When a Spouse Retires, A New Marriage Relationship Begins

Many people entering retirement have done their financial homework before receiving that gold watch. What they may have neglected, however, is to think deeply about what comes next, especially as regards home life and relations with one's spouse.

William Houser of Towson, Md., knows the feeling. After a career in fire-safety compliance, he began his retirement three years ago, eager to putter with the model train layout in his basement and to tackle house projects.

"The fun and games lasted not quite a year," he says. "My wife had been in charge of the house all these years and now I was underfoot. I'm trying not to interfere with the routine she is used to, but it takes time to adjust for both partners."

Mary Houser could see her husband reaching a dead end. "He needed to get out and start communicating with people, to get out in the world," she says.

A solution came when Mr. Houser spied a pamphlet in his local library published by the Baltimore County Department of Aging. The department's Retired and Senior Volunteer Program was able to find him a volunteer position with the Environmental Protection Agency, working in water resources.

The Housers, like many retirement-age couples, are learning how to live with each other in a new context, to explore new frontiers in their relationship.

"The shift for both men and women in retirement has to be toward a healthy, mutual 'we,' " says Samuel Shem, who, with his wife, Janet Surrey, has written a book on cross-gender communication titled "We Have to Talk: Healing Dialogues Between Men and Women," (Basic Books).

"What people have to realize is that they can't just shift into spending all their time together," Dr. Shem says. "They have to negotiate and find out what 'we' need today. It's the quality of time [together], not the quantity."

Dr. Surrey calls retirement a transitional challenge in a marriage. "It can grow in new ways. It can rebalance," she observes. "It's an opportunity for something new to happen, but it can be a time of crisis and going down some old roads that are destructive and create more disconnection than better connection."

On the whole, research shows that most people do a fine job adapting to retirement, says Mark Edinburg, a management consultant and psychologist in Fairfield, Conn. The pattern for some couples, he indicates, is to begin this new phase by traveling, to celebrate leaving the workplace.

"Eventually there is some settling down into a routine, and that raises the question of what the routine is," Mr. Edinburg says.

For many couples, especially of the World War II generation, it is the husband that is retiring. In these cases, the routine that existed for women before retirement tends to remains intact.

Mary Houser makes this point. "The wife still has her things to get done, the laundry, food shopping, making the beds, meals, going to the bank. She doesn't really retire. Women don't as far as home chores."

Often what this means is that the husband needs to find a mutually agreeable domestic role for himself. This may mean sharing chores in some households or simply getting out of the way in others.

Jan Sinnott, a professor at Towson University in Maryland, who counsels couples, cautions against equating retirement with domestic privilege. This is no time to suggest, "I'm free. Don't bother me with housework." Nor does it mean that long-laboring homemakers (be they women or men) should clam up about their vision for sharing responsibilities.

"People have to be up front about what they expect the other one to do," Dr. Sinnott says. "They must talk about, 'how can we work this out through some compromise that makes us both feel OK about being together.'"

Some women prefer their retired husbands just give them space. Accustomed to being home alone during the day, they often enjoy it that way.

With a husband around, Mrs. Houser realized, "You have no time to yourself. Somebody's always in the house." She found that this can lead to a series of harmless yet unwanted interruptions and questions, a situation partly addressed by her husband's newfound outside activities.

Besides working two days a week, he's become active again in the Shriners after a long absence from this fraternal order.

Retirees are often encouraged to find hobbies, but that doesn't always do the trick.

"If you have a corporate-type [retiree], a hobby is not going to do it unless he or she is really involved in that hobby," Sinnott says. "So find something equally engaging so you don't drive the other person crazy."

For some couples, protecting individual freedom is a priority, while others welcome greater togetherness.

"Some people say, 'Maybe I was missing something by not being with this person more,' " Sinnott says. "'Should we try a few things and see if we can rekindle or enlarge our relationship?' "

In the Housers' case, bus travel is a new interest that allows for shared activity. At home, though, she likes to keep up the same outside activities that have always engaged her, which makes two cars essential.

"A friend once advised me, 'Whatever you do, don't give up your own car,' " she says. "Never get down to one car, because then you are completely dependent."

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