July 24, 2011

This Can't be The Answer

Last week ABC TV News had a series on the changing face of retirement. One of the stories talked about a "growing trend" of retired couples living apart from each other for parts of the year. Entitled, "One Couple, Two Retirements," I think the story raises a few important points.

As you can tell from this post title, this "trend" doesn't strike me as a healthy way to resolve relationship issues and build a satisfying retirement.  I'll begin by raising a question about the characterization of this activity as a growing trend. That seems wildly overstated. For some people this may be an answer to deeper issues. But, to infer this is a likely decision for many retirees strikes me as hype. Consider for a moment the cost of  a split lifestyle. How many retired folks do you know who can basically double their living expenses for whatever period of time they are living apart?

Some of the couples quoted in the story made it quite obvious they did not want to be around their husband (or wife) all day, everyday. One lady noted all her friends were sick of having hubby around 24/7. That statement is both sad and revealing. Clearly, these couples had already lived separate existences while sharing one house before retirement. The implication is the other person is an irritant, has little to contribute, messes up "my" schedule and system, and is fine only in small doses.

Let me be quite clear: separate time and separate activities are crucial to any marriage or serious relationship. I have written about that need before. If you missed it, check under Related Posts below. But, there is  big difference between me doing prison ministry work and blogging while why wife attends various women's groups at church, and one of us living in San Diego for part of the year.

One of the report's conclusions is this idea of living separately for part of the time is something women push more than men, perhaps reflecting the power they've gained in the past 40 years. As a man I won't pretend to analyze that conclusion, though I hope some comments from my female readers will address this statement. But, I will suggest that there is a real point of friction if a man retires with the intention of changing how a household is run, or decides he is free to sit in the recliner and watch TV half the day. If he does not have interests and activities that allow his partner time to pursue different interests, there will be problems.

Where to live after retirement is also a possible trigger for this living together/apart type of situation. Moving to a "dream" location really needs to be a decision both parties agree upon. If the man wants to experience a winter in Alaska and his wife has lived in Southern California her whole life, I will guess there will be problems if he insists she accompany him on this adventure. If he simply wants to "rough it" for a few months maybe he should try it while she stays at the family home. But, what would disturb me a great deal if he decides to move to Alaska and spends only a few months of the year together back in L.A.

My wife  and I have taken a few separate vacations over the past 35 years. I went to Hawaii alone for two weeks on two different occasions. Betty sent several weeks traveling through Wisconsin on her own. We both enjoyed those experiences and don't regret them at all. But, I'm pretty sure that we would both agree that we couldn't wait to come home and tell our partner all about it.

My conclusion is that a marriage in which two people look for reasons to be apart is not much of a marriage. If volunteering for two months in Honduras is important to one person then I am all for that happening. But, if that turns into one person traveling the world on various mission trips while the other half goes scuba diving in Fiji for 5 months a year, I would wonder about that couple's commitment to each other.

My attitude my strike you as old fashioned. You may argue that a strong relationship should be able to weather extended separations while each person does what feeds his or her passion. I sincerely hope you will leave your thoughts below.

If, like me, you find the idea of living apart from your spouse or significant other for long blocks of time as troublesome, I'd welcome your thoughts, too.

In case you didn't see the original report I have a link here that takes you to both a video and a web story of this "trend."

Note on August 2nd: I found this interesting story about a couple facing a situation where the soon-to-retire wife wants to join the Peace Corps and the husband does not. Read it here

Related Posts


  1. Hi Bob.
    I can understand the logic behind going separate ways for times but personally my wife and I have never done that. We find ways to compromise with each other even those sometimes those ways can become rather rancorous.

    Having said that I still feel at times that I only have so many years left so maybe the time for compromise is closing up. Do I give up on some of the things I really want to do because my spouse thinks they are nonsense? Do I spend two weeks sitting in a cabin in the middle of no where doing nothing because that is what my wife enjoys. Sometimes we just hear the clock ticking... I don't think I am the only one that feels this way and maybe that is the reason for this "increasing" trend as you say.

  2. Hi RJ,

    Excellent point. Our life has only one pass on this earth (at least in my belief system). If there is something you really feel compelled to accomplish, as you get older that clock is ticking.

    But, sitting alone for 2 weeks in a cabin is not the type of separate retirements the ABC report was talking about. It was dealing with married folks who are separate for large parts of the year for the foreseeable future. The man wants to live near a ski resort in Aspen for 5 months every winter while the wife lives on the beach in Santa Barbara.

