When couples first marry or have a child, the transition can be a bit bumpy. But once you adjust to your new routine, you often end up happier than you were before. The same goes for couples in retirement. The first months are often fraught with conflict.
A 2007 Fidelity study of 500 married couples ages 33 to 70 found that in more than 3 in 10 couples, husbands and wives gave completely different answers when asked at what age they would retire, what they expected their lifestyle to be, and whether they intended to work in retirement.
Some advance planning can help couples ease into retirement. Here are some topics for discussion.
Be prepared for staying home together. After years of spending mostly nights and weekends with your spouse, seeing him or her all day every day can be stressful. "If they are both retiring at the same time, they are faced with perhaps having to be in each other's faces, especially couples who have had a history of marital conflict," says Amy Pienta, a researcher at the University of Michigan.
Couples need to rework their old routines. "They have not been together much during the day, and so they have to renegotiate how much closeness or separateness they want in their activities," says Maximiliane Szinovacz, director of the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Szinovacz suggests coming up with zones of responsibility for household chores so you are not constantly stepping on your spouse's toes—or arguing about the best way to make the bed or load the dishwasher.
Get separate hobbies. Retiring to your home from a job where you felt important or needed, and where your opinion mattered, can make you feel your skills are no longer apt. "Work on your own projects in the basement or the garage, so you can be master of your domain in something you are interested in," recommends Scott Holtzman, a psychologist and author of Secrets of Happily Married Men, or claim a spot in the yard as your garden plot.
A part-time job or volunteer work outside the home can also make you feel more autonomous. "People seem to be happier and the marriage seems to go better when they have either a post-retirement job or are volunteering on a regular basis in some sort of civic engagement after retirement," says Phyllis Moen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota.
Both spouses should pursue their own interests just as they did when employed. "You both have to figure out something that you can still bring to the marriage that you can talk around over dinner," says Maryanne Vandervelde, a psychologist and author of Retirement for Two. "It tends to make it more interesting and more vibrant."
Keep hanging out with your friends. "People end their careers sometimes thinking that their buddies at work are their friends, and the truth is you never know when you retire if those people are your friends," Vandervelde says. Many office relationships fade away when you retire. But friendships outside the marriage are vital to a happy retirement. "It's important that you maintain social relationships," Moen says. "You need to think about making or nurturing relationships with other people." If you don't have many existing relationships outside the workplace, you can form new ones by joining a local organization, forming a coffee group, getting a consulting job, or volunteering.
Discuss where you want to live. There's a reason the TV show Green Acres has endured for decades. "There are lots of couples where one enjoys city living and one says, 'Let's cut our expenses and move an hour away,' " Vandervelde says. Nancy and Haines Gaffner, 68 and 74, respectively, ran a New York tech business before selling it and moving to Santa Fe, N.M. "I think that actually living in the place temporarily is a very good idea," says Nancy Gaffner, noting that they had no family or friends in Santa Fe before trying it out. "We rented a place out here for the month of February for two years before we were sure."
You should also consider the cost of living, proximity to family, availability of healthcare, access to cultural activities, and, of course, the weather. "We immediately got involved here meeting people and joining organizations that we thought we would be interested in," says Nancy Gaffner, which helped ease their transition. Now she helps with fundraising for several arts organizations, paints oils, plays tennis, skis, hikes, and takes literature courses at a local college. "But if she is thinking about traveling the world and he wants to spend retirement on the golf course with his buddies in town, there will need to be some compromises," says Szinovacz.