Relationships in retirement

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Carol Sorgen

Dale Springer has retired from two careers, while his wife, Maria, has worked from home for years. They say they’ve avoided some of the pitfalls that can plague retired couples by keeping up with their individual interests and activities, and giving each other space. Other relationships, such as friendships, may also need to be recalibrated in retirement.
Photo by Chris Myers

We talk a lot about how retirement affects our finances. But do we talk about how retirement affects our relationships? Probably not as much as we should, says Baltimore life coach Barbara Harman.

“Retirement brings a lot of emotional changes,” Harman said. “Some people are prepared for them, but most are not.”

Recently retired psychiatric nurse Pamela Worthington, for example, is still waiting to feel as “ecstatic” as she expected she would once she retired. One thing she didn’t expect to feel was the loss of the easy relationships she had with her co-workers.

“It was more organic [before],” the Towson resident said. “When we were on a break or passing each other in the halls, there was an opportunity for a quick conversation, even if only to say hi and ask what was new. Now I feel like I have to have a reason to call them.”

Friendship transitions

Friendships do change over time. We graduate from school, get married, have kids. All these passages bring changes to our relationships. The same holds true for retirement.

According to a study by sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, we lose about half our friends every seven years.

The good news is that we usually do replace them. It just may take longer as we get older and lose the established structures — such as work — that provide ready opportunity and shared experiences in our lives.

In the “Friendship Blog” (www.thefriendshipblog.com), friendship expert Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., notes that the workplace is often an important source of friendships (that’s especially true for women). Before you retire, she advises exploring whether any workplace friends are good prospects for remaining so once you no longer work together.

Sharing activities — from golf, to Scrabble, to book clubs — is a good way to keep relationships intact, or form new ones, according to AARP. So is volunteering or taking a class.

“And don’t fall prey to the myth that everyone already has their friends,” Levine said in her blog. “Many people are in the same situation as you and would welcome a warm smile, hello, compliment or invitation to chat that says, ‘Let’s be friends.’”

Lorraine Friedman retired last December from her job as an office manager in Timonium. Most of her friends are still working but, unlike Worthington, she finds she doesn’t see them any less. Perhaps that’s because they’ve always had to schedule their get-togethers around not just work, but marriage, children and grandchildren, hobbies and volunteer activities.

“We all have things to do,” said Friedman, “but when we’re free, we get together.”

Now living in Pennsylvania, Friedman said she doesn’t need more Baltimore friends, but admits she has made an effort to make new friends in Pennsylvania by volunteering several times a week as a dog walker at the local SPCA.

She also keeps busy with reading, knitting, sewing and gardening, and advised other new retirees to make sure they have enough hobbies and interests to fill their time and take the place of work. “Otherwise, you’ll be miserable,” she warned.

Renavigating relationships

Marriages, of course, are also affected by retirement.

“If one partner has retired before another, or one has always been a stay-at-home homemaker and parent, there can be a sense that the other person is encroaching upon his or her space,” said Harman. “Retirement is a passage that requires a renegotiating of the relationship.”

According to AARP, researchers have found that marital stress increases during the first two years of retirement, and that retirement can magnify pre-existing difficulties, or reveal ones previously ignored.

Fortunately that wasn’t the case for Dale and Maria Springer. Dale has retired twice, first from McCormick and Co. and then from a second career with the American Cancer Society. Meanwhile, Maria has worked from home as a cooking instructor, caterer and pastry chef for most of her career.

Dale’s first retirement was an early one. He was just 51, so it took a bit of adjustment on both their parts. “Maria didn’t want me sitting around all day,” Dale laughed, “but I didn’t want to, either. That really wasn’t a problem anyway, because both of us have always had our own interests and activities.

“The only thing Maria did make clear was that she wasn’t going to cook me lunch every day!” Dale said.

Even after his second retirement, Dale continues to volunteer for the American Cancer Society — “I want to do something good,” he said — while Maria is occupied with her blog (www.majaskitchen.com), working on a book about gingerbread houses, and her social activities.

“We enjoy each other and accept what each other is doing,” said Dale, as an explanation of how they have avoided the difficulties other couples may face after retirement.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there haven’t been issues to resolve. For many years, the couple discussed downsizing and moving to a smaller home. 

“Our general response was that we would downsize ‘in five years’ — it was always five years out,” Dale said.

Finally, two and a half years ago the Springers mutually agreed that the time had come. “We have adjusted, and are happy on the far side of that decision,” said Dale.

But now another matter is looming, the possibility of reducing from two cars to one. “We both have such active and varied schedules that we do not see how we can make that work,” said Dale.

 “We understand that the day might come when one of us can no longer drive, [but] right now we worry how we will adjust to one car. This is not a major issue in the greater scheme of things, but one of the adjustments many couples go through in life.”

“Change is hard and adjustments are not easy,” said Harman. “That’s why planning for retirement means more than keeping an eye on your investments. It means looking at how you want to spend your time, with whom, and how to accommodate the other person.”