    That is very different from your cabin experiment or my 2 weeks alone on Maui. The situation I cited above isn't about compromise, it seems much deeper and more serious than that.

    I am hoping this post and the comments stir up a bit of a hornet's nest! Thanks, RJ, for being the first one to stir the pot.

  3. I'm trying to be one of those people that says "whatever works for you, none of my business." We never really know what's going on with other people's marriages, even if they seem totally happy to the outside world.

    But I do know that I wouldn't be happy with that type of retirement. Part of the reason I decided to retire is so that I could spend MORE time with my best friend. If he wanted to live apart for part of each year, I would be very disappointed. And sad.

  4. "This Can't be The Answer" is a great title and true assessment in my opinion of this not-really-a-trend one marriage two retirements hallucination.

    It is more of the same culture damaging deviant aggrandizement that seems to always be put out by the usual suspects -- some of which couldn't spend 2 weeks in a cabin alone with themselves.

    You are right, it's troublesome


  5. Hello Syd (good to hear from you!),

    For the last 15 years of my career I had my office in my house. So, when i wasn't with a client or on a plane I was home. This was really helpful in figuring out the 24/7 together thing.

    Like you, I enjoy being with my best friend. Yes, we both require some private time and we have activities that don't interest the other. But, 90% of the day is spent together. We wouldn't have it any other way.

  6. Hi QwkDrw,

    I understand compromise. That is a key to living with another person. I understand needing alone time and not always being joined at the hip. What I don't understand is a relationship that is strengthened by being apart for extended periods of time, by choice.

    There are situations where one partner takes a job in another city and flies home on weekends. While rough and not their first choice, sometimes there is no other rational economic option.

    But to be retired and live apart and call it a marriage....doesn't compute. Close friends with sleepover privileges, OK. A committed marriage..not so much.

  7. I have a lot of thoughts on this one, driven by both personal and professional experience. But what comes to mind immediately is that any notions we might have had about spending some time apart (me in that San Diego apartment; he, in our east coast home) was destroyed by the recession. Our high and exalted grandson is in San Diego; the flight instruction business my husband wanted to pursue after retirement was tied to the east coast. And, since the east coast home wasn't selling, we considered a second best solution.It would have been a practical, part-time, occasional solution that would have reflected nothing negative about our relationship. But it became unaffordable. The flight training business, the apartment in San Diego, all of it was chopped down by the changed financial climate.

    Now? We've decided that our retirement is about spending as much time together as we possibly can before one of us dies. That MUST be the goal, since it seems to be what we find ourselves pursuing. Maybe we can afford art lessons together.

    We stumble over each other sometimes. I've had to ask that he not pick up and complete a task I started just because I left it for a moment to answer the phone. But it's all just good practice for the time when one of us needs the other as a full-time nurse.

    I'm grateful it worked out that I actually like living so closely with the man. We began our family so soon after marrying, we had little experience of being "just us." It goes very differently for so many other couples. We're lucky.

  8. My husband died. The only time we were apart was due to illness. I can't imagine choosing to be apart for such a long period-but there are a lot of things I don't understand. Is it really a trend? I don't know anyone who lives like this.

  9. Nance,

    I appreciate you sharing your story and where it has led you. I agree: you two are lucky and blessed. Do you ever wonder how different things would be if the economic situation hadn't disrupted your plans?

  10. Donna,

    You make my point beautifully. We have no idea what tomorrow will bring so we'd be well served to spend as much time together as possible.

    Thank you for insight. You have an important voice to add to the discussion.

  11. I think we were lucky that we had our time apart earlier in marriage, and decided that we wanted to be together in retirement. We have managed by having different interests and hobbies, separate computers, and separate bedrooms. We both snore, have somewhat different sleeping schedules, and different temperature preferences. We decided that separate sleeping spaces were better than waking up grumpy every morning. Each of our rooms is arranged the way we want, and provides space to get away from each other, even in our little retirement house. It works out well for us.

    We do have things we both enjoy--ours include cooking and theater--and make time for them. I think it's important that we are willing now and then to do whatever the other wants because it makes them happy, even though it isn't something we'd choose on our own.

    Neither of us could stand living in each other's pockets, but I can't see living apart for much of the year as a solution. Aside from our limited income, we are getting to an age (mid-to-late 60's) where we need each other to take up the slack when one of us isn't up to doing our share of the work that keeps the place (and the relationship) going. We are individuals, certainly, but we are also a couple.

  12. I recorded and reviewed ABC news last week since I saw the series advertised. The show that you are referring to was for those those that don't like their spouses and have the money in order for each of them to have 2 households.

