Retirement brings couples face to face with a new reality. As partners step away from their careers and settle into a phase of life characterized by more leisure time, they may be surprised at the uncertainty the transition brings with it and questions about how they will thrive as a couple in this new chapter.
“You can be really excited about retiring or working in a different way, but there’s still some loss and grief,” says Dorian Mintzer, Ph.D., a professional retirement coach, speaker, and co-author of The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Creating an Amazing New Life Together.
Complicating an already challenging transition is the growing number of ways to retire. The days of retiring directly and completely from a full-time job seem to be numbered. In fact, a 2018 research brief by the RAND Corporation asserted that fewer than four in 10 American workers followed that pattern. Instead, many pursue new career paths, take on part-time work, or even start small businesses.
In the United States, a quarter of all seniors now stay in full- or part-time work past the age of 70. According to the RAND research from 2018, 14 percent cut back their hours as a prelude to full retirement, and 17 percent left the workforce only to reenter it later.
“Retirement isn’t so much a destination anymore; it’s a transition, it’s a journey,” Mintzer says.
But regardless of what your path looks like, it’s important to approach retirement intentionally with your partner, because this phase of your life is likely to be a long one. Over the past 50 years, the number of years people spend in retirement has risen dramatically.
In 1970, men in the U.S. could expect 12.8 years of retirement and women could expect 16.6 years, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. By 2020, those numbers had risen to 18.6 years for men and 21.3 years for women.
Start with Communication
Mintzer, whose book takes a lighthearted approach (Chapter One is “Twice the Husband, Half the Income”), has helped many couples reevaluate their dynamics, goals, and individual pursuits. Success starts, she says, with conversation.
But don’t feel bad if you and your partner find yourselves unexpectedly struggling with communication. Learning to not only express yourself clearly, but also listen attentively, are skills that develop with practice. Keep in mind that it’s easy to misunderstand our closest companions during times of change if we mistakenly believe we already know what they want, need, and feel.
Couples planning for retirement require a deliberate approach to communication, especially because of the sensitive and emotionally charged nature of the topics that arise. From living arrangements and finances to health, obligations, and spirituality, it helps to have somewhere to start.
Mintzer says couples should try to have a BLAST during tough conversations by remembering the following acronym:
B: Blaming gets in the way
L: Listen without interrupting
A: Agree to disagree, and don’t assume
S: Set a safe space for discussion
T: Take time to talk without distractions
This template can help you allocate your newfound free time, whether you choose to pursue new hobbies, volunteer, travel, or simply relax. Some couples may have plenty of expectations in common, while others will have more to negotiate. The important thing is to patiently put everything out in the open so you can work together.
“The frame I’ve used with my co-author is the concept of a puzzle,” Mintzer says. “I like it because it’s a noun and a verb.”
Looking to the Past to Direct the Future
If you’re approaching retirement, you’ve likely worked toward and hoped for it for decades. So, after all the congratulation and celebration, you may be surprised to find yourself occasionally feeling down. While some people may feel this way immediately, others enjoy a “honeymoon period,” only to find themselves unexpectedly sad a few months into their new normal.
“It’s almost like there’s no map. You know, there’s a map for going to college, and there’s a map for getting a job, and there’s a map for raising your kids, but there’s no map for what happens next,” Mintzer says.
It’s hard to know what a change will feel like before it arrives, but Mintzer suggests reflecting on previous transitions that you’ve weathered together as a couple. For example, if you have grown children, what emotions came up when they left home? If you’ve weathered a big move as a couple, what were each of your strengths? And if COVID-19 lockdowns meant you spent more time at home, how did it suit you?
Each of these changes, and many others, disrupt established routines and redefine daily purpose — just like retirement. “Have you had more trouble with the ending, with the period of unknown, or with the new beginning?” Mintzer says. “All transitions have those components.”
By that measure, Jim Marks and Liz Hester were well prepared to face retirement after decades of negotiating courageous new beginnings. The pair met in graduate school and married almost 40 years ago. They have frequently moved and changed careers, often working in different fields. Their professions have taken them all over the United States and around the world.
Like most modern professionals, the couple’s transition to retirement was gradual. Jim made the first move, shifting from genetics research to consulting and eventually starting a specialty food business in their home. Liz transitioned from a career in banking to becoming a speech pathologist before finally retiring.
Throughout their many moves, whether to Kansas or Saudi Arabia, Marks says the pair always kept their own identities and interests, which have continued to sustain them.
Time Together, Time Alone
Retirement opens a rewarding new chapter for couples, complete with the opportunity to enjoy each other’s company in new ways thanks to the slower pace of life. Still, the sudden abundance of time can lead to feelings of purposelessness, creating relationship strain.
One key aspect that both Mintzer and Marks emphasized was the idea of, as Mintzer puts it, a healthy mix of “time together and time apart.” Marks and Hester, for example, have shared interests such as hiking, biking, cooking, and playing music. But when Hester proposed a trip to Paris, Marks, who doesn’t enjoy crowded cities, declined. She went with her sister instead.
“I think the important thing is to have interests that you can share with your partner or friends, but also interests that you can just do on your own,” says Marks, who ran a specialty food business out of his kitchen from 2011 until his wife retired in 2015.
“You have to have interests to fill the hours in the day,” he says. “You have to have things you can do alone and be comfortable with yourself.”
Wealth and Health
Some factors in retirement naturally influence all others. In particular, Mintzer and Marks agreed, it’s important to nurture your mental and physical well-being and the state of your finances.
When making time for those important conversations — having a BLAST — remember to include focused discussions about balancing expenses and income. Marks says he has noticed that a lot of people worry about having enough money in retirement, but he has good news. “You don’t really need as much money as you might think you need when you retire,” he says. “If you keep busy and don’t overspend, you end up saving a significant amount of money.”
Plus, limited resources can help focus your priorities. “I think you have to think about what really gives you pleasure,” he says.
Major changes like retirement can also disrupt your health by interrupting your eating habits, fitness schedule, and mental health. Talk openly with your partner about how you’ll stay active, prioritize self-care, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. The more you support each other’s well-being and proactively address potential health-care concerns, the better.
“The longer we live, the more likely one or another is going to be a caregiver,” Mintzer says. “It really is important to take care of our health.”
Remember that solo trip to Paris that Hester took? While she was away, Marks worked on some overdue home maintenance projects — and they just kept coming.
“At some point during that time when she was gone, it’s like, ‘I don’t know how much longer I want to keep doing this,’” he recalls. When Hester returned, they began to consider downsizing.
Today, they’re part of The Spinney at Van Dyke, a 55+ community in the Capital Region. The change meant less housework and more freedom to travel and socialize.
“We have a number of friends around here, mostly people that we know through music, old school friends around here, and some relatives,” Marks says.
Mintzer recommends that, like Marks and Hester, every couple make time to evaluate their living situation as they transition into retirement. Take into account financial goals, realistic expectations of health and wellness, and your personal values and preferences.
Facing the Unknown Together
Bottom line, retirement is not the end of an era but a bold new chapter. “There can be a shift from working and doing so much to really thinking about being, getting more in touch with what’s going on inside,” Mintzer says.
By communicating openly, embracing change, and actively nurturing relationships, you, too, can embark on this fresh phase with a sense of purpose, joy, and fulfillment.
Top photo by Rebecca Gatto.