteer half days, and continue to have individual hobbies they enjoy. Cal works on projects in the garage, keeps the yard perfectly groomed and likes to read. Inez enjoys knitting and maintaining the house.

"Retirement is really a happy time," says Cal. "It goes by much too fast."

Much of the Smiths' retirement success can be credited to planning ahead. Before he retired in September of 1981, Smith knew he needed to arrange some activities to help himself adjust from the busy career he was used to.

"My advice is to keep as busy as possible," he says. "Just sitting around is not good."

Although staying busy is good for some, others find that taking more time to adjust is best. Dr. Morse chose to take the first 6 months of his retirement to consider his options. His wife, Ancy, a judge who retired just 1 month after he did, eventually decided to return to work part-time.

"Retirement should be a time when you can do what you want to," says Dr. Morse. "It's different for each one of us."


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