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Happy Together: Six Tips for Marriage After Retirement

Retirement can be wonderful, but it's not always easy on a marriage.

After many long years of employment, you have finally crossed the threshold into retirement. Congratulations! You may be feeling relieved, excited, anxious, and perhaps a little sad. You might also be realizing that retirement means many more hours at home with your spouse. This may have sounded great at first, but as the days and weeks march forward it ceases to be all sunshine and rainbows.

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The truth is that retirement can put quite a strain on a marriage, even a relatively healthy one. For many years you had found an equilibrium, and now suddenly everything is different. In my therapy practice, I have seen a number of couples through the transition into retirement. Below are six reminders I often give.

1. Be patient with each other. The months immediately before and after retirement can be an emotional roller coaster. Even when retirement came after a long wait and a lot of planning, finally crossing the threshold can bring unexpected thoughts and feelings. Many positive events can bring a lot of stress and strain our coping skills. You might remember the stress of planning a wedding or having children. Even though such events are blessings, they still bring their share of stressors. Retirement is no different, so give each other a little extra compassion and benefit of the doubt. Remember, even if you are the one who most recently retired, it is a big transition for both of you.

2. Notice changes in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Are you suddenly drinking more alcohol, shopping more, or getting upset more easily? Are you more tearful than usual? How about your spouse? These can be clues that one or both of you is straining to adjust to life after retirement, or the relationship changes that have come along with it.

If you notice any of these changes, be sure to increase your usual healthy coping strategies and/or try some new ones. Some things to try might be journaling, engaging in meditation or prayer, spending time in nature, or even seeing a therapist to help you through the transition. If you notice your partner having any serious troubles, you might suggest the same.

You might also be able to support each other by having a “walk and talk” where you go for a stroll and take turns talking about how retirement is going for you. Walking can help you split your time evenly, with one partner getting the "going out" half of the trip to talk, and the other the "walking back" portion. In this practice, it is important not to interrupt each other and to simply give each other time to talk while listening attentively. Only provide advice or feedback that is specifically requested by your partner.

3. Don’t make any major decisions. Since retirement can be emotionally challenging, be sure to be cautious about making any major life decisions. Many couples might argue more in the months after one or both partners retire, and it may be tempting to conclude that the marriage can’t survive. Alternatively, a sudden change of income might scare someone into wanting to make drastic budgetary changes or to move a long distance to someplace where the cost of living is lower.

If not careful, these can become sources of major conflict for a couple. Instead, take your time and promise each other you won’t make any major changes for a certain amount of time (I suggest at least six months to one year). Over time, all of these options can be discussed with each other and appropriate professionals. In the short run, though, avoid doing anything hasty. Give yourselves some time to adjust to retirement, to make gradual changes, and to think through potential solutions.

4. Don’t expect your partner to entertain you. Your spouse has had their own daytime routines without you, perhaps for many years. Once you are retired and both together at home, be respectful of the habits that you have each developed. Spend some time getting to know how your partner likes to spend their days and look within yourself to discover the routines that you most enjoy. When each of you has self-knowledge about your own preferences, it will be easier to find ways to merge your schedules in ways that are mutually rewarding.

5. Rediscover yourself and your own interests. Many people are so busy when they are working that they have forgotten how they like to spend their free time. You might have jettisoned your more time-consuming or involved hobbies (e.g., baking, playing an instrument, gardening) for simpler activities you can tolerate at the end of a long workday (e.g., watching television).

Now that you don’t have to work anymore, it’s a good time to think about how you really want to spend your leisure time. What are you curious about, what activities have you always meant to try? In particular, look for activities that feel productive and give you a sense of enjoyment, mastery, or meaning. Be willing to surprise yourself and discover yourself anew. This is a gift both to yourself and your spouse, as your partner may be invigorated by your new activities and may even wish to get involved as well.

6. Be curious and supportive of each other. In couples that have been together for a long time, it is easy to assume that you know each other inside and out. Unfortunately, this can lead to a lack of curiosity and openness that eventually stifles both you and your marriage. It can be boring and tedious to always be making predictions about our partner’s behavior and to assume he or she can’t or won’t ever change. Such an attitude can also be counterproductive, as the weight of another person’s expectations and assumptions can make it hard to change. In such a dynamic, small and large changes often go unnoticed and leave people feeling unseen and unappreciated.

Instead, give each other some breathing room. Remember that you have spent many of your waking hours apart when you were working. As a result, there are a lot of things about your partner that you haven’t seen and do not know. Assume that your partner will change through their retirement years, and cultivate curiosity about how this process will unfold. Even better, see if there are ways you can support and encourage each other to make your retirement years the best ones for both of you.

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