Retirement is often romanticized as a time for pursuing personal interests, traveling the globe, or starting an encore career, but for many married couples who are forced to redefine their relationship overnight, it can also be a time of stress.
Even happy couples can find that their expectations of retirement missed the mark, that their spending philosophies don’t align, or that their partner's personality quirks, once endearing when they spent the workweek apart, become grounds for divorce in the cold, harsh light of constant togetherness.
“Very often, married couples ignore the potential challenges of retirement and say, ‘Oh, I know how to do leisure very well,’ but when leisure becomes one-third to one-quarter of your life, it’s a different story,” said Sara Yogev, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and couples therapist near Chicago, Illinois. “Even couples that get along well need to find a new homeostasis in retirement for the time they spend together and apart, as well as the other domains of their life, like the division of housework.”
But some marriages don’t survive the retirement transition.
Indeed, divorce rates among aging seniors, also known as “gray divorce,” have roughly doubled over the last 25 years, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of 2015 Census Bureau data. For every 1,000 married persons aged 50 or older in 2015, 10 divorced, up from five in 1990, a trend led by demographic shifts.1
“During their young adulthood, baby boomers had unprecedented levels of divorce,” the Pew Research Center report found. “Their marital instability earlier in life is contributing to the rising divorce rate among adults ages 50 and older today, since remarriages tend to be less stable than first marriages.”
While the divorce rate is lower among older adults who have been married long term, a significant share of gray divorces do occur among couples who have been married for 30 years or more. Among all surveyed adults aged 50 or older who had divorced in the prior 12 months, about one third (34 percent) had been in their prior marriage for at least 30 years and 12 percent had been married for 40 years or more.
The report indicates that many later-life divorcees said they had grown dissatisfied with their relationship and severed ties to pursue their own interests in the remaining years of their lives, but Paula Hartman, a geropsychologist and founder of the Center for Healthy Aging, said the challenges of retirement are also often a factor.
Work is a significant source of satisfaction for many adults, she said, giving them a sense of purpose and structure to their week. Absent a reason to start their day, many recent retirees say they feel adrift and experience feelings of sadness, which can contribute to other health conditions, such as fatigue, insomnia, weight fluctuations, and lower sex drive.2 (Related: Potential retirement obstacles)
That’s hard on them, but also challenging for their spouse.
Yogev agreed, saying: “We know that roughly one-third of retirees experience some form of depression in the first two years post retirement and that marital satisfaction for both men and women is at its lowest in that time frame.”
The London-based Institute of Economic Affairs puts that number higher, reporting that retirement increased clinical depression by 40 percent.3
“There is so much written about financial planning for retirement, but very little about the psychological planning that needs to be done,” said Yogev. “That is just as critical.”
It’s not just depression, however, that can sink a marriage.
During retirement, other common sources of conflict include:
Misaligned expectations — Stay-at-home spouses, and those who retire before their mate, may expect that their husband or wife will shoulder a bigger portion of household responsibilities once they are both at home. That doesn’t always happen.
Others anticipate that they will spend all their time together when they retire, which is neither realistic nor wise. The happiest couples enjoy some activities together, but also participate in some independently. And they maintain a robust social network of friends and peers, said Yogev. They are not codependent.
Yogev said couples who are entering retirement should sit down for a heart-to-heart over how their lives will likely change. They should share their vision for how they expect to spend their days, and the role they envision for each other. And they should encourage each other to maintain an ongoing dialogue.
“Even couples who think they are on the same page, aren’t necessarily,” said Yogev. “I worked with a couple who thought they shared the same vision about traveling after retirement. They wanted to travel to Europe and they had the means, but she was horrified when she realized he was planning to stay abroad for a whole year. She thought they were going to go back and forth so they could still spend time with their grandkids.”
Unsolicited advice — Career professionals, especially those who were previously in a supervisory role, often can’t help but apply their managerial skills at home when they quit their jobs. Not realizing that advice may not be welcome, he or she may start weighing in on where the groceries are bought, how the closet is organized, or how his or her spouse spends his or her day.
Yogev recalls a couple — he was an engineer and she an artist — that nearly divorced after the husband, who never approved of his wife’s organizational skills, took the liberty of reorganizing the kitchen pantry when she was off at yoga.
“He moved everything into alphabetical order,” she said. “Her system didn’t make sense to him and he thought he was helping, but she was very upset that he had intruded on her space.”
The solution? Be forthright (and reasonable) about your willingness to share roles that have long been your responsibility and be considerate about your spouse’s personal boundaries, as well.
