One of the big challenges of retirement is figuring out how to be married all day every day–or finding a different alternative that works for both of you. Getting those decisions right is sort of like a final exam in something many of us have been tested on–more or less–for decades: finding the right balance between “together” and “apart.”
At first the scales tip one way. The romance of new love makes most of us yearn to be inseparable. Just parting to get through the workday, school day or other separate demands seems like cruel punishment. Then, as you stay together for a while, that “time without” becomes a more easily endured aspect of life. Life goes along smoothly with those two separate grooves because there are good reasons for them–work, kids, ailing parents who need our time, etc. Eventually, especially when the “being alone” is because of something a partner needs time to do, many of us begin to savor and look forward to solo time both for the serenity it offers and the self-attention it allows.
And that’s about the point that you start thinking about retirement.
What then? Are you still going to have those separate grooves or are you expecting a magical return to that heady “I can’t live without you right by my side” fervor of young love? If you aren’t talking about that with your partner, you might be in for a rude awakening when the time comes to actually step into that new version of life. It’s not likely you’re in exactly the same place on this.
How much solo time do you need? The first step of having a good relationship with another person is having a good relationship with yourself. What do you like about doing things on your own? What needs does that kind of time meet for you? We are all different and what works for me might not even be in the same ballpark as what works for you. So know what works for you.
A primary reason for that career -and the related “apart” time–is a paycheck. Retirement means the funds come from somewhere else. But your work is usually a source of satisfaction that goes beyond the financial. If you can’t replicate those satisfiers with things your partner/spouse/signficant other is able or interested in doing, you are probably going to need significant time without him/her after you retire to meet those needs. And then there’s the whole thing about how to use money–because that could change, sometimes drastically, for one or the other of you, too.
How much “not-together” time is ideal for your partner? The other half of your duet needs to answer that same question. One of the most dangerous assumptions a working spouse can make is that the non-working spouse is just waiting for the day when you’ll be home all the time. According to Miriam Goodman in Too Much Togetherness, this is a major cause of couple trouble once the working spouse retires. Whether there’s been a paycheck involved or not, each of you has a life. Much of it is lived separately. Figuring out how to spend more time together is a worthy goal, but being joined at the hip is probably not (unless you are in a sack race).
Figuring out what you need yourself is hard. Figuring out what your partner needs is harder. Both involve soul seaching and personal exploration–which can be really fun. But then there’s the communication phase and that takes a skill most of us think we have but don’t.
How do we get what we each need and still enjoy time together? The vast majority of us are not good communicators, especially in our primary relationships. We rely on assumptions that we don’t check regularly and expect the other person to “just know.” When we do talk, it’s about everyday drivel like garbage schedules and what to have for dinner. This is a different conversation.
To do this well, you need to joint problem solve to figure out the best way for each of you to have the alone time you need. A big piece of the challenge is to be honest.. If your sweetie assumes she/he can come along and you really need the time on your own, you’re either going to have to admit it or waste time and emotion resenting the tag-along later.
Being part of a couple and yet complete on your own is not unique to retirement. But when you get that far, you’ve reached the championship game, and the stakes are higher. Once you give up work, your primary relationship tends to become even more important. Work on it.