It was the holiday season when Vicki thought her life had settled into a very busy but contented and happy routine. But with the end of the year approaching, her husband Paul told her something that turned her world upside down. No, he wasn’t running off with his assistant, he hadn’t decided to take up big air ski jumping, and he didn’t make an offer on a ranch in Wyoming. But what he was thinking about was a big deal: he wanted to officially retire from his job.
It wasn’t a total surprise. They had talked for years about when they would give up their careers to focus on other things. But suddenly it was no longer a “someday” thing. He was proposing that he give his employer two months’ notice, enough to train his replacement, and that this all happen now.
Vicki was totally supportive of him retiring, even though she was going to keep working shifts as a hospital nurse for at least five or six years. But she was also nervous. Would they partner well in this new season or run into friction? Would they love the extra time together or would they drive each other crazy? Would he be frustrated that she wasn’t ready to retire yet when he wanted someone to spend all his free time with?
If you are in a phase of life where retirement could be beckoning to your husband, you have probably had similar questions. I can tell you from my research with men—including men of retirement age—that there are major life and marriage implications, and it’s worth thinking about these ahead of time.
Let’s consider a few things that could happen as well as some practical ideas both men and women have shared about how to travel this unfamiliar territory.
He’ll still need to be productive and know that he’s making a valued contribution. Support him in finding ways to do that.
Step one in supporting your newly retired husband is understanding how he’s wired. For any man, the work that he does provides not just income, but a sense of identity and purpose. And your man has just given up those things—at least in the realm of “normal jobs” that he’s been doing for the last 40+ years of his life.
It’s a bittersweet change. He’s left behind the stress and demands of work, but he’s also given up a vital aspect of his identity. Or at least, he might see it that way. In my interviews with many couples, it is clear that some men adjust to this disorienting feeling well and others don’t.
Here’s one of the main factors that lead to a good adjustment: Both of you must recognize that your husband will still have a deep need for significance and contribution—including beyond the family. This doesn’t mean that he won’t enjoy some time off. But sooner or later, many men have told me that they feel “rudderless.” I should note that this is not just a “guy thing”, but it appears to be more acutely felt for men in retirement than for women in retirement. We all have a purpose for our lives, after all—deep callings and ways that we are built to contribute in a meaningful way.
Important callings still exist in this new season. Encourage him—and you—to step into those callings.
I love Ephesians 2:10: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Those good works don’t magically stop at 65 or 70 or whenever he or his company decides it is time for him to retire. The seasons may change, but we have callings to advance God’s kingdom purposes in all of them.
Stepping into those callings could mean focusing more on family (for example, taking a “grandparents tour” so the two of you can pour into your grandkids around the country) but in his mind, that is probably not all it means. At some point, your man is likely to also need to find other ways to use his skills productively.
Yes, he might have time to chase a better golf handicap or pursue a long-delayed hobby—but he also may suddenly offer to take on the time-intensive role of Chairman of the Board of a charity he had casually contributed to in the past. You might have been anticipating that he would slow way down instead of jumping into another stressful role—and an unpaid one at that! It might help if you step back and see his efforts as a different sort of attempt at wellness in this new season of his life.
Now, it is absolutely understandable that you would want him to slow down and reduce his stress, and you need to be sure he knows what is important to you. (“I’ve been waiting for twenty years for a time when we can do more relaxing things together.”) Yet as I’ve talked to retired couples, it is clear that it makes all the difference to expect that this need may arise in him and find ways to support him in ways that work for both of you. (“I know this Board of Directors role is important and they need you. But the grandkids need you too. How about you say you can be Chairman of the Board as long as you can limit your work to Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays?”)
Routines and roles—for both of you—will undergo changes. Partner well with him to renegotiate roles and responsibilities.
Happy couples are made up of husbands and wives who are good teammates for their spouses. Adjusting to a new routine and renegotiating responsibilities in your home will require being good teammates for each other. If he takes on more tasks around the house, be prepared to feel some frustration if you’ve been primarily in charge of the home. You might find it hard giving up that control. Is he finding “better” ways to do things? Realize that your way is not the only way (shocking, I know!)
Have patience and look on the bright side—you’re getting more help with the chores! But on the flip side, be willing to speak up and stand firm if he doesn’t do more now that he is able. (You arrive home from a long, hectic workday and he’s watching TV, waiting for you to cook dinner, and you think: Um, no . . . we need to figure this out!) Work out an equitable distribution of responsibilities. Then be appreciative of his contributions. Even if he doesn’t do a chore the way you would have, be happy with it and express your gratitude. Knowing he’s made you happy is extremely important to your man and will, in turn, make him happy. That is a friction reducer right there!
He’ll want more time with you to do fun things and just to hang out. Meet his needs, and yours, by balancing time together and time apart.
If your husband’s prior job took him away from home for much of the day, then he is going to be around more, plain and simple. Yes, having him home more is going to add sweetness to your days, but it’s also going to mean less time alone for you. Be prepared for him to feel rested and ready to do fun things together . . . even though you have things to get done! He might be experiencing a perpetual day off, but you may not have that freedom. It is vitally important to have ongoing conversations about what his expectations are and what yours are. That way, neither of you feels surprised or cheated when he wants to go out and play… but you have to work yet another 12-hour shift at the hospital.
Also, if you find yourself feeling envious, maybe that’s a clue to begin developing your own professional exit strategy!
The good news is that even if you are still working, your revised assignments for home responsibilities can give you more time to do more fun things or just hang out with him. And the extra time together can strengthen your marriage. As I learned in doing the research for my book The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, happy couples spend a lot of time together. And they don’t just spend time together because they’re happy—they’re happy because they spend time together! So make time to be with your man. And balance that with the time you need apart. It’s healthy for you both to maintain friendships. The difference is, now he’ll have more time to hang out with his buddies. Protect your “girl time,” too, without feeling guilty.
Retirement is a life change, for sure. But “change” doesn’t have to mean trouble. Working through these new patterns and challenges is a priceless opportunity to build even more richness into your marriage for this next season of life.
This article was also published at Patheos.
Check out the online courses of Shaunti’s research and teachings at SurprisingHope.com.
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