October 19, 2011

Marriage After Retirement: What Are The Odds of Being Happy?

A satisfying retirement requires lots of pieces to fit and work together. Obviously, your financial situation must be sufficient to support you. Your health, or lack of it, will play a huge role in how much you enjoy your time after work. But, if you are asking my opinion, the quality of your marriage or committed relationship is the one factor that will be more important than all the rest in how happy your retirement lifestyle turns out to be.

There are all sorts of studies on the Internet, books in the library, experts with degrees in counseling, and your sister-in-law who will tell you what to expect. It has been said that the first few years of retirement are a lot like the first few years of a marriage: learning enough about each other to stick it out until you figure out how the game works. As Sydney Lagier said in a blog of hers a few years ago, " [It] turns out that when you spend all day with your best friend, he is going to annoy you, and really for nothing more offensive than eating, breathing, and living. She has captured the mood perfectly. Ships passing in the night are suddenly docked at the same pier.

I have written a few posts that give you some basic guidelines from various sources on how to make the relationship work. If you haven't read them, or would like to review them, see Related Posts at the end. It is generally agreed that communication and commitment are the two linchpins of  a successful retirement and marriage or serious relationship.

Rather than rehash that material, I thought I'd share some of the ups and downs of the marriage relationship that I know rather well: mine.  After 35 years together, with 10 of them as a retired couple, I have a fair amount of experience to draw on. I have no intention of telling you this is the way that will work for you. That would be foolish. All, I can tell you is about of the problems we encountered and how Betty and I resolved them (the the most part).


We discussed our plans for retirement in general terms a few years beforehand. But, the reality of what a non-working life together would mean to us wasn't seriously addressed until the last year or so. When we made the decision to pull the plug on my declining business and she was tired of pre-school teaching, the timing of that change was something we both discussed and agreed to. We also decided that when I stopped working, so would she.

That didn't work out quite as we planned. Within a year or so of my being home, she went to work full time at a department store. She hated the job, but a sudden fear that we didn't have enough money saved prompted her to agree to un-retire. That lasted a year, during which I felt guilty sitting at home, and Betty disliked the job enough that we agreed to re-retire. Besides, by then my financial phobia had calmed a bit.

Daily Routines

Being married and retired is an interesting study in balance. Each of you wants to spend time together and each of you requires time apart. Just because a job has ended doesn't mean everything else that makes up a typical day is going to change. We each have certain routines and habits that bring us comfort and happiness. Starting the day before dawn quietly reading and enjoying a cup of coffee alone may be an important part of your schedule. To lose that "me" time just because your spouse is now home could be a serious mistake. Then again, maybe you are ready for a change and would enjoy sharing cereal and conversation. 

The point is to make a change just to accommodate another person may be risky to the overall retirement experience. Marriage is a constant compromise, but sometimes your turf must be protected. Betty and I want a mix of both together and alone time. It is very important to us that we are "allowed" time to pursue solo activities and interests without feeling guilty. Even after a decade I can't report we are entirely successful in this regard. But, we are getting better at voicing our need for separation as well as togetherness. I am working at being more respectful of Betty's timing and she is getting better at telling me to buzz off.


A post from last year generated some rather strong comments (several of which never saw the light of day), particularly from men, that I had caved into the pressure to become too much of a house husband. I had earned my leisure time and shouldn't have to do chores.

Besides being downright silly, that attitude will buy you a very unhappy household. Betty and I have divided the chores for our entire married life. The only change retirement brought was I stopped traveling so I could pitch in a bit more. But, I have always done my own laundry. After all, I dirtied the clothes, why shouldn't I clean them? One of us cooks and the other cleans up. While I tend to do most of the yard work, it isn't because that is "man's work." It is simply that she can't take the heat like she used to and I enjoy the process more. Every two weeks we rotate the chore list so one person isn't always stuck cleaning the kitchen or floors. In this area things have worked well because we followed the same procedure before retirement.


This is one area where we need to do a better job: setting goals in a more democratic fashion. I will admit that most of the time my opinion wins. What I think should happens, usually does. But, over time, Betty has used various methods, both passive and aggressive, to remind me she gets a vote too.

Short and long-term goal setting is vital in a retirement relationship. Everything from financial adjustments to vacation choices, when to see the grandkids and whether we should get a new dog require a decision. Both partners need to feel his or her opinion is being considered. Both pros and cons need to be aired. I have been very good at airing my thoughts. This is a very public way to say I need to shut up more and listen harder. It will make the marriage stronger and the experience richer.

Marriage after retirement is different. But, as any married person will admit, nothing in a marriage is static. Change is continuous. What retirement does give you is the time to improve how that change is handled. If you do it well, the odds of being happy increase dramatically.

Related Posts


  1. Speaking of a new dog, how is that decision coming?

  2. Very informative post, Bob. I've been 'retired' for 10 years now. Hubby still working BUT home a bit more than usual. Adjusting to the changes is an understatement.

    I like the part about swapping chores (I am sick and tired of always cleaning up the kitchen, now that most meals are prepared at home). We've just started to concentrate on developing goals. Very important to still have dreams, ambition and desires.

