Approaching retirement is a major milestone. It doesn’t just mark the end of a particular career, but the beginning of a new way of being in the world. This new phase is accompanied by changes to our relationships, our family lives, our social circle and our perception of what it means to be a productive member of our community.
It makes sense that we experience anxiety. Anxiety is an anticipatory emotion which can be either motivating or paralyzing. When we recognize the anxiety we experience as a signal that we need to prepare for something, we can use it to move towards growth and change. When we talk about that anxiety with our chosen life partner, our relationship will experience growth.
In my work with couples in this phase of life, I have noticed a few topics of conversation that come up repeatedly. Your relationship may benefit from touching on each of the topics highlighted below, and there are likely other topics specific to your relationship that will be important to address. An effective framework for these conversations is one of mutual curiosity.
When we enter into conversations with our partner being curious about the other’s inner world and emotional experience, we are positioning ourselves and our relationship for growth.
This is an area that most people have thought about one way or another before they’ve reached retirement. Sitting down with a financial advisor to discuss the amount of money you have at retirement is one piece of the puzzle, but the discussion of finances touches far deeper emotional buttons than just the logistics of it. This is a good time to discuss with your partner what the meaning of money is to you now. As you were raising your children, money might have been a symbol of caregiving for them, or stability for your family. Does it still hold that same meaning? How will you express love and care for family if your spending habits must change on a fixed income? During your working years you may have given generously to charities; do those same charities still fit with your current values? Is it still financially feasible to sustain the same giving amount, or will you need to find other ways to express your values?
Just as our other relationships are changing during this time, so does our relationship with money. It is important for couples to examine their similarities and differences in what money means to them. Couples then have the opportunity to develop a shared relationship with money that fits for each of them during this new phase of life.
As we approach retirement age there is a shift in caregiving needs. Our children are likely grown and often living on their own, yet as parents we still provide nurturing in various ways. If children are in college or just starting careers they may still rely on us financially. As grandchildren enter the picture we will need to determine how much time we want to spend caregiving for them. If one partner wants to have the grandkids at the house full time, and the other would prefer to fill the role as occasionally playmate to grandchildren, conflict can occur. It will benefit everyone involved to have a conversation about expectations before conflict escalates to the point of resentment. If our parents are still living, there will be health concerns, mobility issues and expectations from other family members that add a whole other layer of complexity to the situation. Discussions about caregiving responsibilities have multiple emotional and practical layers.
We want to provide the care our loved one needs, but how will that look in retirement? If one partner has been the primary caregiver and now both partners are home full time, what are the expectations? If one partner is expecting more help than the other is planning to give, resentments can arise. Conversely, if one partner is excited to take on more caregiving and the other is not ready to give up any responsibilities, major misunderstanding can occur. It is the conversation about expectations as well as the emotions and meanings attached to those expectations that is critical for the health of the relationship.
Probably the biggest change in retirement is how we spend our time. There are multiple areas for discussion regarding time. Who is going to retire first? Will each individual fully retire, or will one or both partners keep a part-time job? What happens when a spouse who worked outside the home is suddenly home all day, and the other spouse who worked from home no longer has their home work space to themselves? If both partners find themselves with more free time, how much of that time is spent together? How much of that time is spent at home, and how much is spent traveling?
Just like with money, it is beneficial to for a marriage when partners discuss the meaning of time.
- What does spending time together mean to each of them?
- What about time spent in various volunteer activities?
- Hobbies and leisure activities?
This conversation can help insulate the relationship from thoughts and feelings of neglect or loss of independence.
Division of labor
Relationships benefit from an ongoing discussion regarding division of labor. When children are born, when careers change, or when developmental needs shift, we need to refigure the division of labor in a household. Expectations around who does what around the house is probably one of the number one discussions couples of all ages have in my office.
- When one partner is no longer working, what are the expectations as far as household chores?
- Who pays the bills?
- Who’s is responsible for filling the social calendar or planning family events?
In retirement there is often an expectation from one partner that responsibilities will shift while the other partner expects a different shift, or even no shift at all.
Preparing our relationship for retirement is the process of discussing with our partner how our priorities, values, meanings and relationship expectations are changing. It is an exciting, stressful and emotional time. Sharing our thoughts and emotions with our partner will help clarify and strengthen what our individual path is as well as what our new relationship path will look like. We all deserve a partnership that will continue to grow with us as we age, and we can take intentional steps to secure that for ourselves.