Making marriage work after retirement

For decades, Mary Louise Floyd dreaded the prospect of retirement, both for herself and her husband. Her parents' 43-year marriage had fallen apart when her father retired, leaving her with negative views about the possibilities for this stage of life.

"My mother was not willing to give over part of her domain and share the empty nest," says Mrs. Floyd of Atlanta. "She resented his presence."

Floyd was determined to avoid similar challenges in her own marriage after she and her husband left their careers, he as a corporate attorney, she as a high school media specialist. Speaking as part of a generation that is beginning to write new scripts for the later years, she says, "We do not intend to do it the way our predecessors did."

As the first baby boomers approach retirement, media reports echo with two recurring themes. One involves the upbeat refrain that this generation will "reinvent" retirement. A second, more somber topic focuses on finances: Will they have enough money in their later years?

But few reports talk about the changing domestic arena – what it will mean for families when a huge generation of dual-career couples must navigate not just one retirement, as those like Floyd's parents typically did, but two. Accompanying that challenge are larger social shifts involving caregiving, housing, and marriage. The combination, sociologists say, will subtly change the landscape of retirement for many families.

Already, two-income couples whose busy schedules may have turned them into the proverbial ships passing in the night when they were employed are finding themselves facing unaccustomed togetherness in their postwork years.

"The question becomes, 'Who is this person I'm married to?' " says Floyd, author of "Retired With Husband: Superwoman's New Challenge." Noting that the average couple engages in 20 minutes of conversation a day, she adds with a laugh, "Now here we are, together 24/7. Marriages have to be reengineered for this new era that the baby-boom generation is moving into."

That reengineering can include everything from renegotiating household chores to forming new friendships. "Sometimes it is the men who have not made as many friends who want to put a leash on their partner," says Maryanne Vandervelde, who heads the Institute for Couples in Retirement in Seattle.

When Ron Manheimer, executive director of the NC Center for Creative Retirement at the University of North Carolina in Asheville, holds seminars on relationships, he typically finds more men than women in the group. Their conversation often turns to male friendships, specifically the lack of them.

"A lot of friendships are connected with work life," Mr. Manheimer says. "Now how are they going to meet men to spend time? They don't have a lot of experience in meeting peers. I wouldn't be surprised if it's one of the issues that drives men to go back to work."

Even women, often considered better at maintaining friendships than men, can find themselves missing connections at work after they leave their jobs. "She's lost her daily collegial contacts with her women colleagues, with whom she had rapport," Floyd says. Communication at home thus becomes increasingly important.

Yet if couples have been "avoiders," ignoring issues, challenges can arise, says David Arp, co-author, with his wife, Claudia, of "10 Great Dates for Empty Nesters." "They don't know that bird in the nest with them and are not sure they want to stay another 25 years."

That prospect of ever-longer marriage may be one reason "gray divorces," like that of Floyd's parents, appear to be on the increase. Until 2000, people over 55 had fewer divorces than the general population, Ms. Vandervelde says. "Since 2000, it's considerably higher for those over 55."

Vandervelde acknowledges that divorce can be a "viable option" for some couples. But, she adds, "If you have a 'good-enough' partner, that can be a real help as you go into the later years."

Beyond marital issues, Nancy Dailey, author of "When Baby Boom Women Retire," observes other ways in which baby boomers' retirement will differ significantly from that of their parents. One predominant difference will involve far more caregiving.

"Baby boomers will join their parents in retirement, whereas our parents entered retirement with their parents already passed away," Dr. Dailey says. "The young-old are taking care of the old-old. Many baby boomers also have lots of siblings. If you're not taking care of a parent, you may be caring for a sibling."

Among those with several generations to consider as they plan retirement are Callie and Dave Willendorf of Cary, Ill. When he retires as a sales manager in three years, they will still have a child in college. Both also have a parent and a stepparent. Those family connections played a part in their decision to move to Asheville. "We couldn't move to California," Mrs. Willendorf says. "We knew we had to be within a relative distance of our families."

Many retirees also have grandchildren who need care. "In our parents' generation it was totally OK to say 'I'm done,' " Dailey says. "I don't think that luxury is around anymore. The family system has become much more interdependent because of the economics. To maintain a middle-class lifestyle, you need two incomes. You need an extended family to help with that."

Other retirees have adult children not yet launched from the nest or boomeranging back into it.

All of these responsibilities can have profound effects on how baby boomers spend their time after leaving the workforce. Dailey believes the popular vision of retirement – "I'm going to move to the house on the golf course and do whatever I want and have a life of leisure" – will fade quickly as baby boomers accept the reality of helping with elder care or child care.

"Retirement as we know it is gone for many people," she says. "Men will be involved in this, too. You'll see baby-boom men taking a pretty active role in grandparenting." Because these men will live longer than their fathers, they will make many more contributions to their family relations.

Even housing will change the contours of family life in the later years. Dailey sees living arrangements as the real difference in retirement between baby boomers and their parents.

"The World War II generation had the luxury of saying, 'I'm going to stay in my home until I die,' " she says. "Because baby boomers have used their homes to finance a lifestyle, their home is their biggest savings account right now. They will need that to live in retirement." Varied arrangements for converting a house into a stream of income include reverse mortgages and the transfer of homes among generations.

Divorced women will devise other cooperative living arrangements with family members to stretch their income, Dailey says. They might spend a year with one child, a year with another child, or time with a sister or brother.

Floyd expects baby-boom women – the "superwomen" who have artfully balanced work and home – to be the "reengineering force" helping their generation move into a productive "second adulthood."

As if to illustrate her point, Manheimer notes that in his creative-retirement seminars, men sometimes tell him, "My wife sent me. She says, 'I know what I'm going to do in retirement. You need to know what you're doing.' "

Even that may be changing. A new survey by Merrill Lynch suggests that gender roles will reverse in retirement. Men will be more likely to view this as a time to enhance their relationships, while women will seek more community involvement.

For Floyd, that kind of reaching out – serving on the board of Keep Atlanta Beautiful, registering voters, heading her garden club – has helped to change her earlier negative feelings about retirement. She and her husband keep three calendars to track their activities – a his, hers, and ours approach to scheduling.

For some couples, a break from togetherness includes solo travel. This week Cheryl Disque, a retired special agent for the FBI, is on a safari in Africa. Her husband remains at home in Colorado Springs, Colo. Trips like this feed her "spirit of adventure," she says. They also offer a change of pace from domestic duties – "preparing meals, doing all the dishes, and doing most of the cleaning."

Reengineering can even change stereotypical roles at home. Referring to lunch, that subject of wry humor and mild annoyance among retired wives, Floyd suggests that husbands make their own. "It's empowerment," she says firmly.

Lunch is, in fact, a cliché for a larger issue, says Denise Snodgrass, assistant director of the NC Center for Creative Retirement. "We have our own separate lives in retirement – different goals and routines. One of the key factors of how baby boomers are redefining retirement is taking more control. That's the goal they're looking for."

To Floyd, that goal will help to eliminate what she calls the glass ceiling of retirement – the limited view that causes individuals or couples to settle for predictable routines that may not be satisfying. "People say, 'Oh well, now we'll retire to the golf course.' There should be life beyond the 9th hole. We need to use this second adulthood as an opportunity to find our creativity and share it."

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