Mind

How to face retirement together as a couple

How couples can manage their expectations for life together after work.

By Donna Fleming

It was first diagnosed in 1991. After a Japanese GP noticed that he was treating an increasing number of women aged 60 plus for depression, rashes, ulcers, asthma and high blood pressure, he theorised that they were suffering from a condition that came to be known as RHS – or retired husband syndrome.

Instead of enjoying having their menfolk at home around the clock, the women – most of whom had been full-time homemakers and were used to having their days to themselves – were so stressed, they ended up suffering with physical and psychological illnesses.

Here in New Zealand, we're less likely to be inflicted with RHS because more women have been working full-time and are retiring alongside their husbands. Thus, fewer of us are suddenly having our "me time" curtailed thanks to our husbands being under our feet because we never had it in the first place.

But even if you've both been working and can't wait to get off the employment treadmill, retiring can put a lot of strain on relationships.

It's a time of major transition and like other periods of change – such as leaving home, getting married, starting a family and becoming empty-nesters – it can be stressful, says Stephanie Clare, the CEO of Age Concern.

"When you start work, you have to learn the rules of the workplace; and when you stop, you also have to come to terms with a different way of doing things in this next phase of your life," she says.

"Sometimes this can be hard to adjust to and if you are going through it as part of a couple, it can be amplified two times."

Steven Dromgool, a specialist relationship counsellor with Relate Counselling, agrees. "Inevitably, when you go through a big transition, it triggers a pretty predictable cascade of adjustment, stress and challenges. Retirement can have a huge effect on some people."

Research shows that there can be marked differences in the way that genders experience retirement, especially in the first few years after giving up work. While women tend to adjust more easily to not working – possibly because they've had time off at various stages during their careers to have babies and raise children – men often feel defined by their jobs, especially if they were the breadwinner.

Of course, these days women can be the ones earning the bulk of a household income and be just as invested in their careers, but men seem more likely to struggle with any change in dynamics, particularly if they've spent their days being in charge and overseeing staff.

"There is a lot of supposition around this, but it seems men tend to attach a lot of their identity to what they do at work, and retirement can take that away," explains Steven.

"They can feel that they have lost a major piece of who they are and that in turn affects their relationships with others, especially their partner.

"If they can't process what they are going through and don't talk about it – which a lot of men don't – they can end up internalising their anxiety. Depression can be common in men after they retire."

Another issue that takes the sheen off the so-called golden years of retirement occurs when a couple have different expectations of what this phase of their lives will involve. If one partner has visions of reading books, pottering in the garden and doing as little as possible, while the other expects to be travelling, taking up new hobbies and becoming a social butterfly, there will be problems.

"If you haven't talked about your expectations in the years leading up to retirement, you could be in for a shock," says Steven.

"If you've just assumed your partner wants the same thing as you, you can end up feeling ripped off and distressed if they don't. This is when you start to see an increase in affairs and relationship break-ups. Often this is not at the time of retirement but a few years beforehand, and it can be triggered by thinking about what is going to happen to your life when you retire."

Retirement can also expose long-standing cracks in relationships that were masked while the partners were busy working and raising a family. Once couples start spending a lot more time in each other's company, these can come to the surface and become a major bone of contention.

But it doesn't have to be that way. There is one essential thing we can do to try to avoid these pressures on our relationship. "Talking about retirement and everything it involves is crucial," says Steven. "And the sooner you do it, the better. People don't leave it until they've left work to start planning financially for retirement – they have a plan years in advance.

"It should be the same for your relationship. One of the best things you can do is to sit down together and develop a vision for the coming years. What do they actually look like? What do you see yourself doing? What are your hopes, dreams and aspirations?

"Talking these through provides a way for couples to get closer and opens the lines of communication. And once you have established what your hopes and dreams are, you can look at ways of moving towards them. So hopefully by the time you retire, you have prepared for what is coming next emotionally and financially."

Establishing the dream can involve negotiation and compromise, and people should remember that they don't need to be on the same page for everything.

"If you want to travel and your partner doesn't, then why not get a friend to go with you?" suggests Steven. "That way, everybody gets what they want. With some people, there is the assumption that retirement means doing everything together all the time, but that doesn't have to be the case."

Spending time apart can be healthy for your relationship. "Why would you wish your presence on someone 24/7?" asks Steven.

"Even when we are young and in love, we need a break sometimes to hang out with our friends or be on our own. Too much time together can be overwhelming."

Putting in the hard yards to build a strong, supportive and loving relationship is one of the best things you can do to increase your chances of having a happy retirement, and also a healthy life, tells Steven. He cites research that shows the biggest predictor of happiness and fulfilment, especially in our twilight years, is the quality of our relationship.

Back in 1938, the Grant Study, carried out by researchers at Harvard University's medical school, began tracking the health of 268 students (males only as there weren't any female students at Harvard then). The goal was to identify factors
that would help the men age healthily.

Over eight decades, the scientists have collected a huge range of data about the participants, who included US President John F. Kennedy, that detailed physical and mental health, career enjoyment, retirement experience and marital quality. Later, the study was expanded to cover the men's wives and children, with information still being collected today, including from a handful of the original participants, who are now in their nineties.

The main conclusion reached by professor George Vaillant, who headed the study for three decades, is that "the warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on life satisfaction". The research shows that "happiness is love, full stop," he says.

The current director of the study, Robert Waldinger, who is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, gave a talk in which he says the data collected on the study participants clearly indicates that marital satisfaction has a protective effect on mental and physical health.

"When we gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50, it wasn't their middle-aged cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old," he tells.

"It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80."

Steven says that while research makes it clear that we should all be doing what we can to work on our relationships at any stage of life, it is particularly important as we're heading into retirement.

"You're going to be spending a lot of time with the person you're in a relationship with. We have a tendency to think, 'Oh, my relationship is okay, we'll be fine.' But if you want these years of your life to be better than okay, if you want to feel happy and fulfilled, then the best investment you can make is in ensuring the quality of the relationship."

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