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Most of us look forward to retirement. We envisage having the time, money and freedom to pursue our favourite hobbies and interests, take that course we’ve always wanted to, travel, spend more time with family or simply slow down and smell the roses.
While retirement can be a wonderful time, for many couples it is also associated with feelings of loss and a sense of purposelessness. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reports that in recent years, the divorce rate among retired couples is on the rise. Breaking up is never easy but, when you think about it, a relationship breakdown in your 60s can be both a financial and emotional disaster.
“After 30-plus years of marriage, it can come as quite a shock when you see your relationship start to struggle,” says Megan Solomon, a therapist with Relationships Australia who specialises in couples counselling.
“Just when you’re at a time in your life when you think you’ve seen it all, cracks can begin to appear,” says Solomon. “After years spent raising a family and building a career, this is probably the first time you’ve spent so much time together. People change over that time and sometimes drift apart without realising it.”
Here are four common relationship issues retirees find tricky to navigate.
“We spend too much time together”
“Interestingly, at a time when we would expect couples to downsize their home, many early retirees report wanting to maintain or even increase their living space,” says Solomon. “This is particularly true when one has been working full time and now wants to enjoy more time with their partner, contrasting the partners’ sense that their quiet environment and routine has been invaded.”
One way to navigate ‘too much togetherness’ is to make sure you each schedule time in the week to be apart for whole days. Pursuing separate interests and social groups means that when you come together again, you have interesting things to share and talk about.
Solomon suggests taking short trips apart, spending time away with friends or with an adult child, enrolling in a course, a reading club or arts group, taking up volunteer work, or even finding a way to impart wisdom from your working life, such as becoming a mentor.
“It’s important to talk together about what you each need,” says Solomon. “Do you really want to do the weekly grocery shop together? Making sure you both spend quality time apart on a regular basis opens up all sorts of possibilities that can make you feel better as a person and enrich your relationship.”
As well as making plans for each week, it’s essential to address any negative emotions early on and keep reviewing how you’re going. “Make sure that if either of you is unhappy with how things are, you can always change what you’re doing to better fit what each of you needs and wants,” she says.
“I no longer feel I have a purpose in life”
Many of us identify with the jobs we do. When we retire, the importance of what we do is gradually replaced by who we are, which can leave us feeling adrift.
“Finding purpose after retirement is the key ingredient to retiring well,” says Solomon. “Think about what you would really like to spend your time doing and ask yourself what would feel fulfilling to you.
“The roles we take on as a parent, grandparent, mentor, investor, friend, neighbour or cheer squad at a grandchild’s sports match, these continue to create our sense of who we are and our value to others.”
It is also important to re-invest in your identity as a couple, perhaps dedicating time to spending one day together, going out, having dinner or taking up an activity together, such as joining a walking or singing group.
“Invest in relationships with your partner, extended family, friends and local community,” says Solomon. “Stepping out of full-time paid work doesn’t mark the end of a person’s usefulness to others and to our community. We need to value and encourage ongoing contributions by seniors in so many ways.”
“We don’t communicate very well anymore”
Without effective, open communication – including being able to compromise and negotiate – the challenges of retirement can place a huge strain any marriage. Older couples are at risk of continuing familiar patterns of communication – or patterns of avoiding communicating – that they have used throughout their working years but that no longer serve them.
“Whether you argue every day or barely talk at all, you can always develop better habits of communicating,” says Solomon. “Blaming each other for what’s not working, although tempting, won’t give you the satisfaction you really want.”
Solomon suggests choosing a time to check in with each other when you’re both likely to be relaxed and comfortable. Write a list of issues you would like to address then go to a café together once a week and discuss them.
“Too often, couples try to talk about issues as they are unfolding,” says Solomon. “While this may work some of the time, giving each other space to discuss the issue at length at a later date allows you the time to gather your thoughts and identify how you’re really feeling about the issue.
“If there is a power imbalance in the conversation, and one person doesn’t feel they can raise issues, feels they are not being heard, or that it’s impossible to reach a resolution, then counselling can be a very useful equaliser.”
Listening can be tough, especially when someone is saying something that triggers a response in you. Remind yourself that you’ll also have your turn to talk, but right now it’s important to tune in and not interrupt.
Also take notice of your language and tone and avoid accusatory statements like, ‘You always’ or ‘You never’. Be patient with each other and if you find yourselves getting upset, take a short break and come back to it.
Another important part of good communication is to say out loud what you love and appreciate about each other. “We all like to feel appreciated,” says Solomon. “When couples have been together a long time, it’s easy to overlook each other’s qualities. Make a point of noticing something about your partner that makes you feel grateful and tell them.”
“I feel vulnerable and less confident”
Health is a major concern for us all as we age and can sometimes demand more attention that we would like to give it. “It is important that, within reason, health appointments and issues don’t take over the week, but are balanced with activities focused on wellbeing, such as going for walks, visiting friends and focusing outside of yourselves,” says Solomon.
“In later years, the temptation is to become more homebound as eyesight may challenge your confidence in driving or trying new things. We can lose our tolerance for crowds and queues. Really it is up to each one of us to decide how we want to live in our retirement. How much we choose to remain engaged in the lives of others and in the community is ours to determine and is directly related to whether we will survive or thrive as we age.”