We all know couples who have been married for many years and who have decided to divorce. After a lifetime of communicating about day-to-day events, parenting, and career aspirations, somehow their communication and their connection broke down. I wanted to share some thoughts about the influences that retirement has on marriage and how to cope with the significant changes this transition brings.
Responding To Relationship Challenges
As a psychotherapist and coach, I have worked predominantly with boomers in my career. You might say that we've grown up together. In the early years, I noticed that women were the ones who were initiating therapy, either for themselves, for their children, or for their marriages. This made sense because they were usually the ones attending to and nurturing the emotional environment of the family. Many of their concerns centered around the well-being of the family and trying to balance the pressures of family life and careers. These stresses often resulted in couples leading parallel lives as a result of lack of communication and less time to nurture their marriage as they primarily focused on basic day-to-day needs.
Interestingly, over the last decade, I have noticed that men have been more willing to ask for support as they move into their 50s. They seem to have developed more emotional awareness around the needs of their families as well as themselves and are looking at the next stage of their lives with questions, concerns and awareness that the family is changing. They see their children are getting older and going off to college or careers. They also observe their parents aging, and they are being called on to support their parents' needs. By their early to mid 50s, these changing dynamics often find boomers sandwiched between their children who have not yet left home and their aging parents.
They have reached their career goals and seem satisfied with where they are. Now they are looking at their marriage and wondering what it's going to look like as they grow older together. This can cause enormous stress on a relationship. This is evidenced in a 2001 US Consensus Bureau Report that showed that even though the overall divorce rate has declined, the highest rate of divorce was among older people. On average, 40% for men and women between the ages of 50 and 59 years are getting divorces. They even have a name for this trend; it's called "Gray Divorce."
Marriage Relationships in Retirement
In the first part of marriage, spouses' roles are more clearly defined than they are as couples approach retirement. As couples are freed from their child-rearing and career building stages, they begin to think about how their roles will change going forward. The first thing that couples need to realize is that retirement has a way of rearranging a couple's relationship. Women, who have often sacrificed their needs for the family, want additional time and opportunities to explore new interests. Men, on the other hand, are expecting more time with their wives because they are not working long hours away from home.
This is the time for couples to come together to plan for this next stage of their lives. Decisions regarding how to handle money, domestic responsibilities, maintaining autonomy, whether to move or stay in place, and how to maintain separate and common friendships and interests are only a few of the discussions necessary for a successful transition to retirement.
Fine Tuning Your Relationship
Brown University professor Rose McDermott's interpretation of relationships tracked in the Framingham (Massachusetts) Heart Study has recently captured international attention. According to researchers, divorce in one's immediate circle of friends can increase the chances that you, too, will divorce by up to 75%. Statistics are lower but still significant for co-worker and geographically distant sibling divorce cases.
So you won't become a statistic, here are some suggestions to begin now to nurture your relationship as you prepare for this next life stage:
1. Begin planning for this transition at least 3-5 years before you actually retire.
2. Set aside at least one hour a week to begin discussing what decisions you will be making around the various life arenas: career reorientation, finances, family, personal development, leisure, health and wellness.
3. Communicate not only by talking but also by listening with an open mind and an open heart.
4. Each person should write down what you discuss and keep an ongoing journal of decisions that you've made, additional topics to be discussed, and some of the feelings that you have about these decisions.
5. Be willing to stretch into new roles or shared roles to keep your relationship strong and your skill set versatile.
6. Make sure that you get help if the foundation of your marriage has been impacted by a parallel relationship. My experience has been that if people wait too long to get that support, it is harder for the couple to reconnect.
7. Life is too short and your relationship history is too long to give up easily. Some marriages should have ended long ago and can't work but most have strong potential to succeed. Make sure that you give yourself and your partner a good chance toward success.
As you nurture and pay closer attention to your marriage, you will have a better chance of making the most of your life for the rest of your lives together.