Retiring as a Couple: Strategies for Writing Your Next Chapter Together
There’s an old joke about a couple who were celebrating their 50th anniversary. When asked about the secret to their long marriage the husband replied, “when we got married, we made a pact that no matter what happens, we would always go out twice a week.” His wife nodded in agreement. He then added, “We never missed a week. I went out on Mondays and Wednesdays, and she went out on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
Perhaps you have your own secret to a long and happy life together, but the reality is that retiring as a couple can pose challenges, both with regard to doing the planning and to actually implementing your plan. And plan you should, for there might be a lot of togetherness ahead. Maybe you’ve spent two or three weeks on vacation with your other half in the past, but we’re talking about (potentially) decades here.
The Skipton Building Society is a financial services organization in the U.K. They conducted a poll about retirement in 2013 and found that 8 in 10 retirees said they no longer shared any of their spouse or partner’s hobbies or interests, while 29 percent they didn’t have same expectations for retirement as their other half.
Our early family experiences can shape those expectations. For example, maybe your father had few hobbies or interests outside of work and upon retiring he spent most of his time at home driving your mom crazy. It’s understandable if you’re wary about the same thing happening in your relationship.
The retirement transition isn’t always easy, and in some cases, it can lead to an unfortunate outcome. Divorce rates in the United States are declining — except for people over 50. Twenty years ago, just one in 10 spouses who split were age 50 or older; today, it is one in four.
Couples who have historically avoided conflict may put off talking about retirement, which delays planning and can lead to rushed decisions. And couples who have not resolved past conflicts may repeat them and find themselves unable to plan. But by recognizing the typical head and heart challenges surrounding retirement, you’ll be less apt to be alarmed by them, shy away from them, or view them as sign that your relationship is in trouble.
When it comes to planning, it’s rare for couples to always be on the exact same page. When disagreements come up, it’s often due to differences of opinion, differences in your approach to problem-solving, or differences in your decision-making style. Those differences can obscure the fact that you may be in greater agreement than you think.
Your retirement decisions and planning will likely revolve around two broad questions: WHEN will you begin the transition, and WHAT do you want it to look like and feel like as it unfolds?
WHEN will you begin the transition?
Some people launch into retirement rather abruptly while others adopt a gradual path, but you still need to decide whether the process starts 3 months from now or 3 years from now. Will you retire separately or together, and how does that impact your timing?
I was curious about how people actually decided to retire, so I conducted interviews and compiled a dozen personal stories into a short book called Done With Work. My respondents spoke of the internal thoughts and feelings propelling them to retire, as well as the external circumstances at play. They typically made the decision to retire when there was convergence of the internal and external factors. They felt psychologically ready to retire and they believed that circumstances supported their doing so.
WHAT do you want retirement to look like and feel like?
There are many decisions you will need to make as a couple. For example, where will you live? What are you each looking for in terms of climate, type of community, type of residence, and so forth?
How do you anticipate spending your time, and how much time will you spend together? Your past experience might provide clues as to what it will be like to navigate this area. Have you historically been able to agree on what movies to watch, what events to attend, and which invitations to accept? How have you negotiated these things in the past, and how much time do you need to carve out for your own solitude?
As you enter this transition, you may need to consider certain family relationships. For example, as a couple you might have older adult parents to care for. They may have differing needs, and you and your partner may have a different relationship with your respective parents, a different perspective on caregiving, different sibling involvement and so forth. Perhaps you have children, stepchildren, and/or grandchildren. Here too there are numerous circumstances that could potentially require honest conversation, healthy debate, lots of good faith effort, and perhaps a negotiated compromise.
Money is another area that couples need to consider. By this point in life you probably have a sense of where and how you diverge when it comes to spending priorities and your approach to money. But the stakes can feel much higher knowing that you may live for decades on a fixed income. Your financial advisor has resources to help you have productive discussions about money and can suggest ways to reach a workable compromise. For example, if you’re very cautious about money and your partner tends to spend more freely, you could agree to adopt your partner’s style when it comes to smaller expenses but emphasize your more prudent approach when it comes to big ticket items.
All of those decisions you need to make will require some degree of discussion, exploration, negotiation, and the like. As with other transitions in your life together, this one requires solid communication. Roberta Taylor and Dorian Mintzer wrote a terrific book called The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Creating an Amazing New Life Together. They wisely note that just because you’ve been together a long time doesn’t necessarily mean you can read each other’s minds.
One barrier to effective communication is that fear gets in the way. One or both parties may avoid discussing an issue because they’re afraid of opening up a “Pandora’s Box”. Some fears are realistic and give us warning about what we ought to be paying attention to. But Taylor and Mintzer note that other fears may be "related to a lack of information or an overreaction based on past experience." And as noted cognitive therapist Robert Leahy says, “sometimes the disagreement we envision in our head is worse than what actually occurs.”
Stylistic differences can also hamper communication. Recognize them for what they are, but don’t conclude that they reflect character flaws. Your husband isn’t necessarily uncaring because he doesn’t like talking about the future. Your wife isn’t undoubtedly neurotic because she likes to talk about what’s troubling her. The conversation is less apt to derail if you can remember that the friction you’re feeling is probably more related to style than to substance.
Even if you’re unable to agree on something you both want (e.g. where you want to live), can you reach agreement on things you don’t want? It can reduce tension and open up the discussion if you reassure your partner that you won’t push for something that they feel is unacceptable.
Although it is important to plan together, you both need to figure out your own path as well. A very common concern involves identity. Who am I if my role changes, if I’m no longer a physician, a manager, a teacher? As Taylor and Mintzer wisely point out, "if one partner is dealing with issues of identity, chances are it affects both of you."
One of my professors, the late gero-psychologist David Gutmann discovered that with age, it’s not unusual for long-dormant aspects of our personality to emerge. For example, one member of a couple might wonder, “now that I no longer have to be the hard charging businessperson, can I also embrace the nurturing side that I had previously disavowed?” Will your relationship flexibly accommodate such a shift if it appears?
Look to Your Past
Retirement is a transition, and as a couple you should consider how you’ve each dealt with past transitions. Do you deal with them differently (e.g. speed through vs. tolerate the journey) and how did you manage to support one another during the process? Thinking about how you navigated those inflection points, did you learn anything about yourself or your other half? Past transitions can shed light on strengths that you can then apply to this one.
For couples contemplating retirement, planning your next chapter can feel complicated. The good news is that you don’t have to do it alone. Your financial advisor has helped many other people just like you sort through the head and heart side of retirement. In the unlikely event that you reach an impasse, they should also be able to refer you to counselors who specialize in assisting couples who are going through this transition.