Great Expectations: Retirement and Committed Relationships

I'll never forget the look on my wife's face.

I had just returned from a September business trip to headquarters, where I told my boss I was retiring. Over the prior twelve months, my wife and I talked about the best time for me to retire after a 40-year career.

In my mind, the conversation had gone from "maybe" to "for sure" and from "later" to "sooner." Yet, when I casually said, "Well, I pulled the trigger. I'm officially done on December 31!" my wife was stunned. "What?! Are you kidding?" she sputtered. "I had no idea you were going to do it now!".

It was a classic example of a couple with differing retirement expectations. Unless properly addressed, such differences can make a retirement dream into a nightmare.

Retirement Dream = A Heap of Expectations (Sparingly Shared)

Happy retired older couple holding hands outside in the parkOver decades of work, we build a dream or vision of what we hope our retirement will look like. That dream is composed of an interrelated set of expectations of how we want that time of life to be. Formed over long hours during demanding working years, these retirement expectations become emotionally powerful.

As strong as these expectations are, we typically only reveal a fragment of the total picture to our significant other. For many, only the broadest outlines are shared. A reason for this may be that we have not thought through all the details ourselves. Instead, we simply build a glowing picture of a stress-free retirement life in contrast to the perceived drudgery of the workaday world.

Since each of us holds so much of our individual visions in private, it's no wonder couples frequently experience sharp differences in retirement expectations. Unfortunately, these differences commonly lead to conflict and stress in the relationship.

Expectations Galore

Retirement expectations come in many flavors. Here are a few familiar types:

  1. Expectation – Too Much Togetherness

    One practical outcome of the otherwise tragic COVID-19 pandemic has been for couples to experience the reality of how it feels to be together 24/7/365. Even for those distracted by remote work or child care, reports of relationship stress were common.

    In retirement, however, too much togetherness will not be relieved by a vaccine. An expectation that the two of you will glide into blissful coexistence may be unrealistic. Couples need to find ways to balance together time and independent time over the long haul.

  2. Expectation – Can You Not Do That Thing?

    An offshoot of too much togetherness occurs when little quirks and habits become points of conflict. When sharing space over a long period, even the smallest personal differences can lead to problems. It could be as small as how laundry is done or how cars are parked in the garage. Other, more personal quirks can also spark tension. Mannerisms or personal habits like throat clearing or using a particular phrase habitually drive some of us crazy when we're together all the time.

  3. Expectation – What Do You Do All Day?

    For couples in the situation where one partner retires, and the other continues to work, an expectation may arise where the worker assumes the retiree will handle more things around the house. For example, house cleaning, previously shared evenly between the two, is now thought to fall more on the retiree because he/she has more time. Click here to learn more about managing time in retirement

  4. Expectation – I'm Supposed to be Happy Now, Right?

    When one leaves behind familiar routines and relationships of the workplace, the transition can be jarring. There is a social vacuum that the other partner cannot be realistically expected to fill 100% of the time. This can lead to frustration, disappointment, and even depression. Another situation is where the relationship may have focused on careers, child-rearing, or both. Once these focal points recede in the rearview mirror, couples can find themselves struggling to find new ways to connect.

  5. Expectation – Now, What Am I Supposed to Do?

    During our working years, most of us set aside a pile of activities, and chores with the expectation of handling them during retirement. Finishing the photo books, cleaning out the storage area, organizing family documents, planting the new garden, or traveling are typical examples. However, when retirement actually arrives, a funny thing happens. Some of these items just don't seem that important anymore and remain in the procrastination heap. Then, the once-long list of high-priority things gets accomplished faster than expected, and the activity pipeline is empty. As a result, the retiree is left feeling a lack of purpose and meaning that was not a problem during the previous busy working life.

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  6. Expectation – Why Don't You Share My Retirement Dream?

    Couples who don't communicate enough about individual retirement expectations often find important aspects of their individual dreams don't align. An example I raised in a previous post was when one partner wants to travel while the other prefers to relax at home. Another classic example is relocation plans where one partner wants to move to a warmer climate while the other would like to stay close to family and friends. Clearly, the couple has neglected to share their hopes and aspirations about retirement in enough detail.

  7. Expectation – You Bought What?

    Accumulating money typically dominates most retirement planning discussions. Yet, when the time comes to tap the reserve, couples can sometimes have different expectations about how money is spent. Such concerns about spending, especially about big-ticket items, can strain the relationship.

  8. Expectation – Space Invaders

    Consider this scenario: a couple retires together. One decides that since the other has been in charge of making meals, now is the time to share the task. Then, surprise! The other partner gets mad that their space is being invaded. If not revealed, expectations about lifestyle changes in retirement can cause unpleasant disconnects.

