Retired Spouse Syndrome

Last Wednesday I joined a small class of Furman University students along with Professor Lorraine DeJong and other retired adults in an intergenerational course about what it’s like to be a “senior” in today’s society. Members of Furman’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) were asked to participate voluntarily in order to bring the experience to life for the students. I signed up for a couple of classes. The subject for the class I attended last week was relationships. While we discussed family, adult children, grandchildren and friends, the segment that caught my eye was retired spouse syndrome.

Researching retired spouse syndrome, I found many articles as well as research in both Japan and Italy referring to it as retired husband syndrome. It’s no secret men have a more difficult time than women when leaving the workplace behind. More of a man’s identity is tied up in his job description and title.

Conversely, women have taken many roles throughout their lives from work to being the main caregiver of children, perhaps even staying at home for a few years while raising them. Women also are more apt to be the caregiver of parents in their later years. And, for most couples women are the ones who maintain the social calendar. As a result women are more flexible about identity.

That said, I experienced unexpected feelings of sadness and loss when I left work. Those feelings were repeated when Martin retired as I also had many ties with his co-workers over his long career at a single company. Admittedly part of my identity was immersed in his identity. When he retired I was no longer the wife of the vice-president.

As Professor Phyllis Moen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota and author of numerous books, points out, the first two years of retirement can be a time of enormous stress on a marriage. Both men and women experience the strain as they struggle to create new identities, both as a couple and as individuals. While single men and women also struggle, they may or may not have a partner to consider.

Shortly after Martin retired, I had to remind him I was not going to be his only employee for the rest of his life. Suddenly, the way I filled the dishwasher and the time of day I put clothes in the washer was all wrong. Mind you, we have had a marriage of equal partnership where he washed clothes and did dishes, too. We both cook. It was our habit that whoever cooked dinner that night, the other one of us did the kitchen clean-up. This arrangement worked for decades without comment until retirement.

As I have chronicled in these pages, when we retire, our world shrinks. As it becomes smaller, we are sometimes caught up in minutiae. As I’ve also pointed out, it takes about two years to adjust to a new life and discard the old identity. Avoiding retired spouse syndrome requires an awareness of it in the first place. Once you are aware of it, then it takes commitment and communication as a couple to create the identity you envision for yourselves, together and individually.

Oftentimes, we forget the us factor. Us doesn’t mean we are joined at the hip 24/7; it means we honor and respect each other as we forge new identities. Listening is part of the communication, perhaps the most important aspect. One of the tools Martin and I used was the bucket list. We’d made bucket lists before retirement. We made others after retirement. Then we compared lists. It helped to ignite an honest discussion of who we were and who we wanted to be and whether or not our wants meshed. They did.

As for the dishwasher? Martin loads it — every night.  Renewed purpose takes many forms.  And we do laundry whenever we need to.

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22 comments on “Retired Spouse Syndrome

  1. Very timely post as I prepare for my husband’s retirement and I’m frankly a little nervous! I was happy I retired 3 years before him because it was my experience when working that in any job transition it took me about 2 years to acclimate. Now I have a very comfortable routine and wonder how he’ll adjust and how we’ll adjust as a couple! I like your bucket list idea…we’ll give it a try…wish us luck!!!

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    • Marilyn, You definitely need to have a deep discussion and use the bucket list. I retired two years before Martin did due to a downturn in the real estate market. I was happily adjusted with a routine that included hobbies, volunteer work and part-time care for my young grandchild. I went to lunch with friends whenever I wanted and scheduled other activities around my wants and needs. Then Martin retired. He expected me to do all the things he wanted to do. He nit-picked about things he never even noticed before like the dishwasher loading. This is all normal!!! I wish I had known it then. This is one of the reasons for the high divorce rate with over 60s. Communication is of the utmost importance and the sooner, the better. If your husband’s company has an employee assistance program offering some free counseling, I recommend taking that opportunity to discuss his impending retirement with a counselor. We did not do that because we thought we had it all figured out. We didn’t. I wish you the best of luck. Let me know how it goes. K

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    • Yes, Jan, I certainly understand that. Many of the men I know retire and think they and their wife will be joined at the hip doing EVERYTHING together. I’ve met women who say they’d like to do such and such, but their husband doesn’t want to. I met up with two very unhappy women lamenting the fact that they have less time for themselves than they had when they were working because of their husband’s demands. At least you’re getting some “me time”! And, me too. It took a while for us to adjust to the point where I go off doing something and Martin makes plans to go do something else, sans guilt. It’s a process. K

