For better or worse, but not for lunch. I’ve heard that lament for years. It made me smile, but I never really related to it. Not, that is, until my husband of more than 40 years retired and I was faced with having him not just for lunch, but for breakfast and dinner and everything in between. Twenty-four/seven togetherness.
This new togetherness was perhaps more daunting for us than for some other couples. We had always said to anyone who asked that our marriage had survived more than four decades because we spent a lot of time apart. Giving each other ample space – breathing room, if you will. My husband traveled internationally and was often gone for weeks at a time. I, too, took solo trips to visit my family or attend writers’ conferences.
When we returned from our solo expeditions we enjoyed a so-called honeymoon period of renewed appreciation for our relationship. Crumbs on the counter were less annoying. Neglecting to balance the checkbook was not something to stress about. Life was all sunshine and lollypops. Well, sort of. That’s an exaggeration, but you know what I mean.
The thing is, and here begins my cautionary tale, we never sufficiently planned for all this “Us” time on steroids. Oh sure, we consulted with our financial experts and checked to make sure that we could actually afford to have our major source of income disappear. We could. But what we didn’t do was talk about what we each thought our retirement days would look like.
Travel? Of course. Where? Somewhere fun. Sports? Definitely. He golfs. I don’t. I play tennis. Him? Not so much. Dining out? I love to. He doesn’t.
I didn’t ask, and he didn’t volunteer that he really wasn’t quite ready to quit being Mr. Corporate. I simply assumed that he would fill his days with fun things like golf, flying our airplane, building stuff, learning new things. I envisioned rewirement, he didn’t give it much thought.
I, on the other hand, didn’t consider how much having him around – in my space – all the time would feel. To this day, when I come home from a busy day of Jazzercise, coffee, lunch, book club meetings, shopping, whatever, and I push the remote to raise the garage door and see his car still there? Untouched? Well, I sigh a huge sigh and think to myself, “Doesn’t he ever go anywhere?”
I’m a writer and I work at home so my life hasn’t changed that much. His has. And we should have addressed this issue long before he walked out the door of his company and took on the challenges of retiring, without much rewiring.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Relationship experts say retirement is one of the most stressful, if not THE most stressful event most marriages have to endure. This is true particularly if a couple didn’t spend a lot of time together in the years preceding retirement. Bingo.
It is these couples who have to reinvent their marriages – factoring in the 24/7 togetherness issue.
Retirement can bring on any number of difficult, and often unexpected, issues. One of these is depression. And it can affect either partner. The partner stepping away from a career which brought him or her a degree of success is often brought down by a loss of identity. Who am I if not an achiever in my field? And what do I do with all this time thrust upon me? It can be an overwhelming prospect for many. Particularly if he or she has not addressed it before retirement.
Conversely a syndrome known as RHS – Retired Husband Syndrome – can lead many women into the black hole of depression, or at the very least, frustration. Suddenly this other person is injected into the well-oiled machinery of the household. He sees what you are doing or not doing. Time for yourself no longer is a given. The ability to do what you want when you want is severely compromised. For better, for worse, but not for lunch comes into play here. It’s no wonder that some women cannot face having him around 24/7 (or her for the couple that retires at the same time).
Whether one of you is still working or you both have stopped, retirement from your careers turns daily routines, projects and everyday intimacy on its head. Partners need to approach this new proximity with a plan. This is something we didn’t do. Take the time to have a conversation. Discuss how each of you envisions the future.
All of this being said, and in spite of problems which can occur, retirement can, and should, be a time of rewirement. You’ve earned this time to relax or to be free to explore. To take up new hobbies or abandon old unsatisfying ones. To spend time together, and not feel guilty spending time apart. Rewire your marriage as you might rewire a faulty electrical circuit. It can become as sleek and smooth-running as a Maserati.
Talk the Talk
You wouldn’t attempt any rewiring without an instruction manual. Likewise you might need a few instructions on how to jumpstart a floundering retirement or start one off with a fanfare. Here are a few things to consider.
Talk, talk, talk. Communication is key. Turn off the TV and have a conversation. Air your complaints. Make plans. Don’t let your marriage become a dead space. Talk about rewirement and what it means to each of you.
