05/16/2013 08:03 am ET

Retirement And Marriage: The Pitfalls Of Being A Mixed-Retirement Couple

Senior woman upset while husband watches
Senior woman upset while husband watches

Shortly after his 60th birthday, my husband -- who is 15 years my senior -- took a buyout from his employer of 32 years to follow a life-long dream: He became a thoroughbred racehorse owner -- briefly.

He had dabbled in the ponies while still employed and when the opportunity presented itself to leave his day job with some coins in his pocket, he jumped at it and, with my blessing, headed straight to the racetrack to invest in a horse-racing stable. He became a fractional owner of several dozen horses and in the early weeks of his new career devoted his days to studying the Racing Form and researching horse-breeding charts.

But, as he quickly learned, the thing about being a racehorse owner is that it's really a passive investment. While you can certainly hang around the track and watch the morning workouts whenever you like, you hire a trainer and he pretty much runs the show -- including spending your money. Aside from the occasional feed-a-horse-a-carrot visit with the grandkids, about the only time a racehorse owner actually needs to show up is on race day, and even then, the horses do just fine without you in attendance. Before long, my husband was hanging around the house all day with not much to do.

Without thinking about it, we had become a mixed-retirement couple. You've heard of mixed-race, maybe even mixed-weight couples, right? So let me familiarize you with the concept of a mixed-retirement couple. It's when one person still gets up every morning to a loud alarm clock and the other gets to just roll over in bed. It's when one person still has a miserable commute and the other does not. It's when one person continues to go to work outside the home and the other remains home all day and should assume all the cleaning, cooking, laundry, grocery shopping and errands. OK, I made up that last part. And it sure didn't happen that way in our mixed-retirement coupledom.

Mixed-retirement marriages are situations ripe for resentment and stress. It's a real test of the strength of the union and a point at which, I suspect, many marriages fall apart as partners assume new roles involving money and bringing home the bacon.

In our case, my husband's early retirement certainly took its toll. Within a few months of leaving his editing job, he figured out that his presence at the racetrack was not necessary or even necessarily welcome on a daily basis. He felt a little bereft and couldn't figure out how to spend his days while I and all his friends were still at work. He began taking our dogs on longer and longer walks -- not a bad thing for any of them -- except he missed having someone to talk to. When I would get home from work, he'd regale me with stories about the cute things the dogs did that day, how one of them cornered a squirrel on their walk, how they spotted a coyote down in the field, how many foxtails he pulled off our Retriever's paws.

I don't think either of us found it interesting, but he was doing the best he could to fill his days against an emptiness that hadn't been there before. I noticed it even more when we entertained. He wasn't interested in what he called the "war stories" that our still-employed journalism friends wanted to tell. And he was bringing less and less conversation to the table.

He wanted to travel more, but we were still restricted by my limited vacation time. He wanted to go to late movies on weekdays that left me feeling too tired the next day at work. He wanted to go to ballgames, to concerts, to new restaurants that were across town -- and had no one to go with.

He took a brief stab at volunteering and pretty much learned that some people -- aka him -- aren't cut out for it. Hospitals depressed him, he said, and nursing homes were worse. Volunteering at the animal shelter lasted one afternoon; he was either going to bring home half the dogs on death row every visit or go nuts on the next guy who wanted to turn in a perfectly loyal 12-year-old dog and leave with a puppy. He joined our Neighborhood Watch and quickly became the guy signing for everyone's FedEx packages; after all, he was always home. His day became structured around errands and it didn't feel good to him.

At one point, we agreed he needed to go back to work, at least part-time. He took a few part-time editing jobs and did some consulting work. But by the end of that first year, it was clear that we were in trouble. We hadn't adequately prepared for our status as a mixed-retirement couple and were caught completely off-guard by the fact we both found his new life incarnation boring.

Most couples do not retire at the exact same time, noted University of Minnesota sociology professor Phyllis Moen, who has studied mixed-retirement couples. Newly retired men with still-employed wives "experience the most marital conflict, possibly because of the reversal of traditional roles," Moen said. "Employed wives whose husbands are retired completely report the highest marital conflict . . . many feel their husbands aren't doing enough around the house." Talk about nailing it.

Moen also noted that non-retired men reported being more satisfied with their marriages when their wives retire. "Possibly because they now have a full-time homemaker," Moen said. Retired wives in this situation report being "not satisfied at all."

Our solution came in a pretty unique and inadvertent way. We adopted two kids from China and, for the past decade, my husband has officially been a stay-at-home dad while I go off to work. He manages the household, coaches the kids, and occasionally whines about how he has no free time in his retirement. It's music to my ears.



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