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Coping With Your Husband's Retirement

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A retired couple from California stop to fish off the embankment at Spanish Harbor Key.

A retired couple from California stop to fish off the embankment at Spanish Harbor Key.

Work Is One of the Main Ways We Gauge Our Place in Society

Retirement changes the dynamics of our relationships. This is especially true in marriage. On the last day that people leave work permanently, aware of it or not, they lose one of the most obvious ways in which they gauge their place in society.

Additionally, they are faced with the choice of what to do with the rest of their life. People who retire, often go from a routine that fills much of their day, to one in which they have way too much free time. More than anything, this free time affects your primary relationships, especially that of a spouse.

Whether retirement is viewed as a positive or negative event, often depends on the reasons for retiring. Some people choose to retire, having looked forward to quitting unpleasant work, or to pursuing more fulfilling interests. Others find themselves forced to retire before they are mentally ready.

A significant portion of retirees have trouble coping with the consequences of retirement. People who retire unexpectedly because of illness, job loss, or those who tended to work longs hours, bringing work home with them may have the most difficulty adjusting to retirement.

A couple on a cycling trek on banks of Rhine River (Germany).

A couple on a cycling trek on banks of Rhine River (Germany).

Retirement Can Create Problems for Many Couples

Here are just some of the problems that can arise after a partner retires from work:

  • Spouses may have to adjust to seeing more of each other;
  • Some retirees have difficulty coping with reduced income;
  • Some resent their diminished role in society;
  • Some believe themselves no longer important and powerless;
  • Some feel they have nothing left to contribute.

As a result, retirement often has a sudden and stressful impact on marriage. Many couples spend their remaining years together feeling miserable. They cannot adjust to the realities of retirement.

This fact makes you question if all of us are really supposed to retire. If you think about it—throughout history, people worked until they died or were physically or mentally incapacitated. It's only in relatively recent times that the concept of "retirement" came about. Maybe for some retirees, a better solution is to find a better job, a new direction in the pursuit of passion, and not to quit work entirely.

Remember, there are many lifestyle changes in retirement that affect marriage. The biggest may be the most important—spouses now spend more time together. This is the one factor, I'd like to address in this article.

The longer a couple is married, the less likely they will divorce, even if they have significant marital problems. After many years of marriage, there are just too many motivations to remain together—many of them having to do with the needs of the extended family. Often couples who can't get along merely sidestep each other, rather than divorce.

Before retirement, an unhappy couple could effectively tiptoe around each other, because at least one of them was busy working. Retirement, of course, ruins that. Now, you are spending 24/7 with someone who you haven't gotten along with for years. You can blame it on retirement, but the truth is—you've probably never learned to adjust to each other. Now, you are forced to do something about that. Hopefully, the outcome will be a solution to issues you should have resolved years ago in your marriage.

The years that a husband and wife have spent creating independent lifestyles, now come back to haunt them. They can sometimes worry that they have little left in common. Throughout their marriage, they failed to generate common interests. They did nothing to build compatibility. Rather than building a relationship on the basis of shared respect and warmth, they ignored each other's feelings. Thus, in reality, they have missed out on a lifetime of marital happiness. Don't let this happen to you when you retire!

Design Your Own Solution

The good news is there are solutions, some of which include:

  • Creating a retirement lifestyle that you both enjoy;
  • Creating a retirement lifestyle that meets the needs of both partners;
  • Learning to eliminate personal habits that make your relationship miserable;
  • Learning to avoid hurting each other;
  • Learning to meet each other's needs;
  • Learning to give each other some private time every day.

Finally, remember the good times you've had in the past. Look for ways to create new ones. Make new memories. Forgive and forget the old hurts and begin again with the goal of having the best marriage any two people can, in your retirement years.

From a Personal Standpoint: The Realities of Retirement

We looked forward to retirement. We thought we'd prepared financially. We talked endlessly about traveling around the world, building our dream house, building more ponds, experimenting with solar power, working with various conservation and preservation projects.