Money — It can be hard to agree on a budget with your better half during your working years, but it’s infinitely more so when the paychecks stop rolling in. Some become so focused on asset preservation that they deny themselves (and their spouse) the opportunity to make new memories or explore new hobbies during their sunset years. Others spend more than they should, and put themselves at risk of outliving their marital savings. (Calculator: How much do you need for retirement?)
“When the money is not coming in like it was before, people react in different ways,” said Yogev, noting that can breed resentment.
If money is a source of contention, it may help to work with a financial advisor who can take emotion off the table and devise a working budget that works for both of you.
Couples may also wish to consult a marriage therapist, who can help them define what money means to each spouse individually, said Yogev. Indeed, our upbringing and life experience help shape our spending and saving philosophies. By talking it through, spouses may be better able to understand their partner’s point of view. It may even strengthen their emotional connection.
Limitations — As we age, medical issues often restrict mobility and, with it, the ability to participate in activities we love. That can take a psychological — and social — toll on adults who pride themselves on self-reliance.
“When we start to have some physical limitations, people who are psychologically healthier can take it in stride, but those who can’t accept that they need to hire a handyman because they can no longer get up on a ladder, have more conflict at home,” said Hartman. “I’ve seen people who are so angry at their limitations that they take it out verbally on caregivers or on their spouse. It’s very typical.”
One way to keep the peace is for the more able-bodied spouse to make positive comments about tasks that their spouse can still do effectively, she said. They can also enlist the less abled spouse to do additional tasks that he or she can still manage. “Even when people are living with dementia, they can do many tasks involving procedural memory, that is, remembering how to do things learned long ago, such as playing the piano, simple household chores, or other activities that have been done repeatedly throughout one’s life,” said Hartman.
Make an effort, too, to participate in activities that you both enjoy and can do together, like taking walks, spending time in nature, attending concerts, or going out to dinner with friends, Hartman suggested.
Disenchantment — Newly retired couples often experience a honeymoon phase, of sorts, when they initially enjoy not having to punch a time clock and get to execute on plans to travel or tackle projects at home.
“It’s fun to finish your photo album or clean out your inbox, but when the projects are finished and you don’t have new goals, you can become disenchanted,” said Yogev. “They start to think about who they are and how they want to be acknowledged and remembered.”
Yogev said she is a big proponent of volunteering, which lends a sense of purpose and gives idle seniors an outlet to continue contributing. “It’s important to stay engaged,” she said.
Irksome behavior — We all have our foibles. Perhaps you chew your food too loudly. Maybe your spouse leaves the keys in the door, or refuses to admit that it’s time for a hearing aid. Even small eccentricities are amplified when you are with your spouse nonstop, which can lead to great frustration.
When irksome behavior starts to grate, Hartman suggested sitting down to create a list of the things that interfere with your relationship.
A willingness to modify your own behavior in exchange for concessions from your spouse is critical.
“One couple I worked with had retired in their late 70s, and they were in a longtime marriage, but they really had some conflicts after retirement because the little things started to annoy them,” said Hartman, noting retirement is often the most amount of time that spouses have ever spent together. “He wanted her to say ‘good morning’ to him every day, and she wanted him to close the kitchen cupboard doors. These are tiny things that became great sources of aggravation.”
By communicating with each other openly, and making efforts to modify the behavior traits that rankled their partner the most, they found a way to keep the peace.
Hartman said she also counsels retirees to remember that living in the same house together is not synonymous with physical closeness. As couples age and sexual intimacy declines, they must make an effort to hold hands, hug, and show affection.
“The need for simple touch is significant,” she said. “People can have skin deprivation. We need to be touched throughout our lives. Affection is the key to a good late-life marriage.”
As you enter retirement hand in hand, be prepared for new relationship challenges and opportunities. You may not always see eye to eye, but you can keep discord at bay by communicating effectively, being willing to negotiate, and above all else, treating each other with kindness.
“Avoid sarcasm,” said Hartman. “People can slip into that easily when they’re annoyed, but rolling of the eyes, and saying things like ‘that again’ are real relationship stoppers. There always needs to be politeness.”
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1 Pew Research Center, “Led by Baby Boomers, divorce rates climb for America’s 50+ population,” 2017.
2 Healthline, “The effects of depression in your body,” Sept. 11, 2017.
3 Institute of Economic Affairs, “Retirement increases depression risk by 40%,” April 19, 2016.