    In my case, my wife goes on vacation with her sisters to FL every couple of years for a week. Upon her return she wants to know what I did while she was gone. I tell her that I sit by the front window hoping that she returns early. Of course, that is not the case - but some time alone is good for a marriage I believe.

    I wanted to go on a vacation again this year but she didn't want to since she has or will have taken quite a bit of time off. (She was concerned that they could do without her permanently.) Anyway, I didn't want to go by myself on a road trip -- that's not much fun without someone to share your experiences.
    So, I took our 11 year old granddaughter to Niagara Falls and various other stops that comprised 2500 miles. I think all had a good time and our granddaughter has something interesting to write for that infamous question - What did you do this summer?

  13. Good Morning Jim,

    I agree with you that the couples living the type of lifestyle in the ABC story are not the best examples of a strong marriage commitment. But, as Syd mentioned in an earlier comment, if it makes them happy and they can afford it, judging it is not our place. I just know my wife and I would never make that choice, even if the funds existed to allow it.

    Time apart is important to any relationship. A week or two here and there can strengthen a relationship for many reasons. And, being able to share such a fabulous road trip with your granddaughter sounds priceless.

  14. Hi Jean,

    "We are individuals, certainly, but we are also a couple" is a great way of summarizing the discussion. You and hubby have figured out what works best for both of you. While someone might raise an eyebrow at separate bedrooms, the decision is right for you and actually strengthens the relationship. Congrats on having the courage of your convictions.

    A few people have noted the reality of our aging bodies needing assistance at some point in the future. That is an important part of the marriage promise. It is easy when everything is going well. But there was a "and in sickness" clause in the ceremony that can't be overlooked.

    Thank you for being open about your situation and giving us an insight into a very mature solution to a vexing problem (snoring!).

  15. Maybe the "trend" has more to do with necessity than desire. I know many people who's marriages are essentially over but who are still together for financial reasons including reduced living expenses but also pensions, social security and health insurance which reward staying together. Certainly these people will take any opportunity they can to live away from their "spouse". And the cost of these "vacations" may be small compared with what would be lost by a divorce.

  16. Hi Cindy,

    The cost factor is one that would restrict this "trend" to a very few wealthy retirees. Your point about staying together because of the cost of an actual divorce or legal separation is probably a factor in many cases.

    I must add, though, that after reviewing the video of the TV interviews these people seemed happy and at peace with the decision. What happens when one of them becomes too ill to be alone is an unanswered question.

    By the way, I jumped over to your .com address and saw your Kona home. Wow!

  17. I agree that this "trend" simply reflects relationships that are in trouble. Once a year I take 5 days for mountaineering, something my wife does not enjoy, but I wish I could share the thrill with her in more than the pictures I bring home.

    One of the reason we are married is that we build experiences and memories together. We look back on our trips and adventures and they are treasures forever. If you don't have a partner you crave to share your life with, you are missing the greatest joy ever. Make the painful break with a half-hearted partnership and go find someone to love with all your heart and all your time.


  18. Dr. Keith,

    Beautifully stated. I have nothing to add. Your second paragraph says it all.

  19. There would seem to be circumstances that require the separation of committed married partners. Perhaps long or undetermined physical separations. Military, athletic, professional, and other situations are examples. While these examples may not be representative of retired couples dealing with normal transitions, to me it seems valuable work could be done supporting and enriching legitimately committed married partners that find themselves trying to survive an extended physical separation.

    Anyone that can do this supportive and marriage enriching work is to me building up our culture in a good way. And there are lessons that can be taught by people that have lived through a bit of some of it all


  20. QwkDrw,

    Being forced to live apart due to work or health or some other circumstance is understandable....and unfortunate. I am not aware of any resources or web sites that offer support and concrete suggestions for this situation but maybe I can dig up something.

  21. OK- here it is from a very different perspective.
    My husband loves to be home- wood working. He has dreamed of it for more years than we have been married(29). I love to be with extended family and travel.
    Our entire marriage we have traveled separately and together. While he was in the military- I was often left home to keep the fires burning. While I worked for a publishing company- with hundreds of weeks on the road- he took the time to be with our children in high school. Now I go and care for my mother for weeks at a time and dream of living on the East Coast while playing with my grandson---while he builds another door and mows the lawns:>) We both are content.

    I know MANY families in the "dual residences" situation. Many of them are doing it because they are in "do over" careers or doing some Peace Corps work that one has always wanted to do. My brother and sister in law lived in two different cities for 17 years with him coming home on two weekends a month. They are one of the closest people we know. "Always dating". Another family lived in each other's pocket- and when the kids got out of the house- they split up immediately. They certainly LOOKED like they were all over each other in love.

