Transitioning from full-time employment into retirement is naturally going to impact both your life and your marriage. Retirement comes with lots of changes, and there are ups and downs to the process. Whether you have parents going through this, you’re coming up to retirement, or you have recently retired, there’s lots to learn about how to handle the changes that come with moving into retirement since it’s a brand-new stage of life.
Research shows that there are both positives and negatives that can come as a result of retirement. Certainly, in North American culture retirement is idealized and celebrated as something to look forward to at the end of your career, but many couples also experience some disappointment when it turns out to be not as great as they had hoped.
Marital Satisfaction for Couples at Different Life Stages
One study looked at positive interactions between couples of different ages. The study showed that younger couples had the most positive interactions: good healthy, positive day to day moments. Middle age couples (40’s) had the least. And older couples (about 65 and over…the retirement group) had an intermediate amount of positive interactions. But the study also found that negative attitudes decreased with age. It’s normal for couples to go through tough stages of becoming parents, establishing their careers, getting mortgages paid off: this requires adjustments across the lifespan. It is reasonable to expect that going into retirement is going to require some adjustments as well.
According to studies from around the turn of the century and current research, the divorce rate rises within the older population compared to the divorce rate of the younger generation. This raises an important question: if retirement is pitched as such a wonderful thing, why are people struggling in their most important relationships?
Retirement is a Life Transition
Transitioning into retirement comes with a lot of adjustments. Going from working to not working is just one of the changes that come with retirement. Many couples find themselves facing changes in where they live, changes in their routines with their spouse, and even changes in their identity. A retiring therapist might ask himself questions such as “Am I still a therapist if I am not doing therapy? What am I now? What is my purpose? What is our purpose?” When retiring from any profession, one or both spouses may find themselves facing a shift in their sense of identity as they move into a new stage of life.
There are many other questions that come up for couples in retirement: How will you and your spouse decide what to do with your time? What is your retirement plan in terms of your savings: can you live without employment income for 10, 20, or 30 or more years?
In addition to these questions, the couple have to adjust to changes on the relational side of things. Couples find that they’re spending a lot more time together, more than they have for many, many years. Most retired couples are not raising children, caring for parents, or heading off to work for the bulk of the day. Suddenly, whatever your marriage is like, it is all right there in front of you and it has to be faced. If your marriage has been strong and healthy — you’ll see the effects of that. And that’s great! For those couples, marital satisfaction will increase because they have even more time to spend together. But if your marriage really hasn’t been great for 20 years but you’ve made it through by focusing on raising and launching your kids, or concentrating on your career or business, and now you’re past those things and you’re just left with a “not great” marriage: that’s a challenging place to be in. Those escape mechanisms of work or other things are gone and not available any longer, and there’s a lot to figure out.
Retirement Factors that Affect Marriage
One factor that impacts couples when they retire is whether or not they retire together. More and more couples are both working in today’s world. That makes it tough to retire at the same time, especially if there are differences in your pension eligibility. Research shows that older couples where both spouses were still working or looking for work reported significantly lower relationship satisfaction than couples where both spouses were retired. That’s a tough spot to be in: you wish you were retired, your peers may be retired, but you have to keep working. But it is good to remember that this is not a problem in the marriage: it’s a problem outside the marriage that affects the marriage.
Another factor is having a “refilled” nest or boomerang children. What happens when those young adults come home? In 1995 and 2001, men and women with children present in the home rated their marriage quality lower than those who had no children at home. It’s important to note that having children at home can be a very positive experience. The unhappier couples may not be unhappy due to the adult children returning home. But it could very well be the case that the issues which prompt the children to come back home are also affecting the parents: e.g., a depressed economy or labour market difficulties.
How Retirement from Full Time Work Impacts Marriage
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Your Style of Marriage
Another thing to consider is that your style of marriage may become more amplified during retirement. A couple with a well balanced husband-wife relationship that stresses intimacy and sharing are likely to find their marriage during retirement very rewarding as they have more time together to interact and enjoy one another’s company.
If you both enjoy this way of interacting with one another, that’s a good thing. If one or both of you do not, that may result in challenges.
There are other patterns that couples tend to fall into in the way they interact with one another. If you have more of a parent-child marriage where one spouse assumes a parenting role and the other the role of child, that could be distressing for some couples. On the other hand, if you find it fulfilling to parent your spouse or need and appreciate the extra care your spouse provides, things could be fine with this style of interaction.
If you and your spouse are more like associates or partners with a friendship between you, your retirement may involve more rewarding moments outside of the marriage such as activities or groups you belong to, and the ways that you spend your time away from home together. Couples in this context can also enjoy their marriage but it will look different in retirement than the other styles.
It’s also reasonable to expect that your marriage may go through more than one of these phases in retirement. Perhaps you start off like associates: you each have a sort of local bucket list things you want to get involved in. That goes well. If one of you has a health crisis, you may adapt to a parent-child format. When you recover, and through the care and support you experience you really want more time together, you may adopt the husband-wife style rather than going back to the associates/partners format. This is also a possibility.
Ways to Grow as a Couple
There are some practical ways that couples can make the most of the transition into retirement. First, it is helpful if you and your spouse can find common goals as you approach retirement. If you find yourself retired and realize that you have different goals, it may be a good time to look for something that you can both work towards. Couples who have common goals are able to work together to determine the best way to achieve those goals. If there is no discussion surrounding common goals, it can be difficult for couples to be on the same page and they might move in conflicting directions.
Most older married adults say that their greatest source of conflict lies in communication and recreation. On the flip side, most older married adults report that they have the greatest pleasure in discussing children or grandchildren, in doing things together, sharing dreams, and going on vacations together. By establishing goals around your time with family, what you would like to do, and where you would like to go, you share a sense of purpose and togetherness that brings you closer together as a couple.
One particularly important thing for couples is to be flexible. Your marriage will need to adjust to retirement, and you are both in it together. As you move into retirement, you will need to adjust to other life factors such as changes in your grown children’s lives (relocation, the addition of grandchildren, possible health crises in their families) in addition to the changes in your own lives.
A few things are really helpful when adjusting to these changes:
- Effective communication
- Rationality (not losing perspective on the marriage because of anger over small things, or constantly bickering over plans or the lack of planning for the future)
- Considering how your social support network affects your relationship
- Recognizing the importance of goals, whether shared or individual.
Really, retirement can be a very sweet time for older couples. In one study, couples married for 50 years or more frequently identified increased sharing and time together as a blessing in their later life. There is so much to enjoy. But it helps to have clear goals, some sense of purpose, and also adaptability. Because retirement is not one final phase of life: it will have transitions and changes and challenges within it as well.
Michelle Gagnon, “Interpersonal and Psychological Correlates of Marital Dissatisfaction in Late Life: A Review,” Clinical Psychology Review 19, no. 3 (1999): 359–78.
Morris Medley, “Marital Adjustment in the Post-Retirement Years” 1, no. 26 (1977): 5–11, https://doi.org/10.2307/581854 https://ezproxy.student.twu.ca:2187/stable/581854.
Lee Chalmers and Anne Milan, “Marital Satisfaction during the Retirement Years,” no. 11 (2005): 4.
Chalmers and Milan.
Medley, “Marital Adjustment in the Post-Retirement Years.”
Gagnon, “Interpersonal and Psychological Correlates of Marital Dissatisfaction in Late Life: A Review.”