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Retirement can be the best years for a couple, but it can also be a difficult life transition.

Retirement can bring good, bad changes in relationships

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 1, 2014 - 9:13 am
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 3, 2014 - 6:29 pm

Sacramento retirees Bob and Celia Sertich are living large. They travel, see grandkids and both have rewarding volunteer jobs.

Their 42-year marriage? “It’s never been better,” says Bob Sertich, saying the couple’s life together has less stress and conflict than it had during their working days.

As the Sertiches are experiencing, retirement can be the best years for a couple.

“For the majority, it’s their happiest stage of life,” says Dr. Michael McCloud, a gerontologist in the UC Davis Department of Medicine.

But it can also be a difficult life transition and experts say couples need to discuss some of the challenges or risk becoming part of an alarming trend: the growing number of “gray” divorces.

Studies show that the rate of divorce for U.S residents over 50 has doubled over the past two decades while declining or staying steady for younger people.

Few would say retirement alone is the cause. But it can be a tipping point, especially for couples who have allowed underlying issues to go unresolved while they focused on child-rearing and careers.

For many people, retirement is a time to take stock of their lives.

With potentially decades of life ahead, “they say, ‘What do I want to do (for the rest) of my life and who do I want to do it with,’ ” says Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist and relationship expert with AARP, the nonprofit group that advocates for people age 50 and over.

More than ever in the past, people in this group are now willing to consider divorce if they aren’t happy with their circumstances.

The key to preserving those relationships, experts say, is having lots of discussions about retirement, starting well before either partner leaves work. Engaging in honest communication is never easy at any point and “that doesn’t change with retirement,” says Catherine Frank, executive director of the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of North Carolina. “You’re not really wiser when you get older.”

Frank and others suggest becoming aware of a number of issues that are likely to confront people as they near and enter retirement.

One is simply a matter of timing. Some say couples do best when they both leave the working world at about the same time.

Otherwise, in some instances, a spouse who continues to work can become resentful if his or her mate doesn’t take on more household responsibilities.

“He retires first, she comes home and says, ‘I thought you’d have dinner ready,’ or ‘You said you’d go shopping,’ ” says Helen Dennis, a syndicated newspaper columnist who writes about retirement and aging.

A bigger issue for retirees is figuring out the right mix of time to spend together and apart.

McCloud, the UC Davis gerontologist, says “individuals need a respite from togetherness – (they need) their own activities that they do without their spouse.”

In the best cases, each member of the couple pursues something she or he loves. Then they can circle back together and share fresh experiences with each other, just as they probably did during their working lives, McCloud says.

That seems to be something the Sertiches have nailed. Bob volunteers regularly to assist the athletics program at McClatchy High School and plans scouting events. Celia plays golf and volunteers as a docent at the Sacramento Zoo.

“We both do the things we want to do,” Bob Sertich says, saying they often are apart for large chunks of a day.

He notes that other couples they know seem almost weary from a feeling they have to do everything together.

It’s critical, too, for couples to be on the same page about their big dreams for retirement and learn to compromise when those plans are not in sync.

“He may have been dreaming of RVing across the country while she wants to garden and see grandkids,” says Dennis. Perhaps she was anticipating going on a cruise while he was making plans for a vacation built around baseball’s spring training.

Sometimes the different goals are even more extreme.

Schwartz, the relationship expert with AARP, says sometimes one member of a couple may have far more ambitious plans than his or her mate, like going overseas for an extended time to help disadvantaged people. The other partner may be understanding and give encouragement, Schwartz says, even agreeing to visit.

But he or she also might be shocked, saying “What? This is supposed to be our time together and you want to do that?”

The same sorts of conflicts can arise over plans to move. He may be eager to sell the family home and live in a golf community. She might want to stay put, close to friends and family.

The consistent advice on this issue from retirement experts: Take some time before deciding to relocate. Suddenly leaving your work life is stressful enough without moving away from all of your close friends.

Finances can be another source of stress, says Carol Voyles, a retired Sacramento therapist who volunteers with the Relationship Skills Center. “Money is one of the main issues couples struggle with” throughout their lives, she says. And facing a future with a fixed income can lead to hard decisions over, for example, which dream vacation to pursue. His or hers?

Some couples also struggle with their sex lives after retirement, Voyles says, addressing anew a topic they often have put on the back burner.

What they often find is that their libidos and physical abilities have declined, and it takes work to accommodate those changes.

“If one person has the goal and desire (to work on it) and the other doesn’t, there can be a crisis,” she says.

Schwartz, the AARP relationships expert, says all of these challenges for couples can be resolved if people are willing to take them on – and most couples find their way to happy retirements.

“You don’t have to make it Mt. Everest when it’s just the foothills,” she says.

To that, Bob Sertich adds one piece of advice. Just relax already.

He says too many couples try to do too much in their retirement years and end up stressed.

Some feel an obligation to travel constantly, collecting “all these decals in their windows, saying ‘We’ve been to all these places.’ ” Or checking off items on bucket lists.

“Do you have to play every golf course in the country? No, you don’t,” he says.

“Retirement should be retirement,” he adds. “Sure, you should stay active. But just do the things you want to do.”

Read more articles by Bob Shallit

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