Keeping Harmony When Your Spouse Retires Before You

Households in which both partners are working full-time often fall into a rhythm organized around work schedules. You wake at certain times, eat at certain times and work – in or outside the home – at certain times. This routine ensures that all of the tasks that need to happen in your work get done and your free time is coordinated.

But when one partner is still working and the other retires, life’s everyday cadence can be disrupted, leading to new decisions, expectations, and norms. This can be a difficult time. That’s a lot of change after you’ve been doing one thing for 20 or 30 years.

But it is possible to smooth the transition. Here are some suggestions for navigating one partner’s major life change that has significant effects on both.

  • Talk about expectations. One mistake couples make is assuming they’re on the same page about retirement and money matters. The 2021 Couples & Money Survey by Fidelity Investments found that 48 percent of couples differ on the age at which they will retire. Nearly 1 in 4 are irritated by the partner’s money habits but will let it go for the sake of harmony.1 While the typical thought is that both partners will retire at a certain age or roughly around the same time, reality is seldom that cut and dried. So you need to talk about your plans. Ideally, conversations about retirement begin well before the retirement happens.
  • Figure out the finances. Your household income may change when one spouse retires, so it’s also important to think about the financial impact of the decision. How will your income and expenses change? While you may save on the costs of commuting and workplace-related expenses, you may incur new ones related to how the retired partner will spend time. The financial planning for retirement needs to happen well before the actual retirement.
  • Set boundaries. If you’re the working spouse, you have to have a list of boundaries. This should be done in collaboration with your partner. Decide on the hours when you’re going to need quiet time for work, and who will be responsible for managing the interruptions.
  • Plan the division of labor. Couples should also have conversations about whether the division of labor in the household and other areas of their life will shift. Once one person isn’t working anymore, is there an expectation that the retiree will be picking up more of the household duties? That may infringe on plans the retired person has to explore new interests and pursuits, which can create friction.
  • Be prepared for change. As your spouse goes out and pursues new interests, the partner should also be prepared for the changes that brings about. When you go out in the world and have new experiences, that may bring unexpected changes. What will your days look like? Will your partner be out trying new things? There might be new friends or new activities. Their world might open up in different ways.
  • Keep your connection. As your lives change, it’s important to keep your connections with each other, like weekly date nights or pursuing new hobbies together.
  • Communicate as things change. Above all, regularly communication, both before and during retirement, is essential to keep any issues or conflicts from escalating. Deal with things more preventively before there’s a problem or crisis. If you feel a certain way about something, you’re better off sharing it earlier than waiting for things to build up. Check in with each other regularly to determine how you’re each feeling.

Going through retirement is a significant life change that comes with a number of emotions. The issues may be different if one partner retired by choice versus leaving for a medical condition, job loss, or other difficult circumstance.


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