Team of two

Marriage can change dramatically when one spouse retires. Here’s how to adjust.

Couple walking in park
When one spouse is working and the other is retired, it can be hard to decide what to do during the time you have together. The value of time and how you spend it will change as obligations come and go.

When we think of retirement, we usually think about it in terms of money.

Will we have enough to travel? Will we have enough to spoil our grandkids? Will we have enough to help our children? And most important, will we have enough money to live out our lives the way we want to?

When money changes because of retirement, other changes in the marriage happen without much consideration.

I recently sat down with several couples to learn how retirement affected their marriages. All had been married for more than 25 years, with one couple even approaching their 60th wedding anniversary!

To learn from the stories they shared, let’s consider the story of Mark and Marion.

Mark and Marion have been married for 42 years and describe their marriage as “typical.” Mark worked a full-time, labor-intensive job during their marriage while Marion stayed home to raise their three children until she began working full time about 15 years ago.

Household tasks

Throughout their marriage, Marion had taken care of most of the household tasks outside of paying the bills and yard work. Mark recently decided to retire and Marion continues to work full time.

Do you think Mark will even out the responsibility of household tasks or will he continue to let Marion carry the brunt of the work along with working full time?

If their marriage is truly typical, Mark won’t make an effort to take tasks off Marion’s plate. Ideally, Marion would communicate to Mark what he could help with, and then Mark would step up and eventually enjoy taking on the new tasks.

Unfortunately, it isn’t quite as easy as it sounds.

Situations like this are difficult. There’s a working spouse, Marion, who has done a particular chore a particular way for 25, 30 or 40 years. And then the newly retired Mark, with ample time on his hands, tries to help. The problem is, Marion’s done this task for so many years that a certain standard has developed.

If Mark doesn’t do the task to that standard, this frustrates Marion and leaves her asking, Do I do that task over so it’s “right” or do I compromise my expectations so Mark feels good about helping?

Leisure time

Mark and Marion have a very diverse social landscape, including finding time for friends, family, volunteering, community and church. Now that Mark is retired, he continues to participate in social activities with Marion, but he hasn’t found anything to call his own. He waits for Marion to get home from work before he does anything social. This drives Marion crazy! She loves seeing him more, but she also has no alone time.

The issue going on here isn’t just that Mark and Marion have different concepts of free time, they also have an unhealthy balance of autonomy and togetherness.

It’s OK for partners to want time away from each other — in fact it’s healthy for a marriage. You don’t want to get to the point where you think, “You were sitting in that chair when I left for work this morning!” or “Do you really have to go to the grocery store with me? Can’t I just go alone?”

When one spouse is working and the other is retired, it can be hard to decide what to do during the time you have together.

The value of time and how you spend it will change as obligations come and go — like how the obligation to work 40 hours a week goes away with retirement.

For Marion, a free weekend on the calendar might mean a chance for some quiet time at home. But Mark, meanwhile, might be dreaming of an active weekend getaway.

How to handle changes

The key to handling changes in marriage is communication.

For household chores, Mark might not realize how many household tasks Marion’s been doing for years.

And Marion might not realize the desire Mark has for wanting to help.

Communicating can help each spouse realize what the other wants. Handling changes in leisure time requires the same thing — communication. Unnecessary conflict can be avoided by discussing how much time each person needs alone, how much time you can spend together and what you want to do during shared time.

Don’t be afraid to try a new chore or let go of something you’ve always secretly hated. (Folding laundry really is the worst!) You might even find your spouse likes doing it.

Experiment with time to figure out a balance of being together and being apart. You might find the quality of time together has increased. Just talk to your partner!

You probably talked about how money will change with retirement, so I encourage you to talk about other changes in your marriage, too.

And even if your marriage is nothing like Mark and Marion’s, the lesson is the same: Communicate.

Laura Waldvogel is a Credentialed Professional Gerontologist (CPG) who works in Roseville. She’s a member of the Minnesota Gerontological Society’s board of directors.