  3. RJ,

    It is a go. Because of an out-of-town trip around Christmas we will wait to add a puppy to our household until right after the holidays.

  4. Morrison,

    I hope DH is recovering well from his surgery. Swapping chores has worked well for us. It is easy to implement and keeps both partners from feeling stuck with an unpleasant task.

  5. Hi, Bob... I appreciate your writing that "if you spend all day with your best friend, it can be annoying. I certainly agree. About a decade ago, a friend of mine decided that take an early retirement. So he got into the habit of spending his mornings sitting on the couch watching the stock prices on the TVs investment channel. Not surprisingly, he reported that his "hanging around" was driving his wife crazy. Bill

  6. Bill,

    For awhile after I first retired I would have CNBC on all the time. I even dabbled in a bit of day trading. None of that worked out well for me. And, as my broker reminded me, by the time a story makes onto TV or the Internet, the real money guys have already picked the deal clean.

    My wife was quite glad when the TV went off and I looked for a real life.

  7. One more piece of advice: since retired couples tend to be together a lot more than before retirement, politeness becomes more important than ever. "Please" and "thank you" can go a long way toward making long stretches of close proximity tolerable.

  8. ThatOJ,

    Excellent point. The longer a couple is together the easier it is to forget the "magic words."

  9. This is a great post Bob. I am delighted to read the "husbands point of view". Of all the adjustments to retirement, the relationship with our spouse is the most difficult. Like our marriage, which has lasted almost 51 years, the work is never done. I have found that I must be very careful what I wish for and I am sure my husband shares that concern. Thank you. I will be writing about this again and may some comparisons to my feelings. We will see.



  10. b,

    "the work is never done." How very true. Marriage is one of the few parts of our life that has no finish line, no sense of getting it completely right. It is the ultimate work in progress.

    I will never understand what goes on the the mind of a woman. But, then again I assume a female would say the same thing about a male's. That means compromise and maturity are the only tools at our disposal.

  11. Bob:

    Thanks for the mention! Now I have found the secret many years ago on the decisions/goals front. I admit that I talk a lot. So much that my husband finds it hard to pay attention most of the time. But what happens is he must be listening subconsciously, because weeks after I've shared a goal, he comes up with the very same idea "all by himself." At least that's what he thinks because he has absolutely no recollection of the discussion weeks before.

    It used to frustrate me and I'd say, "I just suggested that last week, weren't you listening?" Now I've smartened up, I say "Great idea!."

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  13. Maybe I should write a post about being single after retirement and the odds of being happy! Ha! Great advice here. Although I'm single myself, I have married friends dealing with retirement happiness, some more successfully than others. My neighbors are the best example I know of success. They are so happy together. I love being around them!

  14. Galen,

    Single, retired & happy: that would be a good post. It is true being around happy people makes you feel better.

  15. Sydney,

    Sydney, You are quite welcome for the mention. The quote was too good not to use! Planting a seed and waiting for it to germinate = a happy marriage.

  16. Insightful post -- as always. A good piece of advice received from one of my retired friends prior to my retirement was that the marital adjustment is easier if both partners don't move to full retirement at the same time. I am very happy that my husband goes to his counselling practise two days every week as that give me time for solitude. He is thinking of moving from partial retirement to full retirement in the next few months. I'm sure there will be another adjustment once both of us share every day together. Changes! A necessary part of living. Be well, Jeanette

  17. Jeanette,

    My wife and I both retired at the same time, but we had one major advantage: I worked out of a home office before closing my business. So, when I wasn't traveling I was home all day. We had plenty of time to figure out our solitary and together time needs.

  18. Since my husband and I both sit at our computers networking for hours, I think we have it made. Just kidding. I am always looking for the next adventure and now Australia has come up as a potential place to move to if we sold our house. I like the idea, so why not check it out this summer. I like the healthcare system and the fact that Australia looks at mistakes made in the U.S and try to avoid them.

  19. Sonia,

    Raised in Europe, living in Belize, now Australia on the horizon...you re a gutsy lady all right. It is really important that both you and Doug enjoy trying new things.

    I recently read somewhere that Sydney is a fabulous place, with all the urban amenities plus parks and beaches galore.

  20. My DH retired last year (after a layoff in his early sixties), and at the same time, I took a new job which entails a home office. A big adjustment by both of us, but we've worked through most of the bugs, I think.

    I can relate to having CNBC on a lot more than I'd like, but I can see him moving away from the TV and into more activities. Having a dog that needs exercise helps move him, as does the sailing season (which, sadly, is coming to an end in the Midwest). He also took a part time job to pay for his sailing "habit".

    The crux of it to me is just a concentrated version of our normal/ongoing issues and disagreements writ large, and once I realized that, I was able to navigate them better. On most days, anyway. haha


  21. Anonymous (Hope?),

    I did watch too much TV in the first few years of retirement. But, now, only at night and only for relaxation.

    It really is about communication. The opportunity exists for it to be better than while working because problems can be addressed more quickly. Unfortunately, being human that doesn't always occur.


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