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How Couples Can Avoid Annoying Each Other in Retirement

Tips for creating separate spaces and respecting alone time

spinner image a couple in a kitchen arguing over dirty dishes
Getty / AARP

​​Before retirement, most couples focus on big planning issues, such as finances, where to live and how to spend their time.

​It’s harder to anticipate the smaller irritations of retired life that can fester if left unresolved, like household noise, chore division, too much time together or not enough personal space.​

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Alex Kienle, a retired real estate agent in Delray Beach, Florida, doesn’t sugarcoat it: “The first year that we were both retired was brutal.” ​

Kienle, 54, retired in 2018. She enjoyed her alone time while her husband, Lee Yaffe, was at work and their two teenage children were at school. She could be loud on the phone, pursue hobbies uninterrupted and finish chores before the family came home. ​

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. School shuttered and her children began taking classes online. Then her husband retired in 2020. She soon felt crowded and even resentful about having to monitor her volume and pick up after others. ​

While she adjusted by taking over the guest room, the bigger challenge was seeing her husband struggle to fill his time: “He did not shift enough that first year.” ​

Yaffe, a retired investment consultant and self-professed workaholic, agrees. For a year Yaffe, 58, balked at joining his wife’s activities and didn’t get fully onboard with chores. “You get into retirement and don’t anticipate the many issues that come up and you realize, everything’s not what I thought it would be,” he says. ​

Those issues sound par for the course, says Marni Feuerman, a couples therapist and relationship expert in Boca Raton, Florida. “Couples must realize there will be an adjustment period if one or both partners are newly retired and cut each other some slack,” Feuerman says. “It takes time to adjust to each other’s new boundaries and limits.” ​

​Couples may face more nuanced challenges when one partner retires first. “The person still working might feel resentful or jealous. These are normal feelings,” Feuerman says. “But if partners get out of sync, they must strategize and discuss how to handle it or there will be lingering hard feelings.”​

Common retirement conflicts​

Feuerman says even the most loving couples can run into some of these conflict triggers:​

Discrepancies between time together versus alone time: Respect a new need for your partner to have time alone or to spend time with other people. “There’s no need to personalize this or feel insecure,” Feuerman says. “And if you need a bit of reassurance, just ask for it.”​

​​Balancing activities with the need for novelty: Aligning priorities, goals and activities can cause friction. For example, one partner’s physical limitations might clash with the other’s vision for travel or exercise.​

Division of labor: Partners should strive for equity in chores. Resentment is likely to build if one person feels like they are doing more than their fair share. ​​

Navigating space: Be prepared for new levels of stress that result from being in close quarters more often, especially in smaller living spaces.​

Coping with boredom: As partners work out new schedules, Feuerman urges them to avoid bad habits such as unhealthy eating or drinking and excessive screen time.​

​​​​“Not dealing with these triggers early and in a healthy way can cause distress and disconnection between couples,” Feuerman notes. “You can start a conversation in a soft, non-accusatory way, beginning with ‘we’ instead of ‘you.’ Reduce defensiveness as much as possible.”

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​Kienle and Yaffe eventually took this approach and faced their challenges as a team. A big breakthrough was sitting together regularly to plan their activities on a joint calendar. Yaffe balked at first, saying he “wanted freedom.” Kienle responded by saying he had the freedom to control his activities on the calendar. The calendar also appealed to their mutual need for structure. ​

​As they planned around themes of health, contributing to community and creativity, Yaffe became more open-minded about trying new activities with his wife and on his own. They took classes in fabric art, glassblowing and guitar. “I tried a lot of things even though I thought I might not like them,” he says. “If you don’t love it, be honest and move on.” ​

Find your own space

Sandra and Bret Kofford spent most of the pandemic working from their home in Imperial County, California, one of the areas hardest hit by the pandemic. They learned that they really get along — but they also really need personal space and privacy. ​

When they retired to a single-level home in Tucson, Arizona, last year, they each got their own room: Sandra for reading and Bret for writing movie and television scripts. ​

After 31 years working as a teacher and education administrator, Sandra loves her reading room. “I have a lot of books I’ve never read because I didn’t have time,” she says. Bret, 64, is a retired lecturer at San Diego State University-Imperial Valley who uses his room and new-found time to focus on his passion for writing screenplays. ​

“The pandemic prepped us for this life,” he says. “She knows that when I’m in the middle of writing, I’m in that world and don’t fully respond to anything else.” ​

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But extra rooms are not the only option for personal space, says interior designer Asha M. Maxey of Asha Maía Design in Alexandria, Virginia. “You will want time for peace and quiet when the other does not, but you might have to be creative to find that space or re-make existing space,” she says.

For example:​

Create separation zones. Make a getaway nook by putting a small writing desk or a comfortable chair under a window in the living room or a guest room. Another option is to have ancillary seating in the bedroom for reading, phone calls and such.​

Utilize outdoor space. Create an outdoor living room by selecting comfortable patio furniture, grounding the space with a soft outdoor rug, and incorporating throw pillows and blankets. This is the perfect place to create separation in a home.​

Have a multipurpose TV. Couples often disagree over the television, making the TV room less relaxing or even a source of conflict. A framed TV that doubles as a mirror or displays digital art can make a room more inviting or personal when the television is not in use. ​

Reassess lighting. Alter the mood and feel of a space by creating layers of lighting. Do this by supplementing overhead lighting with lamps or wall sconces and using bulbs that allow you to adjust brightness for work tasks or relaxing. ​

Use blankets for different temperature preferences. What couple hasn’t disagreed over thermostat settings? One remedy is to add throw blankets to sofas or chairs to provide comfort and color accents. ​

​“Everything is about compromise,” adds Maxey. Interior design changes can “make it easier for couples to work together to improve how they use space and resolve differences.” 

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