While all of those things were fine in theory, they proved to be very different in reality. Being together 24/7 soon had a big impact of both of us. My husband had worked for thirty-seven hard years, working a union job, completely on call 24/7 for all of that career. Typically, he would be gone for several days at a time, home for even less, and back out again. As much as both of us looked forward to him being home more often, the shock of that reality was more than either of us bargained for.

At the same time, I primarily worked from home with intermittent business trips. This arrangement afforded me lots of time for the creativity that my interests and income depended upon. When my husband was home for a few days, I simply took a break and devoted myself to enjoying the moments we had together.

Suddenly and unexpectedly retired, he was not only under my feet, but I found that the kitchen was "always open." Since he doesn't cook and has no intentions on learning to, to find myself a domestic goddess on a daily basis, was quite a shock. I'd no sooner get one meal done and cleaned up after, and he'd be asking about the next meal. Then, with so much time on his hands, he'd be explaining to me that I wasn't preparing the dish right, that "my mother would put this or that in the same recipe." His need to be in control and micromanage the household, needless to say, led to this behavior getting old fast.

While we worked through those issues, new developments were more difficult. He began to suffer from anxiety and depression. His expectations regarding retirement were waylaid by health problems, and those health problems necessitated a move from the very rural community we'd always lived in, to a new environment where he could get the care he needed to survive. Uprooting him from all he had ever known, and changing everything that he had dreamed of with respect to his retirement was a bitter bite of a reality sandwich.

He wasn't the type of man who had his own feelings of self-worth tied to what his employment and career. So, it was another surprise when he just didn't know who he was anymore. The nature of his career had left no time for developing hobbies, or special passions, and the move to another part of the country, left him feeling very lost.

Illness triggered depression and anxiety over getting older, married to the knowledge that his own mortality questions, were very real concerns—problems that just about ruined any chance for happiness in retirement. Left to his own devices, he was on a road to isolation and feelings of hopelessness. To say he was homesick for his old life, was putting it mildly.

His retirement was an extremely difficult road to navigate and trying to find him a new sense of direction was a troublesome challenge. For awhile, we were stuck in an impasse. He had not cultivated any interests, his previous dreams dashed because of illness, he soon was falling apart emotionally, and he'd pretty much lost his will to live. So, as his wife, I felt fairly desperate.

He had never cultivated any other interest in life other than those limited dreams about a future retirement. When the context of his single focus was no longer viable, his life fell apart, and he lost his desire to live. He simply had no tools to deal with all that retirement had become. I had little choice, but to try to get help from outside ourselves. That in itself, was difficult, since no one really had any answers.

I discussed the situation with family and his many physicians. He wouldn't have accepted any help, even if it was offered, and basically it wasn't. Left on my own to cope with an unhappy retired husband, I knew that we both had a very difficult adjustment to get through. More than anything, he needed to feel that he was still desirable, valuable, and important to the rest of the world.

I had walk a delicate tight rope in making sure that during his illness, he did not feel a burden, nor could I allow him to think his life was not inessential. What worked for us? Well, here is my list:

  • Even though he had no interest and was dead set against taking any classes (terminally shy)—I got him to take a Master Gardener class with me. There, he learned more about plants, trees, diseases, etc. than this "I know it all" farmer ever dreamed was possible. It forced him to interact with others at a time when he very much wanted to curl up and die.
  • I volunteered him for some physical "jobs" at our church that he supposedly had no interest in doing, but immensely enjoyed when he learned that his sheer physical size and strength was appreciated.
  • I made sure he spent time outside with grandchildren and their friends. For a man who had never been allowed to be a kid—I had the biggest kid of all, at the local swimming holes and beaches. Knowing that they value him and he's still their hero, helps tremendously.
  • I made sure that everyday, despite the fact that it still can be trying to be together with another person 24/7—I let him know how much I still love him.

Finally, I'd like to remind anyone struggling to cope with your spouse's retirement—to keep in mind, that while we must confront our insignificant issues and look at the big picture—the comfort and joy in the companionship of being alive with someone you love, more than compensates for the trials and adjustments of retirement.

Disclaimer: This article is for information, inspiration, and support and is not a substitute for professional marital advice.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.