When Roger and Alison, a couple in their late 60s, came to see me, it was after a huge quarrel. She had been retired for five years and he for two. What triggered the argument was when, after her doctor’s visit, he did not inquire about how it went. She had told him about the appointment that morning and how she was worried about her hip pain. She was extremely upset having concluded his not asking was disinterest and that he just did not care about her at all. Roger defended himself, feeling attacked for his forgetfulness by accusing her of over-reacting. When she complained how self-centred he was, he angrily shot back sarcastically that he was sorry he could not be perfect like her.
Roger and Alison are at the stage of life, when they would like to enjoy their retirement, yet the eruption of these quarrels in their relationship interferes with the contentment they seek. Like some couples, their very engaging work lives and heavy involvement with their children’s lives had distracted them from the instability of their marriage. Roger’s strong identification with his job, his status and satisfaction he got from working had left him feeling a sense of loss. Alison knew this, but could not help him adjust to retirement more easily.
Six Stages in the Process of Retirement
In his work The Process of Retirement, Robert Atchley identified the six stages people progress through to feel fulfilled.
- Pre-retirement – when retirement plans are made and attitudes toward it developed
- Retirement Event – when work ends, colleagues, friends and family celebrate with you
- Honeymoon – when the excitement of taking the trip you’ve dreamed of, the home projects put off while working get done, spending time as if you are on an extended vacation, feeling relaxed and stress free (lasts a few months to a year)
- Disenchantment – when the letdown of the honeymoon stage begins and people feel a lack of purpose, sense of loss, void and confusion. They recognize the need to reorient themselves to a realistic lifestyle and satisfying routine.
- Reorientation – when people are adjusting to a retirement lifestyle and change their attitudes and behaviour to begin to embrace their new life more fully.
- Routine – when people are feeling as or even more content in their new routines as when working.
Challenges for Couples in the Disenchantment Stage
It is during the stage of Disenchantment that many couples have the most difficulty. These
- Money Issues – Even for those who have saved well for retirement, accepting that the flow of money to live on is a finite amount that they have little control over takes time to adjust to.
- Social Life – Friends become more important with the additional time for social and recreational activities. Some friends you wanted to travel with or spend more time with may have different plans. Men and women often differ on how much social time they need and men can sometimes expect their wives to organize things that need a joint equal effort.
- Psychological Well-being – Pursuing highly engaging and complex activities that involve physical, intellectual an creative stimulation and give a sense of purpose will bring passion for life needed.
- Physical Health – Unlike the more sedentary retirement lifestyle of their parents, baby boomer retirement is more physically active with plenty of research supporting the importance of a combination of cardiovascular and strength and stretching exercises to maintain good physical health. This in turn improves psychological well-being and often recreational/social life.
- Life Purpose – The article How Retirement Adjustment Can Put Stress on a Marriage describes the value of trying to identify what noble objective you may have that can be fulfilled during your retirement. Volunteer activities achieving a cause which you feel passionate about leads to greater happiness.
- Anticipation of Decline – Nobody enjoys the gradual decline in their physical health and intellectual abilities and addressing. While all the items above will help increase happiness, acceptance of the inevitability will as well. Who will be there to care for you? How will you handle your partner’s decline?
- Couple Relationship – To be fulfilled and re-orient yourself to embracing retirement, it’s important that you address all the factors above, within yourself and within your marriage. It’s easier to do this when you’re feeling that your marriage is secure and happy.
How to Progress from the Disenchantment Stage of Retirement
Whether you are retired and feeling you are not moving toward feeling satisfied and settled in retirement, or even if retirement is years away, try discussing the following.
- With your partner review all the above bullet point items and discuss how you think you are progressing yourself and how your partners is progressing.
- On the items where you feel successful tell your partner why you do and how you succeeded.
- If your partner feels they would like your ideas and support, discuss how you can support them in their efforts to succeed on one of the areas where they are feeling stuck.
Roger and Alison’s distress in their marriage existed prior to each one’s retirement but was made more challenging in years after both were retired. Roger experienced the loss, confusion and void in the year after his retirement. While the focus of the couples therapy was to reduce the quarreling by helping Roger feel more engaged in the concerns of Alison and for her to support him adjust to his losses, knowing the common challenges all retired people face helped me to help them.