By Kathryn Severns Avery
I recently received a call from a woman who asked “Kathryn, what do you do when you and your husband can’t agree on anything about retirement?”
How to spend and where to spend their time in retirement were the latest issues buffeting their already complicated marriage. A recent spat over this latest unresolved conflict sent them to their respective relationship corners. “I just don’t know what to do,” she said.
Nearing retirement and realizing that the time which was spent apart while working may now be time spent together can be a catalyst for examining the viability of the marriage for unhappy couples. With children grown and launched in their own lives and careers “staying together for the kids” is no longer a valid reason for some to continue the marriage and, now, statistics bear this out.
According to studies conducted by the Pew Research Center, divorce among couples 65 and older has roughly tripled since 1990.
Fearlessly examining roles in a marriage, and our part in creating discord in our relationship, (especially this late in the game) is not easy. It is no wonder that couples avoid tackling relationship issues that have had years, even decades, to fester. The emotional and financial consequences of calling it quits at this stage of life can be especially scarring as assets, family loyalties, and friends are divided.
At a workshop I facilitated, a recently divorced, attractive, woman in her 60’s said, “I never expected this to happen at this age. I’m starting from scratch all over again in every aspect of my life and I am devastated.” While jettisoning your spouse may seem like a good idea at the time, one must think through all the aspects of life that will change. Only then can the question “Is this marriage worth saving?” be accurately answered.
In addition, most financial advisors would sum up the potential financial effects of divorce in retirement with one word: catastrophic. Now, rather than staying together for the kids, some couples may stay together because they can’t afford to divorce.
Couples who disagree on multiple aspects of their retirement plan, like the woman who called me, may find this to be the last straw in an already fractious relationship. But does it have to be? Not necessarily, according to therapist Cynthia Swan LPC.
“Building agreement sometimes has to start with agreeing about small things like what to have for breakfast or what restaurant to go to,” said Swan. “The way to move forward is to, on a daily basis, look for examples of how they do make decisions and come to closure and start building on that process.”
Swan believes there are options for couples that can’t agree. “Create 20 different scenarios about how much time to spend together and where to spend that together time,” she said. “In the planning phase all things are possible and you don’t have to be joined at the hip.” She then suggests looking for what works in those scenarios, rather than what doesn’t. “One spouse may go spend a month visiting family and friends. The other spouse visits someplace different, does something else, or stays at home. Then they can switch off. That way each spouse has time to sort out what they really do want.”
In my research, finding common interests and setting individual goals are the foundation for creating a successful retirement plan for couples. The difficulty comes when, in discussing or brainstorming ideas, one spouse starts criticizing the other spouse’s ideas, telling them that they don’t want to do that, or that their ideas won’t work. Each spouse should spend time thinking about and drafting a personal retirement plan that is fulfilling, rewarding and empowering. This plan should be uninfluenced by their spouse’s wants or needs.
Then couples should share those plans with the intention of looking for areas of common interest or for goals and accomplishments that the other spouse can support and encourage. What you find in this plan might surprise you. Take time to thoughtfully consider your spouse’s goals and dreams before discussing them. Resist the temptation to share your initial reaction. By giving yourself time to think about what your spouse really wants, your response may change. A therapist or member of the clergy may be helpful with this process.
Remember, retirement is a time to redefine who you are and what you want in this phase of life. If couples find there is nothing they can agree on or there is no goal they wish to support their partner in accomplishing, so be it. At least through this exercise they will have a much clearer idea of what they want their own life to be like regardless of their marital status.