Issues couples may face around retirement—part 1: Transitioning

Mature Couple Having An Arguement At Home

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One of the problems couples often face on approaching retirement is the lack of thought they give to how it can impact on their relationship. And this may cause serious issues in the relationship, says marriage therapist and author of Searching for Intimacy in Marriage, Dr Bryan Craig.

This is the first of a three-part series looking at issues couples may face as they approach retirement. The following comes from an interview with Craig.

Retirement is one of several transition times through life, says Craig. ‘When I was a teenager, deciding what I wanted to do with my life and who I was, was such an adventure that it seemed like life was exciting.’ It was an easy transition for him.

‘Then there’s mid-life, which was a fascinating transition for me. At that stage of my life, I remember reading something about how it can impact on your work life, your personal life, and your family life. I remember saying to my wife, “You know what I think’s happening? I think I’m going through a mid-life crisis.”

‘She looked at me and said, “Honey, your whole life has been a crisis.”

‘She was being facetious … I think.’

The retirement transition

Retirement is a huge transition. And, ‘There’s a lot of research that shows a strong connection between issues that emerge in retirement and marital relationship satisfaction.’

One of the difficulties at the retirement stage of life is that couples may have been married for 40 years or more. And they’re comfortable, but it’s as if their relationship has flatlined.

‘They accept their weaknesses and strengths and that’s it. But they’re in a rut and the idea of doing anything about their relationship doesn’t enter their minds.

‘Then they retire and spend much more time with each other and are confronted by their differences and disagreements. Suddenly they realise there are real problems in their relationship.’

He points to the rising divorce rate in this stage of life as evidence. The US figures indicate a 50 per cent growth in divorce in the past 20 years. Australia, he suggests, has probably seen a 20-25 per cent increase.

Building a great marriage

‘One of the things I wish couples would do throughout their marriage is to commit to a regular marital check-up,’ says Craig.

That could mean going to marriage enrichment seminars or similar events. It could be a regular evaluation built into their relationship—some sort of quasi-romantic environment where they talk about themselves and how they’re going as a couple.

This discussion should also include what’s bugging them and what they’re struggling with individually and as a couple.

‘If a couple were invested in their relationship they would be aware of and growing with the sort of changes that are occurring over time and dealing with their differences and disagreements.’

The problem is that most couples feel comfortable with where they’re at even if the relationship is not as good as it could be. To address those issues would lead to conflict, so rather than face conflict it’s easier to ‘just kind of drift’.

‘In this situation, if disagreement or misunderstanding or difficulties arise, the response tends to be, “You know, when we talk about it and get into it, we always end up in an argument. Let’s not do that. It feels like we’re doing OK if we don’t have arguments.”

‘So the drifting continues without any resolution to the issues they’re facing. The relationship is less than it could be.’

That is a tragedy.

Working on the retirement transition

Craig suggests that five years out couples need to begin talking about retirement. Part of this conversation needs to be about their plans and dreams—for together and separately.

But it’s building a strong relationship that will bring couples the most satisfaction. And there’s a bonus. Couples in a strong relationship have better health and wellbeing than those with marital problems.

‘What I say to couples is to be intentional about evaluating their journey together and don’t walk away from your differences and disagreements and leave them unresolved.

‘Retirement is like a crisis coming in your life—a positive crisis, but a crisis nonetheless because it brings such a huge change in your life. The best thing you can do is be educated about it so you know what is likely to happen.’

However, there is good news: ‘The research shows that the issues in retirement relationally are not much different to what they are through the years of marriage before retirement,’ says Craig. That means building a strong relationship before retirement means you are making it stronger for retirement.

Next week—Part 2: Divorce

Bruce Manners, author of Retirement Ready? and Refusing to Retire.

Category: Couples

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