Find space for you. Just because you share a home does not mean you have to live in each other’s back pockets. After nearly four years of retirement, I realized that seeing my husband sitting in the same chair with his laptop on his lap day after day made my hair stand on end. I suggested (he might say that I was a bit more forceful) that he move himself and his laptop into the designated office space – out of sight. I, too, have my own desk nestled in a corner of the living room. It’s not ideal because it is situated on the path between our bedroom and kitchen, but the view of the pond outside makes it worth the lack of privacy.
Have together time, but don’t neglect having separate time. This is not as easy as it sounds, though. Getting out of the house and doing things with friends can make all the difference. I thrive on hanging out with my friends. And I try to encourage (again he might say I bulldoze) him to golf, go for a run, or just go to Home Depot, for heaven’s sake. That’s, I confess, a work in progress.
Do something different – together. Travel, if you can. Or if you don’t want to leave town, have a “play date”. We live in Florida so we have a ready-made escape to the beach. Going out for breakfast, anywhere, is a good way to get the day started. Be creative. Think of things you’ve always wanted to check out in your hometown and then explore together.
Don’t neglect your social life. Hanging out watching TV night after night only leads to boredom – with life and with each other. Make friends. Join a club. Take dance lessons. Go out to eat – even if it’s only to the Waffle House.
Consider getting a part time job. Or volunteer. You might feel that you don’t need to work from a financial standpoint, but learning a new job rewires your brain. Plus, interacting with other people on a daily basis keeps you feeling alive and connected. And then you bring that satisfaction home with you. Win/win.
Make your marriage kind again. All that enforced closeness can lead to, shall we say, grumpiness. Snarky comments ensue. I am among the snarkiest and I have to remind myself multiple times daily that it isn’t going to make life happier if I keep carping. He, on the other hand, needs to stop assuming that every snarky word is a criticism. Think before you speak. Listen before you react. Be nice to each other. Niceness counts.
Take care of your health. We’ve all heard the stories about couples who waited until retirement to do all those things they always dreamed about. Travel to Africa. Go kayaking in the Nile. Move to the South of France. Whatever. And then illness hits and all those dreams were derailed. Go to the doctor. Exercise. A morning walk together can do a lot for your physical health as well as the health of your marriage. And, if, God forbid, illness strikes, don’t be afraid to do what it takes to get over it, around it, or through it. Be there for each other.
Share the chores. Just because one partner always did all the cooking and cleaning does not mean that has to continue. You’re both home now. Both can share the work so you each have more time for play. We have split the cleaning and cooking fairly evenly. I don’t like to cook all that much and my husband figures that if he doesn’t want a steady diet of cold cereal he needs to up his game. I will say he does a mean salmon.
Remember you got married for a reason. Life may have made you forget what that reason was but now is the time to find it again. Your spouse didn’t become a grumpy recluse overnight, nor did you become a nagging harridan. You were young and in love once. Reminisce. Find the magic. And never let it go. These may be the golden years but time is not infinite. Regrets are.
Plays Well with Others
Let me conclude by offering you some wisdom I have gleaned through five years of retirement. It’s great to know what you as a couple should do to have healthy and happy rewirement years, but there are some things to avoid as well.
#1: Don’t dress alike. It’s not cute. It’s, in my humble opinion, cringe-worthy. Unless you are wearing matching team shirts for a joint activity, don’t do it. Just don’t.
#2: Do NOT call each other Mommy and Daddy. You both have names – use them! He isn’t my Daddy. I’m not his Mommy. Likewise, pet names like Love Muffin and My Soul Mate can cause gagging among your friends. Even very good friends.
#3: Do not get all lovey-dovey and ooey gooey over each other. Conversely don’t make nasty digs at each other. In public, that is. At home feel free to be as ooey gooey or nasty as you both can tolerate.
#4: Do not bore your friends with lengthy discussions of your ailments. Trust me, no one really wants to know the ugly details of your hammer toe or diverticulitis. Spare them. Please.
#5: Do not neglect your personal hygiene. We all know it’s easy to take each other for granted. She won’t care if I shower or not, he thinks. He doesn’t mind if I slop around in worn out yoga pants, she decides. Wrong. She does. He does. Spruce up for each other. Good things happen, I promise you.
#6: Do not forget to put some fun into your life. If you never leave the house but still make each other laugh you have won the game. Retirement often requires a sense of humor. Don’t lose yours.
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