The Secret to Having a Successful Relationship in Retirement

Leaving work can put a lot of strain on couples. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It just takes some preparation.

By Marissa Davala and Grace Mims

The Wall Street Journal

Nothing can ruin a successful retirement like a bad relationship. And nothing can create a bad relationship like not being prepared for retirement.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Would-be retirees are instructed on how to have a financial plan, and how to make sure to create a life that will be fulfilling and engaging. Still, you can have the best financial advisers and as much money as you need, but if you haven’t thought about the impact of retirement on your relationship—and the impact of the relationship on your retirement—you are missing a key ingredient for a successful and happy retirement.

As counselors and researchers who specialize in working with couples and marital counseling, we have seen numerous couples who are surprised by how retirement can wreak havoc on their relationship, especially early in retirement. In a research study we conducted, we found that many retired couples felt satisfied in their relationship, but only many years after retirement. Ten or more years is far too long to wait to experience relationship satisfaction during retirement.

So how do you achieve satisfaction in both relationships and retirement? Based on our research and our clinical experience, we offer these tips to help couples reduce the potential strain that retirement can have on relationship harmony, especially as they plan for and enter retirement.

Become confidants

When couples are together for many years, balancing the competing demands of work and life, they can easily put the relationship on the back burner and focus more on work, raising children and other responsibilities.

Work can give people a deep sense of meaning, connection and self-worth. But when work goes away, it’s often difficult to suddenly learn to cultivate worth from oneself and one’s partner. What’s more, the neglected marriage may not be noticeable when couples give priority to work and child responsibilities. Take away work and children, and the neglect becomes overwhelmingly obvious.

To avoid this, couples need to establish a comprehensive plan to adjust to retirement; the transition isn’t going to magically take care of itself. That could involve aligning financial goals, health needs, travel plans, relationships with other family members and much more. By working together, both people feel respected and valued, and self-worth and identity move away from the individual and work and to mutual needs and shared goals.

For example, one couple came to us seeking counseling after the husband had retired. The wife, who had been a homemaker, complained that the husband just watched TV all day and was irritable. The husband said he felt angry, tired and hopeless.

All of this was new and confusing to them: He thought he had prepared to relinquish the version of himself as the business owner and provider, and she thought she was ready to let go of her self-image as a homemaker.

But it wasn’t surprising to us. Essentially, they had lived in a state of independent existence and inadvertently created a void in their relationship, which became impossible to ignore now that they had retired. They had forgotten to create a pathway to each other and had to relearn themselves, each other and how to enjoy retirement.

The key in all this is simple but often difficult: Talk to each other. We found that 84% of our retired participants believed that they could confide anything to their partner. It was essential in fostering the necessary trust and security needed to navigate retirement and reconnect and nurture the marriage. Couples need to feel united in their transition. This goes a long way toward helping reduce feelings of jealousy and disconnection.

Relearn your partner’s needs

In our clinical experiences, we often have couples who share the myth that they can read each other’s minds and predict their needs throughout life. Maybe (but unlikely) that was true at one moment in time. In reality, people and relationships must evolve and adapt to survive and thrive. This is particularly important during large life-cycle transitions such as retirement.

Our research findings suggest that evolving and adapting to satisfy your partner’s changing needs is essential to having strong marital satisfaction during retirement; some 79% of the participants in our study believed that their partner cared about and met their needs. In fact, their needs were so well met that many believed that no other person would fit them as well and that they did not have regrets in their marriages.

If needs are left unmet, couples can become deeply unhappy and even bitter toward each other, particularly during retirement. One woman who had been married for many years believed her spouse didn’t like her any longer. When we checked the validity of her concerns with her partner, she burst into tears to hear him say that she was one of the most caring and generous people he knew.

The problem was that until retirement, her needs to feel valued and respected were likely being met at work. When she retired, she needed her husband to fill that hole. But her husband had no idea. He assumed she trusted that he valued and respected her, and that it was why he married her in the first place. So his respect was left unspoken. Essentially, her view was that they had failed to launch, and his view was that they had already arrived at their retirement dreams and were done. By assuming that they knew each other well enough to not have to re-evaluate their needs before retirement, they ended up feeling unhappy and disconnected.

We recommend that couples not assume that what once worked for them will work when they have left the workforce. The needs expressed previously may no longer be relevant as roles change. The things that one partner found endearing or compatible in small dosages may feel overbearing when it is all day, all of the time. Couples must understand that they may have more and stronger needs after retirement than before.

Couples who are emotionally open, develop accurate perspectives, increase caring actions and are forthcoming about their needs likely will navigate retirement much more easily.

Embrace changing roles

Couples need to realize that whatever role they played before retirement may no longer apply. This can mean anything, large or small: who controls the remote, who decides what to eat, who arranges vacations, who makes the bed and so on. Whoever was the chef before retirement shouldn’t be surprised that there may be a new cook in town.

We counseled one couple who retired and planned to move to North Carolina. While discussing their plans, the wife said, “I cooked for 40 years, I am done cooking. I told him it’s his turn.” The husband’s response: “I will focus on dinner and see how it goes.” The two laughed. It might seem like a minor moment, but it was actually profound. It immediately helped the two set the stage for their retired lives, with both of them open to discarding habits that didn’t serve them anymore. Neither felt confined or governed.

Couples who consider how retirement can affect their daily functioning will position themselves to adjust and redistribute roles as desired. This was also confirmed in our research as successful adjustment helped couples reach a high level of marital satisfaction after many years retired.

Negotiate togetherness

Couples are often surprised to find that they have very different ideas about how much time they should spend together after retirement. Spouses can feel rejected, abandoned, smothered and resentful when they make assumptions about the amount of closeness and separateness they will share. For instance, if a couple had a high level of separateness before retirement, one spouse may be overwhelmed and annoyed when the partner is always around after retirement.

We talked to one woman who said she was ready to divorce her husband because after he retired, he became quieter and started watching a lot of television. His response when she complained: “I talked for 45 years at work; I am done talking.”

The problem was that they were speaking two different languages. By renegotiating their level of desired closeness and time spent together, and improving their communication skills, they each were able to change the meaning they ascribed to the other’s behaviors. Instead of seeing her husband as lazy and aloof, the woman now saw him as a person who was exhausted and needing to recover. Instead of seeing his wife as smothering, the man now saw her as encouraging a more active lifestyle and enjoying time together.

Our research findings indicated that people who believed there was an agreement on expectations regarding such things as time spent together and affection reported higher rates of marital satisfaction during retirement. When these couples connected, it tended to be meaningful. Merely being around one another can feel lonely if you’re not on the same page.

Find past tenderness

It’s easy when stressed to forget when times were good. If a relationship is strained because of changes brought about by retirement, couples may wonder what they saw in each other in the first place.

Reminding themselves of the answer can be a powerful tool in moving forward. In our research, we found that people who were able to reminisce about their spouses had higher rates of satisfaction during retirement.

After all, all couples have moments of success, even if they forget. They have learned important lessons throughout life—as they established careers, married, had children, grandchildren and so on—that can be a rich road map for how to adapt for the retirement journey. The key is to remember.

The couple may begin by telling each other about a lesson learned from a past challenge faced together. For example, when we conducted our study, we had not intended to have the participants talk with us; they were just going to take a survey. We found, however, that by completing the survey, many of them so deeply reminisced that they had to share stories and memories with us. Many pulled us aside to express tenderness and fondness for their spouses.

We made sense of this phenomenon by understanding that finding tenderness in the past becomes about reflection and creating meaning. It’s about couples who may have temporarily lost their way because of the stress of change but are eager to reconnect with the person they may have spent much of their life with. They just need to know how.