Mind Matters: Retirement poses particular challenges

ELINOR STANTON

Has your husband recently retired after a long and successful career? If so, the day you have awaited for a lifetime has arrived. How exciting! But wait, is it really? Forty years ago, you both yearned for the day you could spend every minute together. You could hardly wait for those long, romantic weekends that would sustain you until the blissful moment when years of toil would be over. Now it’s here, and ho-hum. Your life and your relationship have changed dramatically, and you’re not as happy about it as you imagined you would be.

You know what it’s like to be together, you’ve been so for more than half a lifetime. Sure, you still get along and like each other’s company, but the thrill of it has faded a bit. Long, romantic weekends just don’t cut it anymore, so what’s so wonderful about having all day, every day together? Maybe retirement is a boon with a downside.

Finding retirement to be less than you had hoped, perhaps even disillusioning, is a common letdown. In general, men have a harder time than women, possibly because they tend to derive more of their self-esteem from work than women do. Men tend to concentrate their energy in one specific direction at a time, and so develop fewer interests during their working years. In our society, many men are workaholics, which leaves them little time for pursuit of anything besides work. Those who approach retirement with the most interests and hobbies fare the best in their leisure years.

It seems that the greater a man’s success, the more he has to lose in retirement, especially status. We must remember that men obtain primary gratification from achievements, while women tend to do so through emotional connections, so it makes sense that a retired man needs to retain a sense of accomplishment, even if it means raiding his wife’s domain and reorganizing the kitchen. I have heard from many a retiree’s distraught spouse how her husband has commandeered the kitchen. Of course, if he learns to cook, everyone can benefit; but some husbands won’t even let their wives cook!

The happiest retirees I have known are those who find a way to maintain a sense of meaning and purpose. Some decide to start a business or find full or part-time work, just enough to provide structure, keep them occupied and fulfilled. Volunteer work fills the bill for some if it offers enough interest and challenge. Hobbies are also a healthy outlet. Many couples find pleasure and meaning in travel.

Retirement can be a difficult adjustment for the whole family. Not only does a retiree miss the daily structure and camaraderie, but wives often find themselves giving up their normal routine to accommodate the husband’s wishes, or thinking they should. Some husbands expect the wife to suddenly be at their beck and call, much like their former secretaries.

Many marriages face a crisis in the aftermath of retirement. Relationships change with circumstances and different facets of couples’ personalities may emerge under the new stress. For two people to suddenly be together 24 days a day, especially if one traveled or worked long hours, creates unexpected problems. Couples often tend to lose touch with one another during the years of child rearing. A connection that once felt strong has weakened; they also may not really know each other as the mature individuals they have become. Couples can either view this as a problem or an exciting challenge. What could be more exciting than getting to discover new depths in the boy or girl you once innocently dated?

The assistance of a couples counselor may be in order to help find the potential for a whole new relationship. An adventure of mutual new discovery lies in wait for those who can love with open hearts and minds. Enjoy your retirement – together.

Elinor Stanton is a psychiatric nurse practitioner on Marco Island, with 33 years experience as a therapist, both in private practice and with a large health maintenance organization in Boston. She graduated from Boston College and the University of Rochester, and is certified as a clinical specialist by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Stanton also is certified in Imago Relationship Therapy and trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Comments and questions may be submitted to etseven@aol.com or 394-2861.

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