Till Death Do Us Part: Marital Relationships and Retirement

May 27, 2010

By Dr. Larry Anderson

As I was preparing to write this article, I asked Elizabeth, my wife, if she could remember the year we were married; I couldn’t.  She struggled for a few moments and then said it was late November 1980; she couldn’t remember the exact date. We are now approaching our 30th year together. We celebrate our marriage but not our anniversary. Elizabeth is now 60, taking University courses in Fine Arts and working part time. I am 70 years old and preparing to retire next year.

As a psychology instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, with a specialty in aging and retirement, I know a thing or two about relationships and retirement but I haven’t experienced it first-hand yet. I decided to examine the literature to see what I could find out about how retirement affects married couples’ relationships.

A happy retired coupleResearchers, interested in marriage and retirement, have created a number of surveys exploring topics ranging from the degree of shared common interest, the other person’s philosophy of life and the frequency of couples’ pleasant conversations. Other studies look at frequency of laughing together, arguments about chores, and levels of financial security.

The literature suggests that happy marriages are affected by and contribute to the quality of retirement experiences. On the other hand, it has been found that bad relationships can contribute to stress, isolation and poor health and be worse for a person’s health than if they lived alone.

One article about marriage and retirement used an “Impingement” questionnaire including statements like “Your husband looks over your shoulder in the kitchen, criticizes how you cook or clean or ‘helps’ too much. It was reported women with longer retired husbands reported greater stress than those of newer retirees.  I wonder if the couples had been doing this even before retirement.    Another study indicated that less than 1 in 20 husbands actually performed as much housework as their wives.

Sometimes Elizabeth gets irritated with me because I have scattered my work, exams, term papers, and lecture notes all over the house. Including a complete dominance of the dinning room table that I see now as I look up from my laptop computer.

The spring term is now over, so I will soon be organizing and moving my work material to my office upstairs, which is in even worse shape. It will be interesting to see how my clutter habits change after retirement. I am expecting that they will improve when I have more time to organize.

There has been much less investigation of women’s retirement experience.  It is reported that, as working couples age, men report greater marital satisfaction than women.  Comparing men and women’s retirement is somewhat like comparing apples and oranges.  For instance, women are more likely to work part time. In Canada, it has been found that women have accounted for about seven in 10 of all part-time employees since the late 1970s. Women may have more interests outside of work and thus have less of an adjustment when retiring.

For, women, work during marriage is more complicated. While it is a source of money protecting them against poverty, family responsibilities remain. Their work outside the house is often combined with childbearing and child-rearing. Their mixed roles require moving in and out of the workforce and upon retirement they still have major responsibility for domestic chores. Having a discontinuous work history prevents them from progress in paid work status. This raises questions about comparing men and women’s retirement.

Success with marital relations, at any time, requires flexibility and adaptation. It is reported that as couples age; they may become more similar in values and beliefs and spend more quality time together. Much of the quality of a post-retirement relationship depends on the relationship prior to retirement. If a couple gets along well and has similar interests and hobbies they will continue with their happy relationship. If a couple rarely spends time with each other and have used work as a way to escape being with their spouse then retirement could come as a shock.

As men we must be willing to consider altering sex-role expectations. It’s important to remember that life is not certain and wisdom, which is about relationships, does not come automatically.

As I look out the side door, I see Elizabeth weeding buttercups.  I think I’ll end my story here and go out and join her. It’s never too early or late to work on your post-retirement relationship.

How was your relationships affected by your retirement or your spouse’s retirement? If you haven’t retired yet, how do you expect your relationship to change after retirement?

About the Author: Dr. Larry Anderson is university professor of psychology who is retiring soon. He has started a company called BC Community Building and plans on presenting workshops to prepare people for retirement. Dr. Anderson is on the board of the Langley Senior’s Resource Society.

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