Stay Happy, Together

For retiring couples, lifestyle planning is as crucial as financial planning

He prefers Maine. She favors Florida. He does some laundry. She still cooks most of the meals. As Martha and John Heald, married 38 years, settle into retirement, they're discovering the difficulties of making their separate lives mesh.

The push and pull is a common state for newly retired couples. "Retirement is as major a transition as getting married or becoming a parent," says Phyllis Moen, a University of Minnesota sociology professor who has studied how couples prepare for the sunset years. "Like becoming a parent, retiring transforms the marital relationship, puts it out of kilter for a while. You have to renegotiate."

One tricky decision is when to declare yourselves officially retired. Courtney Coile, an assistant professor of economics at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., says for the current generation of retirees, "men have basically been at work since age 20, and their idea of their golden years includes spending some time with their wives." But in many cases, women have entered the labor force more recently, are thriving in their careers, and aren't ready to kick back.

To avoid conflict, such "out-of-synch" couples need to discuss their different timetables, and the one who quits working first should figure out a productive way to spend newfound time alone, says Nancy Schlossberg, a Sarasota (Fla.) psychologist who wrote Retire Smart, Retire Happy: Finding Your True Path in Life. How to fill the hours is also a question for couples who stop working at the same time.

The Healds have devoted as much time to planning their retirement as anyone. Before John, 60, left his job as president of Harland Printed Products in Decatur, Ga., in February, he and Martha, 59, made a list of common goals: commit to volunteer work, strengthen ties to friends and family, maintain a healthy lifestyle, and embark on a "spiritual journey." Yet even they encountered problems once they moved to the other side of the line.


Take the issue of where to live. The two have traded in their Atlanta residence for a pair of retirement homes: a townhouse in Delray Beach, Fla., near Martha's parents, and a five-bedroom 1920s cottage on the island of Southport, Me., close to his family. Up north for the warmer months, down south for the colder sounds like a great idea. But John, who already volunteers for the Maine United Cerebral Palsy and the YWCA in Portland, admits "it's a bit of a challenge getting our travel schedules unified." Martha says: "I can't figure out how you commit to friendships, or to important volunteer commitments, and then pick up and say: `I'll be back in six months."' Eventually, she may just spend more time in Florida than her husband.

The Healds also had to adjust to sharing space at home. During his business years, John traveled a lot, and Martha ran the house. In the early days of their retirement in Delray Beach, they set up a shared office with a single computer. "This lasted until the first time John saw me at the computer and said, 'this is not going to work,"' Martha says. Now they have separate workspaces and computers on different floors in both houses.

During his working years, John was rarely available to help with household chores. Now that they're both at home, Martha cooks "more meals than I ever dreamed. We're here for breakfast, lunch, and dinner." John does his own wash and takes clothes to the cleaners. But she admits to feeling that "my job hasn't changed all that much. I haven't retired from shopping, cooking.... We haven't really talked about all that." John agrees they need to resolve the issues.

If you and your mate don't give thought to such matters, says Moen, the worst-case scenario is the marriage can break up or fall into a state of constant conflict. The best case? Says Moen: Negotiate the terms of this new phase of your life, because "retirement is more enjoyable if you do it with your spouse."

By Ellen Hoffman

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