7 Tips for Keeping Harmony When Your Spouse Retires Before You
Figure out the finances and keep communicating
En español | Households in which both partners are working full time often fall into a rhythm organized around work schedules. You wake at certain times, eat at certain times and work — in or outside the home — at certain times. This routine ensures that all of the tasks that need to happen in your world get done — and your free time together is coordinated.
But when one partner is still working and the other retires, life's everyday cadence can be disrupted, leading to new decisions, expectations and norms. “This is a difficult time. That's a lot of changes after you've been doing one thing for 30 or 40 years,” says Susan Silver, a psychotherapist at Wellington Counseling Group, a Chicago-based company.
But it is possible to smooth the transition, say both experts and people who have done so. And they have a series of recommendations for navigating one partner's major life change that has significant impact on both.
1. Talk about expectations
One mistake couples make is assuming they're on the same page about retirement and money matters. The 2021 Couples & Money Survey by Fidelity Investments found that 48 percent of couples differ on the age at which they will retire. And about 1 in 4 (24 percent) are irritated by their partner's money habits but let it go for the sake of harmony. While the typical thought is that both partners will retire at a certain age or roughly around the same time, reality is seldom that cut-and-dried.
So you need to talk about your plans. Ideally, conversations about retirement begin well before the retirement happens, Silver says. When she is working with couples, she may encourage them to begin these discussions in their 40s, as the decisions can be complex. “What's the age difference? Are you two years apart or 10 years apart? What are the health issues that may be driving some of this? What are the travel desires? Does one person want to sit at home and watch TV and one person wants to travel the world?” she asks. Getting clear on your vision for retirement is a good first step to creating a plan that works for both of you.
2. Figure out the finances
Your household income may change when one spouse retires, so it's also important to think about the financial impact of the decision, says Meredith Prescott, founder of Prescott Therapy and Wellness. How will your income and expenses change? While you may save on the costs of commuting and workplace-related expenses, you may incur new ones related to how the retired partner will spend time. “I think it's really more about what the salaries have been and what the expectations have been and how are they really communicated in the relationship. Was this [retirement] part of the plan?” she says. You'll also want to explore how the shift in income relates to your retirement planning.
John and Helen Holmes did that; they made a plan based on their income streams from their previous positions. After being an auditor in the New Jersey Division of Taxation for 30 years, John retired in 2019 and has a state pension, as well as health insurance that covers both of them. Helen was formerly a private school teacher but also began working for the state more than 15 years ago and plans to retire in 2022. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Helen has worked from home, so she also has saved on commuting costs.
The financial planning for retirement needs to happen well before the actual retirement, Silver says. “There's no question money can have a big impact on relationships,” she says. It's a good idea to involve a financial planner or other financial professional to help you determine how money patterns — spending, saving, how decisions are made about money — may change, too. “Some people give it a trial run for six months, living on a reduced income, even while they're still working,” she says. That lets you understand some of the changes you may need to make.
3. Establish boundaries
Lakesha Cole launched shePR, a public relations firm, during the pandemic. Her husband, Deonte, retired from the U.S. Marine Corps after 20 years of service in 2018. The shift has been significant for the couple. When Deonte was an active member of the military, he was often away from home. Now, he's home full time. The couple has three children, ages 16, 7 and 5. “I was gone quite a bit, and the house was being managed by my wife the majority of the time. You've got to recognize how to insert yourself in,” Deonte says.
Because Lakesha works from home, she has to set boundaries and ground rules to be sure she can get her things done, even when Deonte and the children are home. They have separate designated areas of the house where she works and where the family watches television or does schoolwork. “That just keeps everyone organized and keeps the household a little calm, so if one of us needs quiet time to hop on a call, there are spaces in our house where we can make that happen,” she says. One ground rule: A closed office door means “do not disturb."
"If you're the working spouse, you have to have that list of boundaries, but do it in collaboration with your partner,” Silver says. Decide on the hours when you're going to need quiet time for work, and who will be responsible for managing interruptions from children, pets or other household members. “It should be a fairly simple conversation unless one person is really against that or if they can't do what they need to do within the space that they have.” The discussion may also lead to other solutions, such as deciding on a different work space for the working partner or other accommodations.