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  2. This post hit home for me. Retirement for my husband and I was almost 15 years ago. We retired early as I am 70. His entire ego was secured by his work and being in management and feeling he had purpose and control. When we retired we also moved out of state to unfamiliar territory and knowing no one. We had no children. Over 11 years he became depressed and felt like a fish out of water. I adjusted ok and made some friends, but he seemed to want us together 24/7. All that togetherness and his inability to release his ego and enjoy life plus some health issues that effected his ability to do what he “use to could do”, began to erode at our marriage. He became critical and a bit controlling and we argued more than ever before. It never improved and 4 years ago he passed away from brain cancer. Now I have moved and I struggle with living a new life. I keep busy and I’m trying to just be content, but not hoping for real happiness. Loneliness is the hardest issue I deal with even though I have friends, volunteer and keep busy. The grief has passed, but I deal mostly with what should have been a happy retirement for us both and the guilt that I might have contributed in some way to his discontent.

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    • Mary, I am so sorry for your loss and the feeling that you are “not hoping for real happiness.” I am no psychologist but I would recommend seeing a counselor. Loneliness in retired adults is a huge issue. Even though we are surrounded by people, having a very close tie is sometimes hard to come by. I wish you the best. K

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  3. Just read your blog about the Retired Spouse Syndrome. While I understand that when there are two to consider it’s different than single people who do not have another person to consider, it’s also different for the single person, as they have no built in partner in this retirement thing. I am independent and do not need a man to complete me. However, I see so many retired couples doing things together. Yes I have good friends but it’s not the same as having someone special that you’ve been with and hope you can have a good retirement future with. To me, it’s saying the same type of thing as when people with children tell people without that “you would never understand because you don’t have children”. Well it works the other way too and words like that can hurt. Of course I can’t feel what they feel but it doesn’t mean I’m clueless. All or nothing is never very good. I’m hopeful I will yet meet someone but I don’t have a someone now. That may or may not be a good thing, time will tell. We really can’t assume that one way is more difficult than the other. Thanks for listening.

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    • Jan, I understand and apologize if my comment was hurtful. You probably feel the same way I do when my childless friends tell me I won’t have to worry about getting old because I have children. That was not my intent. Just to clarify, having a spouse to do things with may not be all that great (see some of the other comments). I sometimes envy my single friends because they do not have to consider someone else’s wants and needs. Someone recently asked me why I was putting up with a certain situation…well, because I am part of a couple…I have to also do what he wants to do sometimes and he wants to put up with this situation. The Japanese study found that married women were 6 to 14 times more likely to experience stress as the result of their spouse retiring and the stress increased with each year of the husband’s retirement. The Italian study supported this finding. We each have our own journey. I hope you find the right someone to share your retirement future with. Thank you for sharing. K

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  4. Interesting post. Retirement will be a reality for me in about 2 years. I can use all the advice I can get as I have very mixed feelings. You have stirred my interest in Retired Spouse Syndrome and want to read more about it. Thanks!

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    • Yes, I had mixed feelings, too. The surprise was the feeling of loss and sadness. If you Google ‘retired spouse syndrome’ or ‘retired husband syndrome’, you will find plenty to read on the subject. My husband had an even tougher time with retirement. The turning point for us was the discovery of artistic talent. It has made all the difference. Think about new meaning and purpose in your life and what that looks like for you. Best wishes. K

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  5. I realized what I was feeling when I fully retired was grief……grief for the visions I had about what retirement would look like for my husband and me that have not come to pass: doing things together, traveling, learning new things. Well I’m doing the traveling and learning, but my husband stays home and reads. There are days he never leaves the house. My feelings range from sadness and anger to a sort of acceptance. I’m a doer and a “goer”……really need to get out, exercise, go places. I enjoy my art classes, dog training classes and dog walks, traveling with our sons and family. But I’m sad we don’t do more things together. If I push him, he’s just miserable and that’s no fun for either of us. He is 76 and I’m only 68, so I do try to put more acceptance into my attitude and realize that he truly is more elderly than I am. I also try to appreciate those things we still do together.