  9. Expectation – Wipers (Not the Windshield Variety)

    Are you prepared to be a caregiver? Despite the inevitability of declining health over time, most of us do not envision ourselves as caregivers to our significant others. However, according to a 2020 study by AARP and the National Alliance of Caregiving, nearly 6 million Americans currently provide care for a spouse or partner. Of these (whose average age is 61.5), almost 30% provided such care for five years or more. So, the expectation of sharing a rosy retirement with our healthy and able partner could easily give way to disappointment if caregiving becomes the order of the day.

Can This Retirement Be Saved?

Happy retired couple looking at each other and holding hands outdoorsFailing to fulfill these and other retirement expectations can lead to disappointment and conflict. This may be one reason the phenomenon of "gray divorce" (divorce among people age 50 or older) has drawn more attention in recent years. High-profile examples like Bill and Melinda Gates grab the headlines, but overall, the U.S. divorce rate among this demographic doubled between 1990 and 2015. There are possible structural reasons for this, like longer life expectancy, and Baby Boomers who experienced divorce as children are therefore less opposed to it. Nevertheless, more immediate drivers very well could arise from differing expectations for retirement.

What can a couple do to manage the potential for conflict and lead to stronger, more satisfying relationships?

Step 1 – Understand Your Expectations

As noted above, retirement expectations are formed over a long time and develop strong emotional power. Yet, they frequently lack depth and detail. The daydream of relaxing with a cocktail on a tropical beach, though vague, is emotionally compelling.

Achieving a satisfying retirement requires a realistic assessment of expectations. Taking time to think through the vision can sharpen focus and increase the probability of achieving the vision. Done effectively, this can be a lengthy and humbling exercise. It calls into question some of the most comforting images that sustained us through tedious working hours. However, it does not mean abandoning heartfelt desires. Instead, clarifying these ideas can increase the probability they will come true.

Many resources can assist in structuring this exercise. Numerous books and online resources can not only look at expectations you've already formed but also delve into subject areas not yet considered. Be selective about these resources, however. For example, many focus only on the financial aspects of retirement. While these are critical, non-financial facets are often neglected. A more fully-thought out retirement vision gives equal play to both the financial and non-financial components.

It is essential to document the expectations exploration. Writing everything down makes the process actionable. It also allows for long-term reflection. As mentioned, the process can be lengthy. Don't expect it to be accomplished all in one sitting. Being able to review previous ruminations about retirement expectations allows for further refinement of the ideas.

Step 2 – Document Partner Expectations

Clarifying one's own retirement expectations is valuable in itself. However, the real payoff comes in sharing those revelations with your significant other. Therefore, both partners need to go through the expectations exploration exercise. The more specifics each share of their own retirement expectations, the higher the quality of the ensuing conversation. Lack of detail can lead to continued misunderstanding.

For example, if both partners expect to travel more in retirement, ensure the details are crisply articulated. For one, more travel might mean two-week RV road trips to national parks, while the other wants to rent an Airbnb in the Caymen Islands for the winter.

Step 3 – Share Expectations

Once both partners have documented individual expectations, the next step is to share this information with one another. Allow plenty of time for the discussion. There is no requirement for the exercise to be accomplished in one session. It's a big subject that should not be rushed. Breaking it up into multiple conversations over time may make the most sense. The goal is to clearly understand what each partner's expectations mean to them.

Step 4  - Document the Gaps

Once a couple has thoroughly shared their individual retirement expectations, the gaps between those expectations will be obvious. Therefore, the next step focuses on bridging those gaps so both partners feel their respective retirement dreams can become a reality.

The process will require hard work, especially where the gaps are significant. To simplify the process at the start, identify expectations where no gaps exist or are small. This part of the exercise affirms your connections and creates a sense of togetherness. That positive foundation will be helpful when taking on the bigger gaps.

As for the bigger gaps, a further review of the details of the dueling expectations may be worthwhile to ensure both parties are comparing apples to apples.

Step 5 – Negotiate a Mutually Satisfying Way Forward

Once the gaps have been documented, a brainstorming exercise can generate creative ways to bridge the gaps. The basic rules of brainstorming call for all ideas to be recorded without comment. Then, the couple reviews the alternatives to identify mutually agreeable solutions. 

During the process, deeper, fundamental relationship issues may come to light. This is not surprising since the expectations for retirement can be so deeply felt. As a result, the couple could come to an impasse in the effort to find answers. In these cases, a professional counselor may join the process to help find a resolution. 

In fact, finding a counselor to help guide the entire process could provide structure and help avoid procrastination that might otherwise prevent the process from happening in the first place.

Everyone hopes to achieve the retirement of their dreams. Couples taking deliberate steps to define and align their retirement expectations will have a better chance of making those dreams come true.