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4. Plan the division of labor
Couples should also have conversations about whether the division of labor in the household and other areas of their life will shift, Prescott says. Once one person isn't working anymore, is there an expectation that the retiree will be picking up more of the household duties? That may infringe on plans the retired person has to explore new interests and pursuits, which can create friction.
"I think it's easy for people to assume that someone retires and they're not so busy anymore,” Prescott says. But that doesn't mean that the working spouse has a right to fill the other's time with to-do lists.
Sometimes, couples just fall into an easy rhythm. Susan Esco and her partner, Tina Waggoner, met during the pandemic and have since moved in together. Esco is a speech therapist in private practice and Waggoner is a retired military veteran. The two find that the division of labor comes naturally. “If there's a sock on the floor, it gets picked up,” she says. “Typically, if I cooked, she cleans up.” The two are empty nesters, so there are no child-care duties that need to be split.
Deonte Cole, the military retiree, helps with household and caregiving responsibilities, but his wife, Lakesha, still takes on her share of household labor though she is working. That has allowed Deonte to get his real estate license and learn computer coding. “I'm dabbling in a lot of different things. Because, while we are still young and I am retired, I still think that you never know. There could be another passion that I pick up, that becomes another career path,” he says.
5. Be prepared for change
And as your spouse goes out and pursues new interests, the partners should also be prepared for the changes that brings about, Prescott says. When you go out in the world and have new experiences, that may bring unexpected changes. What will your days look like? Will your partner be out trying new things? “There might be new friends, while they're taking up new hobbies,” she says. “Their world might open up in a different way."
John Holmes, the retired tax auditor, runs an online radio station called Radio Once More, which features “old-time radio and nostalgia programming.” He has made friends around the country. His wife, Helen, who is still working, helps run the station and also handles its social media.
"Whatever you enjoy, whatever you have a passion for, I think that is important. You can't rely on your spouse or partner to always be there to entertain you,” he says. “You live your life together, but you're also individuals as well. And you need to know that."
Esco is also exploring her career options, getting more involved in modeling and acting. “I already was starting the [career] shift, but I can tell you that knowing that [my partner] has full retirement and that she has X amount of dollars coming in really takes the weight off of me,” she says. Esco is finding success in her next career and has been hired as part of an international marketing campaign.
6. Keep your connection
As your lives change, it's also important to keep your connections with each other, Lakesha Cole says. Before her husband retired, the couple went on a date night once a week for an entire year to reconnect before their lives changed so much, she says. “So that once it happened, it just really felt easy. For me, I think, because we were already in a space of spending more time with each other,” she says.
Helen and John Holmes also make sure they find time to do things they enjoy together, such as “sip and paint” evenings, where they paint at local establishments or, now, remotely via videoconferencing. They also host a game night.
Esco says she and Waggoner enjoy the fluid nature of working from home. They can connect throughout the day and have flexibility to arrange their schedules more easily than if one of them had a typical office job. “Because I'm in private practice, I have a lot of flexibility,” she says. “So, I'm like, ‘Yay, finally, a partner who's not tied to a nine-to-five."
7. Communicate as things change
Above all, regularly communicating, both before and during retirement, is essential to keep any issues or conflicts from escalating. “My suggestion would be to deal with things more preventively before there's a problem or crisis,” Prescott says. “If you feel a certain way about something, you're better off sharing it earlier than waiting for things to build up.” And check in with each other regularly to determine how you're each feeling. Going through retirement is a big life change that comes with a number of emotions. And the issues may be different if one partner retired by choice versus leaving for a medical condition, job loss or other difficult circumstance.
Silver agrees: “Keep communicating and maybe lay out a plan, what we're OK with. How often are we going to see the kids? How often are we going to take a trip?” And be ready to compromise, she adds. During this period of transition, you may have to purposefully adapt to changes that will keep your relationship strong.
Gwen Moran is a contributing writer for AARP who specializes in business and finance. Her work has appeared in many leading business publications and websites, including Entrepreneur, Kiplinger.com, Newsweek.com, and The Los Angeles Times Magazine.