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Retirement-Proof Your Relationship

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The old adage "absence makes the heart grow fonder" can be painfully true when it comes to a couple's golden years. Take the case of Jan Zeh, a retiree who told Newsweek that her husband's retirement was "her worst nightmare" because his constant companionship was driving her crazy. Other newly retired couples describe spats over time spent with friends, differing levels of interest in individual hobbies, conflict over household chores, and resentment over a partner's new involvement in household decisions.

It's never too early to plan for your retirement, whether you're contributing to a Roth IRA or figuring out how you and your spouse will handle all of that sudden "togetherness." But far fewer people plan for the changes in their relationships than for the changes in their finances.

Talking past each other
Many couples think they have planned together, though what they have done is more akin to talking out loud. Such planning usually consists of statements that start with, "Someday we should …" or "If I didn't have to work, I'd …". But thorough preparation for retirement requires more than "Uh-huh" as a response; it requires dialogue.

The reality is that as life expectancy increases, we could be spending two to three decades in retirement. That's a significant portion of a marriage. Folks who aren't prepared for the changes that retirement can bring -- for example, the lack of a daily routine, narrowed social circles, and a lot of choice -- can find themselves wondering whether the retirement of their dreams was just a mirage.

And just as with any significant life change that affects marriage, the impact can seem most significant in the immediate aftermath. Why? That's when roles are up for negotiation, the changes are freshest, and the "new normal" can feel, well, more strange than new.

But take heart: It's not all doom and gloom and too much togetherness. No matter where you are in your retirement timeline, making a plan can go a long way toward heading problems off at the pass. Here are some ideas for getting your retirement relationship off to a great start.

1. Plan your typical post-retirement day. When will you wake up? How will you start your day? How much time will be spent doing things on your own, as opposed to with your partner? Aside from household bills, how will you spend most of your money – shopping? Going out to eat?

Now plan a year. Answer such questions as these: How many months will you spend at home? Will you spend the winters in Florida? How much time will you spend visiting family?

After you each do this exercise, compare notes. You may see where you and your partner's goals are aligned and where they chafe. It's not too early to begin troubleshooting.

2. Talk about timing. Will you retire at the same time? When? Resentment can arise if one spouse is perceived as retiring "too early," since the financial impact of that decision can be significant. Talk about the criteria you'll use in deciding.

3. Set goals. Write a list of your individual goals, and then write a list of shared goals. Just seeing the ideas in print can fuel conversation and identify potential sources of conflict. Strive for a balance of both individual and shared goals.

4. Know thyself. If you have always defined yourself by your vocation, then know that having "nothing to do" may make you feel lost and miserable, feelings that you can then pass along to your spouse. Think of what will make you feel valuable and productive in your retirement years, and include it on your list of goals.

5. Set boundaries. What results when the "me and you against the world" mentality collides with the "more-the-merrier" mind-set? Feelings of rejection, annoyance, and jealousy, to name a few. Discuss finding a balance.

6. Define household roles. In retirement, the domestic landscape changes. How will household responsibilities be reallocated? Make sure that having more time doesn't translate into having more time to micromanage. Conflict is inevitable if tasks your spouse has always handled alone are now up for your discussion -- and unsolicited advice.

7. Get specific about your plans. "We'll travel" could mean he wants to drive around the country in an RV while you want to lounge on the beach in Spain. Both technically fall under the category of "travel," but they involve different experiences and different outlays of money and time.

Plan the interpersonal aspects of your retirement, and you'll find that the "gold" in "golden years" isn't all about money. It's about enjoying the time we have with the people we love.

For more thoughts on planning for the future:

This article was originally published on June 16, 2006. It has been updated.

Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who's building a retirement-proof relationship with Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter service. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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