When I first began thinking about…and writing about…retirement for couples, I examined the dilemma of what happens to a couple when the husband retires first. My research expanded beyond that as the nature of American relationships changed. Suddenly there were couples retiring together, non married couples choosing to pool their resources, and same sex couples hoping to expand health insurance coverage to the newly retired partner. I realized that the new rules and relationships did not necessarily apply to all couples approaching their later years, so I tried to include every type of couple in my research and writing.
Alas, I learned that the issue of having a husband who retires first is indeed one that remains sticky for all involved. Because HE retires, must SHE retire as well? Is it the wife’s ‘duty’ to end her career just because he has reached a certain age? Often the husband is older and has been in the workforce longer. Sometimes the wife took time away from her career to stay home with children and has re entered the workplace more recently and is not psychologically ready to retire. There may even be the case of a wife continuing to work just because they need the benefits like health insurance. If she hates her job and is only staying there for the health care, she may come home exhausted, depressed and even angry.
But let’s hope she is still working because she wants to. How does this impact the now retired spouse? More than you might think. One woman told me she encouraged her husband to find a way to keep fit, now that he had more time. He joined a swim team at the local YMCA and found that he really enjoyed the sport, the camaraderie and the competition. Sounds ideal, except that the team practiced at 5 in the morning which meant the couple’s sleep schedules were out of sync. Also, the retired husband started traveling around the state and region to compete in swim meets, often interrupting social plans and vacations his spouse had arranged.
Another still working wife told me that her husband was bored with his post career life and spent several hours a day napping. While that may seem fine for someone who has left the traditional 9-5 world, his working wife would come home tired after a day at the office to find him fully rested and eager to go out on the town or want her to stay up late with him, both of which impacted on her ability to be at her best the next day at work.
Still another woman was working because neither she nor her retired spouse had hit Medicare age and they needed the health insurance. Her gripe was that she had a job that she hated, yet when she would come home at night, her husband would be sitting and reading a novel and ask, “what’s for dinner?”, having made no effort himself to shop for food or prepare a meal.
So how do we prevent these problems? By talking about them, of course, ideally before either of you are officially retired. If he has picked a date for retirement, you should both talk about your expectations for what his life, your life and your together lives will be like. If she has been doing the bulk of the cooking and cleaning, is he going to step up and pitch in? If she has been the manager of their social calendar until now, will he begin making new friends, arrange his own “play dates” or still wait for her to make arrangements with friends.
It is very important that couples share their views on what a post retirement world looks like to each of them. Flexibility and compromise are key, but don’t assume you know what your partner wants or needs if you don’t ask. Since you both have the same goal…a happy retirement together... make sure the sticky issues are covered first.