The New Retirement Trap: How to Avoid Gray Divorce

The Fiscal Times

Last July, when Jeff Schuster, 56, left his job of 35 years with the Department of Public Works in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., he and his wife were financially prepared for his transition into retirement. They were less prepared, however, for the impact his retirement would have on their relationship.

The plan was to rely on his pension while she continued working as a registered nurse for six years until becoming pension-eligible. “For the first couple of months, I found myself feeling very jealous because I was going to work and he wasn’t,” says Jeff's wife, Judi Schuster, 57, adding that she loved her job and wasn’t ready to retire. “People would say, ‘How is Jeff liking his retirement?’ I’d say, ‘Oh he loves it, but I’m really mad.’”

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Experts say the Schusters’ experience is common for couples when one or both retire. Even those who have been meticulous about financial planning often do little to prepare themselves for the emotional changes that come with retirement. After decades spent in well-defined roles, reassessing time spent together, financial habits, household responsibilities, and life goals can throw couples for a loop, says Sara Yogev, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Chicago and author of A Couple's Guide To Happy Retirement.

“Just as when the first child is born and it changes the marital dynamic, when we retire, the marital dynamic changes,” says Yogev. “Couples spend much more time together. Long-term issues that have been tolerable before now come to the surface and the increased time together makes them more obvious and less tolerable.”

While the overall rate of divorce has dropped in the past 25 years, the rate of “gray divorce” between couples over age 50 doubled between 1990 and 2010, reports the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. About one in four divorces occurs in the over-50 demographic.

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A number of factors are driving that growth: Baby boomers are the first generation for whom 20 or even 30 years of retirement isn’t uncommon.

They’re also the first generation of women who have been in the work force long enough to afford divorce in their later years. Plus, a cultural shift in the necessity of marriage is also contributing to increased divorce rates.

“Today, couples have more of an individualized marriage, in which emphasis is on personal happiness and self-fulfillment, and if marriage isn’t making us better off, then divorce seems to be a viable solution,” says Susan L. Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research. “It's much more about what marriage can do for me, rather than how effectively am I performing my role as a wife or husband, which is how we would have characterized marriage back in the 1950's and ‘60's.”

CONFLICTS IN THE LATER YEARS
Marital issues are not just about suddenly spending too much time together. Conflicts often spring from partners’ different views on how to spend their time and fiscal resources. Even couples who have been married for decades often aren’t on the page when it comes to their post-work future Nearly 40 percent who are still working disagree about the lifestyle they expect to have in retirement, and 36 percent either disagree or don't know where they plan to live after leaving the working world, according to a Fidelity Investments survey of more than 800 couples.

Understanding your own needs, maintaining strong communication with your partner, and staying open to negotiation are the keys to making a healthy, happy shift to the golden years, says Roberta Taylor, a retirement transition coach in Massachusetts and co-author of The Couple's Retirement Puzzle.

“Retirement is really a word that’s becoming obsolete,” Taylor says. “What you're moving towards is more important than what you're leaving.”

Couples should sit down and discuss their retirement goals in advance, recognizing they may not agree on everything at first. The conversation should focus on how the couple will divide their time together versus time apart, what they can each do to feel fulfilled in retirement, and what they can do to feel reconnected when together, says Taylor.

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One exercise that helped Barbara Abramowitz and Skip Reilly, a Newton, Massachusetts, couple married for 36 years, was creating “vision boards” of interests they’d like to explore and activities they’d like to do, both individually and together. When Barbara, 65, left her full-time job as a mental health clinic director in 2006 and Skip, 66, left his hospital psychology director gig in 2011, both moved into new passions without losing momentum or feeling lost. Now, Barbara says, the pair sometimes feel they don’t have enough time for retirement.

“When people ask me how’s retirement, I tell them it’s the best job I’ve ever had,” Skip adds.

Even with the best of planning, conflicts may still arise. If they do, be prepared to dig deeper than the immediate issue.

“If [couples] fight over doing the dishes or folding the clothes, it’s not just about the task,” Yogev says. “What’s important is the emotional meaning that is attached to that. The emotional meaning is consideration. Do you care about what is important to me?”

Finally, couples should keep in mind that communication is an ongoing process. They might periodically reassess whether the retirement lifestyle is working for them and make adjustments if needed.  

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