When it comes to retirement, most couples plan for the places they’ll go and the people they’ll see, but don’t spend enough time thinking about how they’ll pass the rest of the time with their spouse.
“People have conversations about things like, ‘where are we going to travel’ [but] they don’t really get into the day-to-day of life,” says Amy D’Aprix, founder and chief executive of Toronto-based consulting firm Life Transitions by Dr. Amy.
Failing to communicate how to handle a major life transition like retirement can test even the most solid relationships, especially if each person’s vision of how to spend their days is different.
“Even a positive change like retirement puts stress on a relationship,” says Saunia Ahmad, director and clinical psychologist at the Toronto Psychology Clinic.
Relationship strain can sometimes lead to divorce. According to Statistics Canada, divorce among people age 50 and older – known as “grey divorce” – rose by 26 per cent from 1991 to 2006 (from 4.2 to 5.3 per 1,000 people). StatsCan says the rate has remained fairly stable since, except for the early days of the pandemic in 2020, when restrictions made applying for divorce more difficult.
Many couples wait until they’re retired to separate because of the financial impact or to wait until their children have grown and moved out, Dr. Ahmad says.
Spending more time with a spouse once one or both are retired can also cause rifts in the relationship. The extra time together can reveal attributes of a spouse that may have changed or shifted and gone unnoticed while each person was busy with work and parenting.
Instead of focusing on the negative, Dr. Ahmad says retirement can be a chance for people to embrace how their spouse has grown or changed.
Still, she warns there can be friction if expectations for retirement aren’t properly communicated. For example, one person might prefer to be active outdoors, while the other want to stay at home and read or fiddle in the garden. Some retirees may also need time at first to figure out their daily flow.
“Be patient with that process and adjustment and see this as an opportunity to learn about each other at a deeper level,” Dr. Ahmad says.
Sometimes couples fall into negative communication patterns, especially when they’re not used to being around each other so much. For instance, she says one may walk away from confrontation while the other wants to settle issues on the spot.
“My job is to help them work through those communication barriers so they can figure it out,” she says.
She recommends couples get professional relationship counselling if they think it could help reduce negative feelings or to resolve long-standing arguments.
Any big lifestyle transition takes some time to adjust, adds Dr. D’Aprix. She cites research showing that many couples struggle to balance their relationship in the first year or two of retirement.
She suggests couples start talking years in advance about how they plan to pass the time in retirement. By talking it out over time, couples will better understand how the other envisions life in their golden years.
“People often have these unstated expectations about what the future is going to be,” Dr. D’Aprix says.
Couples should also get a good sense of how much time they plan to spend together once retired – and how to accommodate separate interests and hobbies.
“If one of you is an introvert and the other an extrovert, probably the extrovert is going to need other outlets that he or she does alone,” Dr. D’Aprix says.
Suzanne Kyra, a clinical counsellor at Kyra Consulting in Metro Vancouver, says it’s important for retirees to have social networks to keep the mind and body healthy.
Many retirees lose key social connections when they stop working and have to work at building them up again.
“The greatest agony in relationships is isolation,” Ms. Kyra says. “You need that outside support and socialization.”
Retirement is also a time of personal reflection, and some couples may be at different stages of self-awareness, which can add stress to a relationship, Ms. Kyra says.
She recommends couples have open conversations about how they want to spend their time in retirement, both together and apart, and how that might affect the other person.
For instance, one spouse may prefer to travel for a week or two, while the other prefers to stay home. She says both can have their way and strike the right balance in the relationship.
Her advice for retired couples: “Put your arm around [them] and say, ‘I’m going to help you follow your dream and also take care of myself.’”