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Interview: When One Partner Retires


Dr. Eileen Cooley

Eileen Cooley's husband retired at age 55, and she continued to work full-time. But she was surprised by the impact of his retirement on her relationship and family life.

She is not alone.

Research shows that staggered retirement can lead to emotional and financial challenges for married couples. Conflict is especially common in couples in which the husband is newly retired and the wife continues to work.

Cooley teamed up with Gail Adorno to examine this important lifestyle transition more closely. Their article: "Advice From Working Women With Retired Partners" appeared in the Journal of Women & Aging on March 2, 2016.

AHB reached Dr. Cooley at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, U.S.A.

Ruth Dempsey: So who were the people in your study?

Eileen Cooley: We surveyed almost 100 women who were recruited from multiple sources including university alumnae organizations, national aging groups, professional organizations and word of mouth. They ranged in age from 39 to 83. The majority of participants were heterosexual white women.

RD: They describe the challenges that come with a mixed-retirement marriage.

EC: That's right. The women noted significant changes in themselves, their partners and their relationships, following their partner's retirement.

They identified difficulties in four areas:

  • time management and activities
  • household roles and responsibilities
  • finances, and
  • communication.

Many talked about the unpredictable nature of this lifestyle adjustment. They suggested women "be flexible" and simply "hang on for the ride."

RD: What did they say about time management?

EC: Certainly, a shift in thinking is required for both partners when daily routines become so different.

It seems many of the retirees had not planned how they would spend their time after leaving the workforce. The women worried as their husband's struggled to come to terms with their new state, especially the loss of a daily structure.

With regard to themselves, women emphasized the importance of maintaining their own independent activities. "Keep your own life full," they said.

RD: What about household responsibilities?

EC: Many respondents had hoped that their partner would take on more household chores now that he was home more of the day. In some cases this did not happen, causing conflict and disappointment.

At the same time, some women discussed their own need to relinquish control of the home environment. They had to learn to be satisfied with how their partner completed specific tasks.

Others mentioned the importance of appreciating the little things their partner did to make their life easier like making coffee in the morning and running errands.

RD: Couples were also living with less income . . .

EC: Many women discussed the need to adapt to a lower income. Concerns in this area focused on the need to set financial goals and parameters before rather than after retirement.

RD: Communication was another important issue. Can you give me an example?

EC: The respondents talked about communication as both a problem and a solution.

"Discuss retirement before doing it" was a common refrain.

Many felt that money, time management and household responsibilities had to be negotiated in advance. Couples may not be on the same page on issues so there will need to be give-and-take.

Their advice: "Express your feelings openly, as retirement will affect you in ways you might not expect."

RD: Some talked about the need for shared time and separate time . . .

EC: Yes, the importance of identifying and developing separate and shared activities was emphasized by several women.

One woman suggested creating two bucket lists, an individual list and a joint list.

The presence of these bucket lists appeared to put a positive spin on the couples' efforts to adjust to this new phase of life.

RD: Psychologist Maryanne Vandervelde talks about that too, recommending "parallel play." The idea of two individuals engrossed in separate but parallel activities.

EC: Yes, ideally in retirement, both spouses have private time apart to explore personal interests and time together to share common interests.

RD: So staggered retirement demands careful planning?

EC: That's right. Advance planning is essential to making retirement arrangements work. Even if one person retires, both partners are affected.

Leading two different realities can lead to a variety of challenges, both emotional and financial. Couples need to have frequent conversations about what they want the next phase of life to look like, before they take the step.

If communication is difficult for a couple, they may benefit from counseling to address the changes that are likely to occur in their daily routine.

Indeed, our research suggests vigilant communication can pay dividends as couples continue to adapt to changes associated with retirement and the later years.