Retirement: How Not to Kill Your Spouse
Life + Money

Retirement: How Not to Kill Your Spouse


Jackie Fishman, a 59-year-old media relations executive, always thought she and her husband would spend their retirement years in their Washington, D.C., condo, near their children, while taking frequent trips around the world. She wants to keep working so they can be financially secure and more easily pay their $1,200 monthly health insurance costs until they're eligible for Medicare. But her husband, also 59, is working as a fundraiser for a nonprofit, a job that will end within two years. He dreams of buying a house on a North Carolina mountain, getting a few pets and gardening. They never discussed retirement plans until now. "We are totally at an impasse," she says. "When you marry in your early twenties, it just seems so far away. You just don't get around to it."

Like many couples nearing retirement, the Fishmans are finding that the Great Recession has made a tough transition even tougher.  Leaving behind a professional identity — not to mention suddenly spending a lot more time with your spouse — is always tricky. But for many people, a weak housing market has shrunk their nest egg, while big hits to retirement savings, a lack of pensions and increasing health-care costs have squeezed cash flow. About 50 percent of today’s workers say they will be unable to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living, even if they work till age 65, according to The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

"We've had this vision when you retire, you can choose what you want to do, but that's no longer possible, says Nancy K. Schlossberg, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and author of Retire Smart, Retire Happy: Finding Your True Path in Life. “People are very disappointed and frustrated. You're suddenly together with less income than you thought and there's anger and a lot of bickering."

The economy and financial stress
were one of the top reasons for a less
satisfying sex life among older Americans.

Financial stress can exacerbate simmering tensions within even a good marriage; especially if there is resentment that one partner has done something to compromise the couple’s financial security, such as making poor investment decisions.  An AARP survey out last year, Sex, Romance and Relationships,  found that for the first time the economy and financial stress were one of the top reasons for a less satisfying sex life among older Americans. "When people are stressed and under pressure, relationships are affected by that," says Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at The University of Wisconsin and AARP’s Sex and Relationship Ambassador.

For some couples, the problem is that one spouse is forced to work longer than they’d like. The total number of employed workers ages 62 and older increased by 1.5 million between 2007 and 2010 —100,000 more than during the period of 2004 to 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It's becoming common for one spouse to continue working so that they can maintain health benefits. That can lead to conflict if the working spouse would prefer to retire, but feels he or she can’t. Irene Deitch, a professor emeritus of psychology at the City University of New York who co-edited the book, Counseling the Aging and Their Families, says as the couple's joint dream plan is delayed, there is disappointment, anger and depression.

Ron Yolles, a financial analyst and author of You're Retired, Now What, recalls a case where the husband wanted to retire, buy an RV and roam around the country. His wife was horrified; she wanted him to continue working — and earning money. The husband ultimately revealed that he just wanted to slow down after an intense career practicing law. He cut back his hours, while still generating some income and having time for travel. "They found a common ground," Yolles said.

He wanted to retire and move to
their country home in Vermont; she
wanted to continue working and
remain in the city to be close to family.

Other couples face the opposite problem: one spouse is forced to retire earlier than they’d planned because of a layoff, leading to more financial anxiety. "The number of people retiring early is at least as big, if not bigger, than those delaying retirement," says Courtney Coile, an associate professor of Economics at Wellesley College. Many are forced to supplement their income, accepting less-satisfying, lower-paying jobs — not a recipe for a happy home life.

As the number of independent-minded Baby Boomers reaching retirement age grows — nearly 4 million Americans will turn 62 in 2016, up from 3.5 million this year — these kinds of lifestyle debates are likely to become more common. A recent study by Fidelity Investments showed that 42% of couples have different ideas about their expected retirement lifestyle. "People don't know how to bring up these difficult conversations," says Dorian Mintzer, a psychologist and co-author with Roberta K. Taylor of The Couple's Retirement Puzzle.

Lois Arthur, a 61-year-old psychologist living in Boston, found herself at odds with her husband, Gene, a 66-year-old social worker. He wanted to retire and move to their country home in Vermont; she wanted to continue working and remain in the city to be close to family. They decided he would spend more time in Vermont, with her joining him for long weekends. "We're able to negotiate," Lois says, which is important because "we really love each other and want to be together."

Mintzer says couples need to discuss their goals in advance, clarifying what they each want . But even broaching the conversation with a spouse can be daunting. She advises setting aside time to talk, when you can put away the blackberry and focus. Try to be good listener, she urges, and ask your spouse to do the same when you talk. In communicating your message, think about why your plan is important to you and try to explain it. And don't expect to come to agreement the first time. 

Related Links:
Retirement: The One Thing Couples Shouldn’t Do Together (Investopedia) 
Fidelity: Couples Need $230,000 for Retirement Health Costs (U.S. News)
More Unmarried Couples Living Together in Retirement (USA Today)