Making Retirement Work

When couples stop working, they can disagree about their goals and plans in retirement. Here’s how to call a truce.

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Jane Argyle expected and that she and her husband Ray would retire around age 65. Then, last year, he began complaining about his longtime corporate finance job. The company was downsizing, so he got laid off, and took another similar position, but was still unhappy. Ray, 57, wanted to quit and enjoy the retired life. But Jane, 58, wanted to save more money, plus she was quite happy running her dog-walking business. The two talked about it frequently, but could not agree – and it began causing resentment around the house.

Different people have different feelings about retirement. Some love being free of the nine-to-five and others have a hard time transitioning into a more flexible life.

Last summer, it came to a head. “He basically said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” recalls Jane. So she relented.  “When I realized it was killing him, I said quit,” she recalls.

But now that he’s home, the two still don’t agree on retirement. Ray's plans that keep changing – sell the house and buy a boat, or maybe do renovations on their Toronto home – while she’d like to make big decisions more cautiously. “Something needs to change,” she says.

The Argyles’ situation is one you don’t hear much about – when couples retire they’re supposed finally be able to do things together – but as many people are finding out, one spouse’s idea of retirement can be different than the other’s. What can you do if you disagree on how to spend your golden years?

Making money decisions

One main cause of distress among retired couples is personal finance. One spouse might feel confident about their nest egg, while another worries that travel or the new condo will put things at risk. “Personal financial planning is number one for causing issues,” says Brenda Dineen, a registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver who works with many retirement-age clients.

Couples also argue about what to do with their time. Dineen worked with one duo where the wife had faraway family she wanted to see often, while the husband had other ideas for his time and money. Another women she counselled had a husband who just wanted to play golf. Selling the family home and moving – to a condo, or maybe a small town, or maybe even overseas – adds another layer of decision making.

Emotional decisions

Retirement decisions can also get muddied by emotional baggage. Jane admits she and Ray have not fully dealt with the impact of one of their kids' mental health issues, which is making their relationship more negative overall. Many couples might struggle to make certain choices – like how to approach taking care of elderly parents or moving closer to children – if they trigger old feelings about family, particularly for blended ones.

And different people have different feelings about retirement. Some love being free of the nine-to-five and others have a hard time transitioning into a more flexible life. “For many, leaving work can be traumatic. They’re very attached and part of their identity is in their work,” says Dineen. She recalls one client who drove away from her retirement party feeling “like she was driving off a cliff.”

Talk things out

Since finances can be a hot topic, seek professional advice to find out where you’re at – the Argyles plan to have a professional assess their savings, which Jane hopes will help her worry less about the future. Marriage counselling might be in order for those who disagree on numerous issues at this stage in life.

Dineen says couples can work out their differences by communicating, and perhaps compromising. “Couples need to find ways to come to agreements about retirement,” says Dineen. “It’s not like they have to be doing the same things, but they have to support each other.” She tries to get couples to recast how they view retirement: when you look at it as a series of possibilities, and test out new ideas in stages, it can be more about exploration and less about hard-and-fast decisions.

Fortunately, the Argyles have come to one major agreement. Ray booked them into a lengthy spiritual retreat, on a whim, and Jane is happy to go. She hopes the experience will make him more positive overall, and help the two of them find more agreement on their future together. “It could be a turning point in our relationship,” she says, and, hopefully, for their retirement, too. 

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