This blog was first published on the Fighting Fifty website.
My wife and I retired at the same time. This was partly planned and partly accidental. I was getting bored and she was getting frustrated. Her job was changing in a way she didn’t like and my job wasn’t changing and I didn’t like that. So in August last year we retired. I was 65 and she was 64. We had talked a bit about what retirement would be like and what we might do in our third age but I couldn’t really say we had planned it thoroughly. It was more like, as they say in Yorkshire – she’ll be right (pronounced rate), and as the Irish might say, she’ll be grand. Hmm.
We have friends who have retired, like us, at the same time and those who haven’t. From this small sample, the jury is out as to which works best. I think generally there is a view that simultaneous retirement is a good thing. In a joint retirement there is reckoned to be a greater understanding from both partners about the challenges of retirement and an increased commitment to making it work. Discussions about the potential and possibilities of retirement are encouraged rather than tolerated. There is a joint feeling of freedom and a sharing of concerns and the challenge of less money is jointly addressed. What’s not to like?
So far so good you might say. But I think there is a downside to joint retirement. This is a downside to be, at least, aware of if not actively seeking to minimise. Later in this article I will make some suggestions as to how this minimisation might happen. The downside, in a nutshell, is that, if retiring can be a blow to one’s self esteem, and I have suggested elsewhere that it is, then a double retirement can be a double blow to the self esteem of both partners. In fact it is worse than that, the lowering of self esteem on retirement is not simply double what it would be for one partner, it is inter-actional. There can be a negative synergy to the process. Of course it is impossible to calculate what this might look like. Once factors start interacting they can go anywhere.
What we can say is that when two partners retire at the same time and are unhappy with this process in some way (not necessarily in the same way), their dissatisfaction, if we call it that, affects the other person. Unhappiness is shared, it becomes pernicious. Support can be in short supply simply because the partner needs everything they have to meet their own needs, they have nothing left over to support their partner. You are both conscious of the fact that your self esteem and your partner’s have been affected and yet feel powerless to help. This then, to answer the question in the title, is what can happen to a couple’s self esteem when they retire together. At least that’s how it can be, a worst case scenario if you like. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like that. The way to rebuild self esteem is to take back the feeling of being in control that might have been lost in the retirement process. First, let’s see if we can understand what happens when we retire.
So let’s take a look at what can happen to a relationship when both partners retire with the use of a Venn diagram. First, let me say I do not claim to be an expert on happy marriages but my wife and I have been married for 42 years and we have developed a broad theory as to what constitutes the basis of a happy marriage or one that thrives. Simply put it is – have a core of common values and interests but have separate interests as well. (I’ve written about this elsewhere).
In Venn diagram form for the partnership as a whole, the theory might look something like the diagram below – an area in the middle of common values with satellite areas around the edges. The whole being roughly balanced. Keeping it roughly balanced seems to me to be the way forward for a marriage that thrives (of course there are times in any relationship when things get out of balance, that’s when we work hard to restore the equilibrium). The diagram below is just an example to demonstrate the principle, in a real life relationship there may well be other areas represented.
Over a period of time, relationships develop balance or homeostatis (a term sometimes used in family therapy or psychology meaning something which prevents drastic changes in a family set up even if that lack of change is detrimental to the family and the individuals within it). It’s a kind of ‘better the devil you know’ position. Arguably the longer that period of time the greater or more solid that balance. A Venn diagram such as the one above shows some typical areas of a relationship. In this kind of diagram the greater the overlap the greater the likelihood of the couple engaging in the activity together (as in this example, children, in this relationship children are pretty much a joint enterprise, in reality it is likely that a retiring couple will not have children as part of this set-up). If a circle doesn’t overlap at all this simply means it is an activity of one partner only. Work is likely to be one of those ‘separate’ areas and the diagram shows it like this.
Now take the work circle out of the ‘equation’ and it’s easy to see how the whole caboodle becomes unbalanced. This what happens when we retire, more so when couples retire together. From a self esteem perspective, all the self esteem that came with the jobs or careers of both partners is quite suddenly gone. This may not be the way it has been for 20 or 30 ‘working’ years. That can take some coping with. You might call it an inter-actional deficit of self esteem.
Now for the good news. We can do things to restore some kind of harmony in the relationship and, in this process, regain some of that lost self esteem. This exercise is based on the belief that self esteem improves when, in this case, as a couple, you take control of your retirement lives. I will be writing more about this over the next few weeks in my blog www.thesummerhouseyears.com. In the meantime, here is an exercise you might like to engage in with your partner.
1. Individually (undistracted, in a quiet place) brainstorm all the areas you would like in your third age. Your areas can be general (I want to feel useful) or specific (I want to do charity work). General is fine at this stage but if you have written down general areas you will need to make them more specific as you go along. I’ve written about goal setting elsewhere and again I will have more to write as I explore the area of self esteem, for now just write down what you would like in your retirement life. Don’t worry at this stage, whether they are realistic or what your partner might think of them! Write them on bits of paper, circles if you like that you later place on your main bit of paper. Also spend some time reflecting on your common, core values. What do you have in common that kept you together these years?
2. Get a largish blank piece of paper. Draw a circle in the middle of your sheet of paper. Get your bits of paper and bring your areas together and complete a Venn diagram (as above). What are your joint retirement values in the middle circle? Write a statement in this circle such as ‘our retirement is / is about …
3. Now draw or place your other circles / bits of paper with your activities in / on the large circle. Draw /place the circles where you think they relate to the centre circle. The more they overlap with the centre circle they more they are intended to be a joint activity. If they make no connection to the centre circle that’s fine, it just means this is an activity that one partner will do on their own. If you have both written the same activity and you want to do it together then place or draw / place your two circles on top of each other and agree how much together you would like to engage in this activity. If your circles are on separate bits of paper you might want to tape them down to stop them moving around although nothing too permanent because you might want to move them later in the process.
4. When you have placed or drawn all your potential activities, put it away for a couple of days so you can come to it fresh.
5. Look at the whole thing and ask yourself the following questions :
- does it look right as a representation of your retirement life?
- is it comprehensive, have all the parts you want, at this stage at least?
- is it balanced?
- Is the hole left by an absence of work nicely filled?
- is it exciting?
Finally, use a simple technique I’ve used many times in my work as a psychologist to evaluate the quality of an idea a strategy or a plan and the likelihood of it being implemented. It’s from a company called Synectics and it’s called the NAF rating. N stands for novelty – is it new?; A stands for appeal – do you like the look of it?; F stands for feasibility or practicality – can you do the things you’ve chosen? If you look at the whole of your plan it should score at least 7 out of 10 in each of the three NAF areas. If it doesn’t, say it lacks a little in the way of originality or novelty then ask yourselves what it would take to improve the score of the plan in that area. Make the change and then look at what you’ve got now.
So this then is the overview of your retirement. You have taken back some of that lost control, improved your joint self esteem. This is your, ‘as a couple’, view of your future together. It’s not set in concrete and it can certainly be changed, indeed should be changed, as you go along. It won’t be ‘right’ in any kind of permanent way. So review it from time to time. Good luck and happy retirement.