    Really, if you actually read some extended histories- staying together in one room- or one house- is a pretty new notion. Most upper middle class had houses on the seashore that the wife would go to all summer- and the husband would stay "home" to work.

    States of marriages ebb and flow. Would we like more romance-- sure--but I am certainly not willing to leave my best friend in order to look for it someplace else. We love each other deeply and plan to be together for a LONG time.

  22. Janette,

    I'm rushing out the door to an appointment, but I wanted to get your comment posted immediately.

    I don't have time to react to it right now, but I am thrilled that you have given us several new things to think about.

  23. Bob,
    You made me stop and think about why we stay together. We weren't much of a team for most of our marriage- each with our own agenda and intersecting only with the kids. Now the kids are gone so what's the point. Clearly accommodating the wishes of somebody else can be a drag. I don't get to indulge my whims. What I am trying to learn now is how to work as a team, making rich experiences happen for us and enjoying the pleasure of my wife as I do myself.
    One of the surprises is that when you are a team, somebody is always pushing forward. When I start dragging and feeling like it's not worth doing something, she starts pushing. We do a lot more because of this. We still have our own activities but we are getting better at finding and doing things that give us both pleasure. It's a new experience.

  24. Bob,

    I saw the ABC program and noticed how one wife liked the city life and her husband liked the rural life. I don't have a problem if one spouse wants to volunteer abroad for a while and the other doesn't. I think after your kids are gone, especially if you've been a stay-at-home-mom, women feel like doing something for themselves, career-wise. At least that's my situation. What do you think about this: If one spouse doesn't stay fit, and the other one does, what should they do when it comes to travel and adventure as they age?

  25. I'm back to three excellent additions to our discussion!


    This is what makes a blog post like this so enjoyable and educational. You present a very good case for the type of situation the TV report was covering. Obviously, you guys have come to a great balance. Stick with what works.


    One pushing and one dragging...how true of any relationship. To everything there is a season. What I read is you and your wife are committed to building a new path forward that looks more like a team instead of 2 solo players yoked together. Separate, equal, and together. Does that make sense.


    Time apart for separate interests and activities: I have no problem with that. Volunteering in a foreign country is an excellent example. It is the permanency of that situation the couples on the news report that bothered me.

    Aging and travel: that is a good question. The situation you describe probably happens quite a bit. What about one spouse becoming ill and the other is now a full time caregiver? That happens often, too.

    In the first case the short term solo travel choice is probably fair and reasonable. In the second case, that is part of the marriage promise and, while unfortunate and unfair, is reality.

    One man's humble opinion!

  26. @Sonia- that is where "better or worse" comes in for us. Even if one takes great care of themselves- genetically they may be predisposition for rough ride. My husband ran marathons. Then he had a hip replaced and the other should be replaced soon. Last time there was an infection. I was definitely home for "worse". Since he is more than seven years older than me with some genetic markers-- I predict that my travel will be curtailed by lots of elder "worse", but I am prepared for that- and he is worth every minute of it!

  27. Forgive me, this comes via smartphone on the road. I need to say that I think its simplistic to assume that pros who willingly spend time apart "don't really like each other". Like another writer my husband has died. Were he living we would probably have spent very large chunks of time apart. We had a couple major passions that the other did not share....I could certainly have seen hubby spending say, three months working for his keep at a ski location were he heAlthy enough ......that said, it does seem with the one couple I watched that either location was not discusses at all or that the husband kind of took completely over. One spouse should not have to tolerate misery for six months of the year.

  28. Barb,

    I appreciate your checking in by phone. Typing on that little keyboard is not easy.

    I also very much respect your thoughts on this subject. As many of the comments make clear, each relationship has its own unique structure. My wife and I couldn't live apart for extended periods, but that is us. And, neither of us could tolerate winter in Maine!

    Have a great trip (Denver?) and stay safe!

  29. Hey, Bob... I agree with every word you've written. Seems to me that, at the core, a couple had darn well function as a couple. Sure, each partner might well venture out from the core, for each should be a person unto themselves with their own specific interests. But each should be grounded within the marriage. Wendy has her own particular interests and so do I. She enjoys yoga and I enjoy fly fishing. And those individual interests cause us to spend time away from each other. But we darn well ain't gonna live in two different parts of the globe. Bill

  30. Hi Bill,

    I think we know where you stand, Bill. I'm right there next to you!


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