In my parents’ and grandparents’ time, individuals worked until they received their “gold watch” from the company in which they had spent 40 years working. They then completed their lifecycle with their spouse by their side, holding hands and sitting on rocking chairs with their grandchildren on their laps. Today, many of us have the option of retiring and living a healthy, active life for many more years before they get to the “rocking chair” phase.
So how do we navigate the years in between, and what emotional aspects are involved in this time of transition? Many of us are familiar with Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) in relation to death and dying. But do we recognize that grief appears in many other places, such as loss of a job, loss of an identity, or loss of a dream? Furthermore, how do individuals cope with the combination of all of three of those: when one retires, either by choice or circumstance?
It is also important to note we are not alone in navigating this new terrain. Our significant others are experiencing this grief process with us, sometimes vocally and sometimes silently. I had a former boss that I ran into a few years back, and as I explained what I was currently focused on: working with people retiring from the workforce; his wife said, “What about the spouse? I have my own issues to deal with when he decides to retire.”
Since that time, I have met with many individuals and couples, both personally and professionally, who struggle with this stage of transition. One couple with whom I was working struggled because the husband had moved the family fourteen times over his successful career without consulting his wife about the moves. After he was “encouraged to retire” by his company, he came home and asked his wife, “what should we do?” She responded, “who is this ‘we’? You have never consulted with me before; I don’t even know who you are anymore.”
I also met with a couple in which the wife became injured and is now physically limited, and her husband refused to accept the fact that their life was going to be different; he had even made reservations for a hike around the Grand Canyon.
These are just two of many examples I have seen involving couples who struggle for various reasons during this time in their lives. In all cases, it is key to understand that adjustment is a natural part of the grieving process. It could be that the husband who has been traveling five days a week for most of their married life now struggles as he comes home to a place in which he has no friends, no hobbies, and no ties other than his family. Or it could be that the wife whose sense of self worth was tied up in how she managed a sales team now cringes when her husband comes home and asks the dreaded question, “What did you do today?” The bottom line is, in all these situations, when it’s time for the next phase of life, there needs to be an acknowledgement of denial, anger, etc., before acceptance settles in.
How does a couple confront this grief and manage to not just survive the marriage, but to thrive? How do they achieve the ultimate success of ending up on that rocking chair next to one another?
Helpful strategies for couples to navigate the transition to retirement:
1) Be honest, authentic, and gentle with yourself. This is a time that you have to be real and acknowledge that a part of you may be sad, scared, and angry.
2) Take care of your own needs first. As the safety instructions on the airplane tell us, “put the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting others.” Make sure that you are taking care of yourself with things like medical check-ups (including mental health), eating right, exercising, etc. It is also critical to manage your own “self talk.” It’s very easy to hear something in a negative context when you are feeling down. Instead, say to yourself, “this is a person that loves me. The likelihood of this person saying something to intentionally hurt me is low. What does s/he really mean?” … and then, ask him/her!
3) Speaking of dialogue, another important strategy is to ask for help. Tell your partner what you are experiencing. Say things like, “just to let you know, I am feeling a bit down today. Please don’t take it personally.” Seek help from a career counselor who focuses on retirement/post-intense careers. If you feel seriously overwhelmed, seek professional help via a psychotherapist or another mental health professional.
4) Devise a personal mission or vision statement (or both). My husband and I did this, and we often quote things from it in our day-to-day life. We say to each other things like, “just because we loved it doesn’t mean that we have to keep doing it. Let’s find something else to do that we love.”
5) Together, come up with long-term goals, as well as short-term steps to reach those goals. In order to do this successfully, you will first need to understand what is important to each of you. In this exercise, as with any other partner discussions, it’s more about listening than speaking. Listen to what your partner is saying about what is important to them. You aren’t trying to convince them that your way is best.
6) Have these hard conversations when you are both feeling good. John Gottman and Steven Covey have both referenced the “emotional bank account.” Make sure that your emotional bank account is full. And equally importantly, make sure that you don’t let the problem drive a wedge between the two of you. Instead, work together to come up with strategies that will make you both happy in the coming years.
7) Challenge yourself and your partner to look at new and exciting opportunities. These days, more and more options are open for “encore careers” and for moving from success to significance. According to Psychologist Erik Erikson, in the psycho-social development of human beings, this phase is called “generativity vs. stagnation.” We no longer want to be a CEO or President. Instead, we want to mentor and help others get there. Find a way to do that! Alternatively, go for that long-lost passion of working in the arts. It’s never too late!
8) Above all, understand and appreciate that this time, more than any other time in your life, is about the journey, not the destination…together!