Relationship Success in Retirement: Part Two

Jul 8, 2022

Nothing can ruin a successful retirement like a bad relationship. And nothing can create a bad relationship like not being prepared for retirement.
The Wall Street Journal

In part one of this blog series, we explained that in retirement when neither partner is actively engaged in work, the degree of active intimacy in a marriage is at least doubled. This statistic, if not recognized and prepared for, can have a devastating impact on long term happiness and fulfilment.

To quote Dr. Davala and Dr. Mims, from whose work we drew in part one of this blog: “So how do you achieve satisfaction in both relationships and retirement? Based on our research and our clinical experience, we offer these tips to help couples reduce the potential strain that retirement can have on relationship harmony, especially as they plan for and enter retirement.”

5 Research-Based Solutions:

1. Become Confidants

The pressures of work and child responsibilities represent a dangerous distraction in pre-retirement marriage. Couples are too busy to cultivate the daily intimacy successful relationships need.

State Davala and Mims: “Work can give people a deep sense of meaning, connection and self-worth. But when work goes away, it’s often difficult to suddenly learn to cultivate worth from oneself and one’s partner. What’s more, the neglected marriage may not be noticeable when couples give priority to work and child responsibilities. Take away work and children, and the neglect becomes overwhelmingly obvious.”

Recommend Davala and Mims:

  • Align financial goals, health needs, travel plans, and relationships with other family members and much more
  • Work together to feel mutually respected and valued
  • Talk to each other – couples need to feel united in the retirement transition to reduce feelings of disconnection

2. Relearn Your Partner’s Needs

Feeling valued and respected is, usually, one of the compensations of work. When work is eliminated, those needs remain – but are often taken for granted, especially by men. For example, Davala and Mims offer the following anecdote:

“One woman who had been married for many years believed her spouse didn’t like her any longer. When we checked the validity of her concerns with her partner, she burst into tears to hear him say that she was one of the most caring and generous people he knew.”

Trouble was, he had never taken the time to say so. In retirement, a couple’s emotional needs are intensified, not diminished. Forgetting that can be fatal.

3. Embrace Changing Roles

Roles change in retirement. Domestic chores assume a greater significance now there’s time to perform them. Davala and Mims report:

“We counseled one couple who retired and planned to move to North Carolina. While discussing their plans, the wife said, ‘I cooked for 40 years, I am done cooking. I told him it’s his turn.’ The husband’s response: ‘I will focus on dinner and see how it goes.’ The two laughed. It might seem like a minor moment, but it was actually profound. It immediately helped the two set the stage for their retired lives, with both of them open to discarding habits that didn’t serve them anymore. Neither felt confined or governed.”

4. Negotiate Togetherness

There can be too much togetherness in retirement. The relationship can become claustrophobic. The degree of separateness each partner enjoyed during their working years collapses and it’s much to their mutual surprise.

Comment Davala and Mims: “For instance, if a couple had a high level of separateness before retirement, one spouse may be overwhelmed and annoyed when the partner is always around after retirement.”

They added: “We talked to one woman who said she was ready to divorce her husband because after he retired he became quieter and started watching a lot of television. His response when she complained: ‘I talked for 45 years at work, I am done talking.’”

The truth was that the man was exhausted and needed to recover. He found his wife’s attentions smothering. By renegotiating their level of desired closeness and time spent together, and improving their mutual communication skills, they stabilised their relationship and resumed a more active lifestyle and enjoying time together.

5. Find Past Tenderness

Report Davala and Mims:

In our research, we found that people who were able to reminisce about their spouses had higher rates of satisfaction during retirement.

This is not about – emotionally speaking – living in the past. It’s about recalling your romantic successes when younger and not being afraid to relive them. The key is to remember.

Davala and Mims concede that what began as a survey involving no interaction with respondents evolved into something much more personal. Couples wanted to talk. Not only to Davala and Mims, but to one another.

The two doctors go on to say: “We found that by completing the survey, many of them so deeply reminisced that they had to share stories and memories with us. Many pulled us aside to express tenderness and fondness for their spouses.”

Reflection creates meaning. It’s easy, and all too common, for couples to lose their way in retirement. They want to reconnect with their spouse more passionately than they care to admit. Once they break through that barrier, retirement life becomes a great deal happier and more fulfilling.

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