“I married him for better or for worse but not for lunch.” Now 40 years later, she’s got him not only for lunch but also for all the hours in between. Though retirement may be a dream come true for some men, it’s a nightmare for some of their spouses.
Why should this be so? And why is it such a big transformation, particularly for men with successful careers?
When a man retires, it’s not only his work life that ends. It’s also the structure of his day and the social network he has. It’s a shock to the system when work friends quickly become past acquaintances. Associates become fond memories. Respect that one is used to receiving from underlings becomes non-existent. And getting up and out early in the morning becomes a pattern of the past.
When husbands have no work to wake up for and no people to interact with, it becomes a wife’s worst nightmare. She has now been transformed into his sole social network and his raison d’être. This stifles her freedom and upsets the balance of the relationship.
Should wives worry about this scenario or is it an unfair stereotype that denigrates retired men? It can be either. Here are the stories of two men who have dealt with retirement quite differently.
Jerry has retired into an empty void. For 30 years, he was a high level manager working for a major corporation. When he was forced to retire (because of a company merger), it felt like a sucker punch. The work he had prided himself on was taken away. He felt unappreciated. Used. Used up. Always the protector, he told his wife not to worry. He had earned a well-deserved retirement. Things would be okay.
His wife, however, knew better. She noticed his sad eyes, drooping shoulders, slow walk. It was as though he had aged 10 years in the 10 months he was retired. He had nothing to do, nowhere to go. She was his lifeline, not a role she relished. She tried getting him to join a social group, take up a sport, develop a hobby or enroll in a course. His response was always, “No, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.” Or, “Leave me alone, I’m ok. Get off my case.”
Nevertheless, Nancy worried. Jerry rarely left the house. Many days he didn’t shave or shower. He had no activities except for logging on to his computer. When she asked him what he was doing on his PC, he wouldn’t discuss it with her. When he did open up, he was often belligerent or demanding. Nancy didn’t know whether to ignore him, berate him or feel sorry for him. Retirement was unraveling their relationship.
Contrast this to Al and Grace. Al had been planning for retirement for three years. He and Grace had discussed it at length -- what to do, where to live, how their lives would change. When Al retired, he had a new life awaiting him. He became more engaged in family life, offering to frequently babysit for his grandkids. He took up cooking as a hobby. He developed a new interest in upgrading his home, trying his hand at several carpentry projects. His golf game had always been a source of pleasure. Now, he had time to play several days a week. When the weather didn’t cooperate, he’d be on his Mac, planning the next vacation or the next home improvement project.
Al’s activities created structure to his day and helped him develop a new network of people. Some of his activities involved Grace, some did not. Rather than feeling burdened by a retired husband, Grace felt grateful that he was around more often. This gave them the opportunity to share more of the housework and find joint projects to enjoy.
Retirement requires the ability to change gracefully. To engage in new activities. To create new social networks. To discover new challenges and opportunities. When a man meets these challenges successfully, he creates a new life that may be even more engaging and energizing than he could ever have anticipated. When he fails to meet these challenges successfully, it’s a downhill slide, not only for the man but also for his spouse.
Linda Sapadin, Ph.D. is a psychologist and success coach in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior.