Half-Retired

8 minute read
Rebecca Winters

Betty Polston and her husband Bernie were finishing dinner at their kitchen table one night in 1990 when Bernie announced that after 30 years, he was retiring from his law practice. Betty’s reaction was physical: her throat tightened and her stomach churned. “I knew that financially we’d be fine,” Betty says. “But that didn’t mean I was ready for my husband–Bernie the Attorney–to retire. He didn’t have any hobbies. He’s very laid back. I had visions of him napping, reading newspapers and lying around the patio for the rest of his life.”

In addition to the knowledge she’d gleaned from 27 years of being Bernie’s wife at that point, Betty had some extra insight into what his retirement might mean to their marriage. She’s a psychotherapist who has been counseling couples for 25 years. She knew that not every couple is prepared for the growing phenomenon she and Bernie faced: the half-retired marriage.

In more marriages today than ever before, one partner, usually the wife, is working while her spouse has retired. Fifty-one percent of married women ages 55 to 64 were in the labor force last year, compared with 36% in 1980. “Unlike prior generations of retirees, in which the wife was most often a homemaker, today’s couples have two retirements to think about,” says Phyllis Moen, a psychologist conducting an ongoing study on retirement at Cornell University. According to Moen, when one person continues to work after the other retires, all kinds of issues can arise–from how much time to spend together and how to divide the housework to how to help the retired spouse find a new, non-work-related identity. And as couples live longer, the quality of their relationships becomes even more important, says therapist Polston. But while “everyone has a financial plan for retirement, and a health plan, no one bothers to make a relationship plan,” she says. “We’re going to live 20, 30, 40 more years in a retirement relationship. We’d better figure out how to do it.”

…BUT NOT FOR LUNCH

After Guy Barton, 56, retired last year from his job as a public school administrator in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., he took some computer classes at a local college, brushed up on his cooking skills at the Culinary Institute of America and began golfing more regularly with friends. His wife Marge, 55, a fifth-grade teacher, won’t be eligible to retire until next June.

“When [Guy] first decided to retire, I was concerned that he’s a little too young,” Marge says. “He’s keeping busy, but it can get lonely.” A lot of the Bartons’ close friends have already retired and moved away, and Marge still has her full load of lessons to plan and papers to correct. “It’s tough when I come home and have schoolwork to do and phone calls to make, and he’s been puttering around most of the day and would like my attention,” says Marge. For Guy’s part, he’s ready for his wife to retire. “We’d both really love to travel and see friends, and I can go at any time, but she can’t just take a week off from school,” Guy says. “I’m having an O.K. time now; my life is completely stress free. But it’ll be a lot more fun when she’s with me.”

There’s an old line about marriage and retirement: “I married you for better or for worse, but not for lunch.” And that’s how Marilyn and Ronald Goldstone of West Bloomfield, Mich., have successfully managed their half-retired relationship for nearly 10 years. Marilyn, 69, works part time keeping the books for a handbag and luggage retailer. Ronald, 72, retired as a civilian attorney for the Army in 1989. He consulted for a law firm initially but experienced a major change in his lifestyle. “It’s still quite an event when you retire,” Ronald says. “One day you’re thinking about a $1 million contract. The next it’s ‘Shall I get the car washed or polished?'”

Ronald’s retirement also meant a big change in the couple’s daily routine–a common source of tension among recent retirees and their spouses. “I remember that first time we were both home for lunch,” Marilyn says. “I didn’t have the time to make us both a meal and clean up too. It didn’t take long before we decided that whoever is around at lunchtime can take care of his or her own lunch. We realized it made sense to go our separate ways during the day.” Marilyn’s satisfaction in her work, she says, makes finding personal time easier for both of them. The Goldstones fit in that time in other ways too. Though they are both avid tennis players, they usually play separately with friends. They also take turns visiting his 96-year-old mother in a nearby nursing home. “That way we’re not bumping into each other all day, and we’re happy to see each other at night for dinner,” says Ronald.

In her book, Loving Midlife Marriage (John Wiley & Sons; $14.95), Betty Polston calls this “replenishing your ‘I’ account.” That’s when doing your own thing as individuals makes a midlife relationship better, Polston says, and it’s a reason why if one partner enjoys working after the other has retired, it can be good for the marriage. But the first year or two of one spouse’s retirement can be very tough on a couple, and the way is eased when both members are willing to make some changes.

NEW TRICKS

Typically the first months are a “honeymoon phase,” where a new retiree, euphorically free from work, enjoys long-postponed leisure time. But after the honeymoon ends and one day of golf, the paper and a short to-do list stretches into the next, the new retiree can get depressed, especially if a spouse is at work all day. This syndrome can be prevented, Moen believes, if retirement is viewed not as a cold-turkey shift from work to leisure, but instead as a gradual transition from full- to part-time work, or volunteering.

Not surprisingly, Moen cites her husband Dick Schore as a good example of how it should be done. Schore had a 25-year career with the Department of Labor, followed by six years as the executive director of a labor institute at Cornell. In 1997 he went from full to part time. Now Schore, 70, has stopped work entirely and is volunteering five days a week at a local elementary school, as well as doing pro bono work. Moen, 58, continues to relish her own 60-hour workweeks. “This is the good life,” says Schore. “I truly am enjoying myself, and I think I’m contributing something to the lives of the kids I see each day.”

This kind of transition would be a much more feasible option for other retirees, Moen believes, if only employers encouraged it. Because many pensions are based on an employee’s last three years of service, phasing out of a current career slowly is financially unattractive. And while employers may provide information about how to prepare financially for retirement, most don’t talk to workers about how to plan another precious resource–their time. Additionally, volunteering organizations are largely missing out on the untapped resource of skilled retirees.

But while our institutions still need to catch up with our changing retirement patterns, couples can prepare in advance for the big problems (like identity crises) and the little ones (like who makes dinner).

SO WHO DOES MAKE DINNER?

Betty Polston nervously anticipated her husband’s retirement because she knew how much of his self-worth was invested in his career, and she wondered where he would direct his energies after that career ended. She also knew to prepare for the everyday problems that can catch couples off guard. “We made a point to talk about the housework issue before it became an issue,” Polston says. “Bernie hadn’t ever helped around the house since we got married. But now it made sense for him to take on some chores.” It was agreed that Bernie would make his lunch, wash the dishes, make the bed and take out the trash.

Some issues weren’t so easily resolved, however. Bernie had decided to take some of his firm’s clients with him when he retired, and work out of the house a couple of days a week. He set up a home office in an extra bedroom, outfitting it with a new computer. His files took up a closet that had once been filled with Betty’s clothes, and his work frequently spilled out of the bedroom onto the dining-room table. But Betty and Bernie eventually worked out the space issue with a redesign of the office, adding an extra desk to keep papers from taking over the rest of the house. Still, Betty thinks conflicts like this one can be handled best if couples are ready for them. There are many good questions to ask before one member of a couple retires, such as: What changes do you each anticipate? How much time together seems right? And will you reallocate household tasks?

Of course, you can plan your retirement to the last detail, but it won’t be any fun at all if you’re not flexible. New needs can arise, old habits can be broken, and a relationship can evolve. For many couples, these years are what you’ve spent the rest of your lives working toward. And after all that planning and hard work, your first priority should be to enjoy.

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