When a spouse retires: How a marriage needs to adapt

Some people enter retirement as a couple. But what happens when one of you calls it a day and the other keeps working? Here we look at how to deal with the changes retirement brings to a marriage.

Retirement isn’t always endless holidays, games of golf, and catching up with friends over glasses of wine. For many people, it can be a time of great change, even upheaval. And it can signal a move from one phase of a relationship to another. In situations where one partner continues to work and the other does not, or one partner has long been retired and the other suddenly joins them, retirement can be downright challenging.

These are some of the pitfalls to watch for and how to manage them.

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Changing pace

Psychologist and Relationships Australia counsellor Jeannette Stott says that when one partner has retired and the other continues working, it’s usually the one at home who finds it hard to adjust to “empty nest” syndrome. 

“What do I do when I’m home for ten hours of the day, and my husband, or wife, is out ten hours of the day and then he or she comes back maybe tired, worn out?” she asks.

Stott suggests that couples need to negotiate how best to energise the partner who has retired, and to organise evenings and weekends so they can spend time together as a couple. “First and foremost, it’s always just talking to each other, allowing each other to listen and influence negotiations; sometimes it could be a week-by-week schedule.” 

Partners need to have shared interests. But it’s essential that they also have activities they do separately. 

Getting a game plan

Retirement can be a time when people start to question their purpose, or feel lost and aimless, or wonder how their new status fits with their relationship. When one partner continues to work and the other has retired, self-esteem issues are common. 

The retired partner might feel they have less to contribute to conversations or are no longer useful. Or if one person has long been retired and their partner suddenly joins them at home, one or both people might feel that the other is under their feet. 

“If you’re used to being out and about for six or seven hours and now you're home together, it may be a good opportunity to have different conversations,” Stott says.

She suggests that couples unite in new activities: for example, they could do puzzles or play board games together, or find a Netflix series they both enjoy, then engage in discussion about it. 

Juggling different dreams 

Another issue for couples, says Stott, is not sharing the same dreams and thoughts about how they want to live their lives.

“Somebody might have gone out and bought a caravan without discussing it with [their partner] and said, ‘We’re going to be grey nomads and go around Australia’, while [they’re] thinking, ‘I want to go to Europe; I don’t want to drive around Australia.’”

What should we do if our plans don't mesh?

It’s important to be curious and open-minded. Learn the reasons behind your partner’s desires. 

Finding a way to compromise 

Big challenges arise in a relationship when partners aren’t able to compromise and support each other’s dreams. Stott suggests a couple could compromise by going on the grey nomad trail for three months and then taking a trip to Europe. “It’s about how they problem solve together and support each other.”

Compromise is essential as both parties need to feel heard in a relationship. If you can’t agree on your goals, perhaps you could do some things separately, and come together on joint interests. 

Coping with relationship changes 

Retirement brings about great change, as does entering any new life phase. Your spouse may lose their normal routine, and your relationship may need to adapt.

Remember to support each other through this transition. Have regular check-ins with your partner about how things are going.

It’s also important to give each other some breathing room, especially if you’ll be seeing more of your spouse around the house.

When you were both working, you likely spent many of your waking hours apart. So, you may be seeing some of your spouse’s habits for the first time. Try to view this as a time of discovery – after all, you’re learning new things about each other!

Coping with health issues 

Health conditions can put great strain on an otherwise strong marriage. “When there’s a range of chronic health complications, a lot of time can be taken up with medical appointments and being very careful about medication,” says Stott. 

She recently counselled a couple where the wife was struggling to get any sleep because her husband had recently had two hip replacements and she was constantly alert should he need assistance to get to the bathroom during the night. 

“In that situation we’re talking about a range of solutions that will help reduce the day-to-day stress as well as give each other respite,” she adds.

“It’s so important [for couples] to accept the reality of ageing, and to deal with the expectations and assumptions about what they can do to make the relationship work.”

Health insurance can help 

Health insurance that suits your lifestyle can help ease the pressure on a partner. For example, if you take out Apia Premium Extras Cover, we can help cover the cost of health aids such as walking frames and home nursing services.

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Australian Pensioners Insurance Agency Pty Ltd (Apia) ABN 14 099 650 996 AR 239591 is an authorised representative of AAI Limited ABN 48 005 297 807 AFSL 230859 (AAI), the issuer of Home, Landlord, Car, Caravan, Motorhome, Boat, Travel & Compulsory Third Party Personal Injury (CTP) Insurance. 

Apia Health Insurance is issued by nib health funds limited ABN 83 000 124 381 (nib), a registered private health insurer, and is marketed by Platform CoVentures Pty Ltd ABN 82 626 829 623 (PC), a Suncorp Group company. PC is an authorised agent of nib and receives commission from nib.

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