The Dream of Retirement

I’d like to tell a story illustrating the experience of many couples upon entering the retirement phase of their lives. Here’s a sample of a conversation from some typical, recently retired clients:

“My husband and I recently retired from our companies, and ever since, I’ve been doing pretty much everything. Household duties, yard work, cooking, paying bills, managing our rental property—everything! Now that he’s home, I’m frustrated that he’s not doing anything! He sleeps in, lazes around, waiting to be fed like a child. When I ask him to help, he ignores me, forgets, or calls me ‘Mom.’ He retired and I’m still ‘working,’ if you know what I mean. Honestly, I’d rather leave the house than watch him occupy the couch and bed. How do I make him understand the message that he’s driving me nuts?”

She determined the best way to give him the message was to leave the house early on a Monday morning and do something on her own for the entire day and night—with no warning. She came home the next day, and he asked where she had been.

Her response: “I decided to retire too—just like you have.” After that, he got the message, and they worked through their vision of what a good, purposeful life meant to each of them individually and as a couple. The story has a happy ending.

Retirement is rarely the dream people think it will be. Unless couples have long planned together for retirement and made explicit arrangements that take into account the need and interests of both partners, it can be a tough transition. And that’s the core of the problem: Everyone has different dreams about what retirement means.

What to Do?

Couples and singles need to spend time thinking, discovering, and writing down the details of their retirement vision. The very common couple above obviously forgot to share their values, desires, and dreams for this phase of their lives. Neither person in a partnership can make a life change without involving the other.

For a short while, a spouse may enjoy the freedom from the strict routine that a job requires, but the pleasure of doing nothing and answering to nobody will likely quickly wear off, and then there will be … nothing. Purposelessness is soul sapping and often leads to depression.

With so many of our new clients, we can see that there is an implicit promise to retirement that leaving the workplace is the source of happiness in and of itself. That somehow retirement is the reward for all the years of slaving away. We know that’s baloney.

It has only been a few generations since the time that retirement was shortly followed by death. Nowadays, couples and individuals who plan their retirement days are almost always happier, more content, and have a purpose. And that is life-giving.

The newly retired rarely recognize on their own that retirement is making them miserable because the cultural script says that this time is supposed to be “fabulous.” When you step outside the office walls for good, you step into a phase of life that you haven’t known for many decades—and that can make people, especially men, feel incredibly helpless.

One great solution is financial life planning. Map retirement out the same way you would a vacation. Asking yourselves what facets of your life bring you the most satisfaction and purpose and hold the most value can clarify what you may want to try out in retirement.

Also, doing this together with an open mind can bring infinite rewards. We’ve seen it happen time and again in our office, and there’s no harm in trying it for your retirement.