By: Rick Miller
With mixed emotions, you finish packing up your things from your office and carry the box with you to your boss’s office, where you turn in your office keys. It all seems so surreal; you have been working for decades, but today is your last day at work. After a quick goodbye to your colleagues, you walk out to your car and officially begin your retirement.
Now what? After being in the workforce for so many years, you are about to experience the biggest change in your life since you graduated from high school or became a new parent. What is it going to be like spending most of each day with your spouse? For decades, spouses have spent most of each day apart, with at least one spouse working full-time outside the home. Suddenly, you are both at home, all day, nearly every day.
What do these changes mean for your marital relationship? As a university professor, I have been doing research on mid-and later-life couples for over 30 years, including looking at relationships during the transition to retirement. Here is what I have learned:
First, most couples will not experience a significant change in the quality of their relationship. The research shows that most couples who are happy before they retire remain happy post-retirement. Likewise, couples that struggle pre-retirement will likely struggle after they retire. Even though retirement will bring about huge changes in couples’ daily routines and schedules, the basic, core dynamics of the relationship (how couples “dance” together) remain relatively unchanged. The patterns of communication, styles of managing conflict, and patterns of expressing affection and appreciation will remain constant, despite changes in how they spend each day together. In short, the routine changes, but the basic relationship dance doesn’t.
Second, although the overall quality of the marriage after retirement will generally reflect its pre-retirement quality, the actual adjustment can sometimes be difficult. For example, wives of newly retired husbands often struggle with what has been called the “husband underfoot syndrome,” where wives become annoyed when their husbands open the refrigerator for the 12th time before lunch hoping, apparently, that something new has magically appeared since they last looked 10 minutes ago. This annoyance, though, is usually minor and subsides over time as they adjust to their new circumstances.
Third, housework matters. Or I should say that husbands’ involvement in housework after they retire matters because it has a significant influence on their wives’ satisfaction with the marriage. When husbands step up the work that they do around the house, their wives are more likely to perceive that their husbands are supportive. These wives have a sense that the relationship is fair, which leads to them feeling good about the relationship.
Finally, the great majority of older couples enjoy retirement. The research shows that most post-retirement couples like each other, and they enjoy spending time together. With fewer stresses in their lives and fewer demands on their time, they are at the stage of life where they can enjoy more leisure time together.