When couples start thinking about retirement, the idea can sound pretty exciting. They daydream about the things they can do together, the travel, the stress-free lifestyle, probably more sex. When they finally make the plunge, that’s usually how things start out. Couples behave like they're on their honeymoon.
Unfortunately, pretty soon the honeymoon ends. The couple settles into their new lifestyle and mundane daily living takes over. That’s when there can be problems, even in happy relationships. One of the major reasons is more time spent together in close quarters. This forces more frequent direct interaction, and that means more potential for conflicts.
For non-working wives, they might have the special issue of space invasion—having to cope with someone with too much time on their hands. Many husbands walk into this new life stage without an explicit plan as to how they will use their time. Coincidentally, their partners have an established way of doing things, and problems can arise if husbands are overly demanding of their wives' time or expect them to give up their daily routines. Of course, such expectations aren't at all realistic, and many wives are likely to feel pressure, and probably anger and resentment, at the prospect of husband-sitting.
The reality is space invasion is something many wives worry about even before their husbands retire. It can hang over their heads like an unpleasant cloud. In our book, The Retirement Maze, we interviewed a broad spectrum of people, and we explored this topic, among many others, in depth. Here's how one respondent, Angela, regards her husband’s pending retirement.
“It won’t be a bed of roses. Larry doesn’t have a lot of outside interests other than work. As for me, I have lots of activities to fill my time. I love to cook, have dinner parties, read, go shopping, have lunch with friends, and get my spa treatments. So when I think of Larry retiring I really worry about how and it will affect me and my life. I want him to find things to do without me so I can continue doing what I want. The truth is I really love my personal time and doing things at my own pace.”
Another respondent, Lynne, relayed a conversation she had with friends. All rejected the idea as horror-filled. They based it on how their husbands behave now, expecting they will only be worse when they’re home full-time:
"One just stared at me for a moment with a look of disgust, and then said her husband thinks he has retired already. He doesn't do anything around the house anymore. He will not start dinner, help with cleaning, or even load the dishwasher. When she can’t see her Yorkie in the backyard, she knows it’s time to call the teenager next door to mow.
Another talked about how much she enjoys her alone time. When her husband has errands to run, she's always hopeful that he will be out for a couple of hours, but he’s never gone long enough. Two mentioned that, if they want to have coffee and just stare at the kitchen table, they can't do so without being asked why they are doing that. If they are going out, they're bombarded with: “Where are you going?,” “What time will you be back?,” “What do you want to do for dinner?”
The last is a blogger who spends her days in front of her laptop. If her husband is home he asks what she’s got planned for the day. If she answers in any way related to blogging, he always makes a comment about wasting time, or that she acts like this is a "job."
Another form of space invasion is what we call domestic management consulting. Newly retired husbands may be inclined to turn a critical eye towards their wife’s management of affairs. Now, it’s understandable, and to some extent, they just can't help themselves. Many held supervisory positions in their careers and have developed a habit of being the boss. However, that may not matter much to their spouses. When husbands express dissatisfaction or suggest alternative ways of handling things in and around the house, wives who have managed the home front for years may not take too kindly to such an exasperating encroachment in their territory.
Gerry described how just such actions on his part had affected their marriage:
"When I retired, I started managing the only thing, and person, available to me—my home and my wife. To say that this created friction is an understatement. We were initially unaware of my “management creep,” but it became clear that I was interfering with the normal ebb and flow of my wife’s daily routines. I was becoming an unexpected and unwanted dominating presence in a part of her life that previously had been solely her domain. Arguments were never a part of our relationship, but they were now.”
“As we became aware of the realities of our new existence, we were determined to address them. We talked about what was happening to us and our relationship and worked at righting the ship before things got out of control. I focused on backing off and giving her the space she was accustomed to. I learned to bite my lip and shut my mouth when I saw her doing things that I would have done differently. I had to adjust—me, not her. Sure, I backslid (and still do) sometimes. But being aware of my behavior, thankfully, has helped to keep my backsliding to a reasonable level.”
While this sounds pretty dismal, all is not doom, at least not forever. The evidence is that eventually, husbands become less demanding of their wives’ time. After they’ve been retired for a while, they adapt to the lifestyle and learn to either establish their own personal interests or just accept that their wives have their own lifestyles. Of course, there is also the possibility that husbands become less demanding of their wives' time and attention because their wives have succumbed to the pressure and made adjustments to their own lives, giving up a lunch here, an activity there. In all likelihood it’s probably a combination of the two—husbands expect less and wives give more. But maybe that's not so bad because, after all, compromise is what good relationships are all about.
Still, if you run into these problems, get to work on them right away. Talk to each other—establish the ground rules to ensure a peaceful co-existence. Talking out the issues as soon as they become noticeable will save you a lot of grief because problems that fester can only get worse and harder to fix over time.
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