When we think of retirement planning, we typically think first of the financial aspect — we want to be sure we'll have enough money to get through our golden years. But recent surveys of men and women in or approaching retirement suggest that we should also consider the psychological aspects. Men and women tend to approach retirement differently, and the transition from the workforce can present adjustment challenges for heterosexual couples.
A survey released in June by MassMutual Retirement Services found that the sexes are somewhat out of step when it comes to their expectations for, and experiences in, retirement. Compared to men, for instance, women tend to place more of an emphasis on spending time with friends, exploring new opportunities, and reinventing themselves. This is even though women tend to feel more stressed about retirement than men do, in part because of worries about financial security.
"Women tend to make more of their opportunities in retirement," said David Potter, a spokesperson for MassMutual Retirement Services. If spouses don't talk about their plans and goals for these years, this could lead to conflict, he acknowledged. "There's no doubt that a couple should discuss their plans, in terms of how they will spend their days, where they will live, and so forth."
For the recently retired, reconnecting with a spouse without the distractions of work and childrearing can be a struggle. In a 2013 poll by Skipton Building Society, a financial services organization in the UK, 8 in 10 retirees said they discovered that they no longer shared any of their spouse or partner's hobbies or interests, while 29 percent said that they didn't have the same expectations for retirement. Around a quarter found that managing their relationship was more difficult than they had imagined it would be.
Sara Yogev, a Chicago-area clinical psychologist and author of the book "A Couple's Guide to Happy Retirement," likens the impact of retirement on marital dynamics to that of having a first child.
"People are completely unprepared for these changes," she said. "It's as if they think if there's enough money, everything will fall into place. There's the conception of, 'we know how to do leisure, so in retirement, things will be easy.' But in reality, the transition is difficult."
After a "honeymoon" phase in which people revel in their freshly earned freedom, feelings of disenchantment often begin to set in, she said. A lack of structure can lead people to feel empty, depressed, and searching for purpose. Marital satisfaction often declines during this stage, and conflict rises. Fortunately, most couples do adjust, and marital satisfaction rebounds. (In the UK study, 9 in 10 of those polled believed they would eventually settle into a happy retirement with their partner.)
Yogev believes couples should start discussing their goals and expectations for retirement long before they leave the workforce. She said it's also important that couples make their plans specific. Don't assume, for instance, that because you both want to travel that you have the same idea of travel in mind. Your spouse might want to spend a year RVing in Europe, while you'd prefer to spend a few weeks there and then get back to your grandkids.
Social life, too, may need to be negotiated. While many men consider their wife to be their best friend, Yogev said, women tend to have close female friends, and spending time with them can make husbands feel excluded.
"You have to be prepared to have some disagreement and conflict, and to not interpret it as a sign of a bad marriage," she said. "Sometimes, these discussions are an opportunity to address hidden issues."
Ami Albernaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.