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    • When the vision of retirement doesn’t come to pass, and there are many reasons this may occur, it is definitely disappointing. I’m happy to hear you are continuing on your journey despite his satisfaction with just being at home. Keep doing and going. K

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  6. Thank you for writing about an important issue. Though I am single now, I have run into people (both men and women) who were having difficulties with retired spouse syndrome, either in themselves or in their partners. Some of these situations can be very stressful and full of conflict. It sounds like you and Martin have worked through a lot and arrived at a negotiated settlement that is working!
    Rin

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  7. As I approach my retirement I am so thankful for your insights. I have been unsure what to expect in terms of my own adjustment and had wondered how it might unfold when my husband retires in 2 years. This was really helpful.

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  8. This post is so timely for me right now; my husband just retired last Friday. I have been retired full time now for over a year. I have had my own issues with adjusting to retirement and have written about them here, however, I have finally come to acceptance and really love the retired life. Now there is a whole new adjustment for us both as he finds his way through his journey and together. Quite frankly, I am nervous about it, but as you point out it will be a process. This is the first time in our entire marriage that we will be together 24/7. Yikes!

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  9. I imagine this is why most retired couples move to Florida! Downsizing a home when you retire is one thing, but I feel like moving to a “whole new world” to start the second part of your life seems to be the best way to go!

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    • What I’m reading in all the comments Jordan is that the way to go seems to be different for different people. Once again, it looks like there as many approaches to transitioning as there are retirees. Some want more time together with a spouse; others want more me time. Some want a spouse to share retirement while others find their spouse is ‘underfoot’ all the time. Some like the adventure of going to a new venue while others wish they hadn’t moved away from ‘home’. It is interesting and assuring that we are seeking out what works for us as individuals. K

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  10. I am about to do the retirement thing in a few months. i have been working at the company for twenty years. On my days off I don’t do much just go to lunch with my husband or to the movies, which i enjoy. other than that i don’t know what to do. I am worried that I will not be able to find something to do for the rest of my life since I dont even know what I want, i just know that i am physically tired of working. i do like to have a place to go to every day. I know that i should probably plan my day to fill it up but i know that i will get restless because i like to be busy. Help

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    • Congratulations Kerry on your upcoming retirement. Many of us leave work for the same reason you do. The key is to have something to go to. You may have loss of identity issues during your transition and that is made easier if you have a plan. It is my experience that it will take you about two years to acclimate to retirement and create a new identity. Start by looking for local activities that may appeal to you. Look for a local college with an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute or adult education classes in art, writing, music and courses on other possible hobbies. Look for volunteer opportunities with local charities, hospitals or even your Chamber of Commerce mentoring someone just starting out at work. Check out your local senior centers for activities and other retirees to befriend. If you like movies, maybe a local theatre group, whether you work behind the scenes or on stage, would be a good place to start. Look at local clubs such as book, bicycle or photography clubs or sport leagues like women’s softball. Take a yoga or swimming class at the local YMCA. This is an adventure! Be prepared to try something new and not have it pan out…if this happens, just move on to another possibility…don’t give up. You will reinvent yourself many times over during your retirement. That’s the exciting part. Put yourself out there and see what develops. You may be surprised at what you discover about yourself. Best wishes! K

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    • Kerry, Kathy’s blog is a great place to start. I also enjoyed a workbook called “It’s never too late to begin again” by Julia Cameron. I’ve been retired about 1 1/2 years. I kept some previous hobbies (masters’ track and field and dog training at a fun dog club). But those weren’t enough. I tried book club at the library, ended up dropping it….just didn’t enjoy it. I’ve also taken up watercolor (never before did anything artistic) at a senior center and still really enjoy the other folks there….getting better and better at it. For a while I tutored a woman getting her GED. I kept with her until she joined a class. It took about 3-4 hours a week, a little much for me, so I didn’t take on another student. The point being, as Kathy said, you will probably try some things you drop later, but it’s great seeing where your interests take you! Good luck! Joy

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  11. It’s always interesting when things like this are named – makes it seem real. I’ve talked about having a he/she/we plan – things he does for himself, thing I do for me, and the things we do together. And there is compromise and some doing things because he really wants to or I really want to, even though the other person is so-so about it. It’s also finding a new daily rhythm. And yes, it took us about 2 years! And with our downsize move, I expect we’ll be creating a new rhythm again. Which is OK because we’ve learned to talk about things..even my non-talker husband has learned to talk about this stuff!

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