The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle: Helping Couples Navigate Their Retirement Transition: Challenges and Opportunities
By Dorian Mintzer, M.S.W., Ph.D., BCC, CSA
One of the things that I like to share with advisers working with couples is to think about the concept of a puzzle. It’s both a noun and a verb. It’s not as if the puzzle pieces are going to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Think about your own life, think about some of the clients you had or have; there are just a lot of areas that impact each other, and it’s not going to fit together just like the jigsaw puzzle.
My belief is that finances and health and wellness are two of the most significant and most important of the puzzle pieces because they really do impact the kind of choices that we have – lifestyle options, where we live, how we’ll be able to take care of our self if there are medical issues that come up. The puzzle is unique to each person, each couple.
It essential to help your individual clients, as well as your couple clients, think about what their vision is and then find ways to talk with whoever is important in their life to discuss what kind of shared vision they want to create. It can be a marriage partner, a spouse, or adult children.
The Landscape of Retirement Has Changed
Retirement isn’t thought of so much as a destination now. It’s much more a transition, with endings, unknowns, new beginnings. It can become rather daunting. When do you retire? If you’re in a relationship, do you retire at the same time, a different time? What if you still feel like you need to earn money because you don’t want to outlive your money? What are ways to think about, maybe, working in different ways? Working part-time, a phased retirement, an encore career? There are just many more options than there had been before.
The concept of retirement began in the 1930s when life expectancy was shorter. Because more people worked in industrial jobs, they were physically burned out. Now, people are working more in offices, and we live longer. When Social Security started, the notion was that you retire around age 62-65, with the expectation that people would live maybe another 5-10 years. Now with the longevity revolution, people are expected to live well into their 70s, 80s, 90s, and even 100s.
Age 85 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. We have these bonus years where there’s more of an extended middle age. Middle age is now thought more of as age 55 to maybe 75 or 80. These are opportunities to be very vital, very alive, and it’s a little shift in the paradigm. It’s no longer all downhill from 60.
Middlescence and Retirement Transitions
There are some midlife shifts. As we get to be middle-aged, there is a second adulthood. Some people refer to it as a parallel of adolescents, sort of middlescence.
There is a kind of restlessness, a sense of, is this all there is? You can look in the mirror, and you may say, “Who am I?” Or you look at your partner if you have one, and you say, “Who are you? Who are we?” There’s an unease. That’s normal. It’s not a disease, but people begin grappling with some of the existential kind of questions of, “What’s it all about?” Often, the feeling can be, if not now, when? Many times, people will want to take more risks.
The other thing that I think begins to happen in midlife is that our definition of success begins to change. What begins to shift is what’s called the locus of control, that sense that your standards come much more from inside of you. You’re not going to be immune from other people say, but there’s much more of this internal sense of what success is all about.
The other concept that I really think is important is that life is a series of transitions. It’s an act of faith to go from letting go of the known and a new beginning. The hope is there’s a safety net, the same way we hope there’s a safety net in a trapeze harness.
It is helpful to help people think back. How have you handled other transitions in your life? There are transitions of going to school, maybe getting your first job, leaving your job, maybe getting married, maybe having children, maybe getting divorced, losing a partner or a spouse, and losing a parent. Those are all transitions. What I find helpful is for people to reflect on that and to think about, “Do I have more trouble with the ending, the letting go, maybe the grief part that’s part of it because it’s going to be a change? Do I have more trouble with the unknown? Do I have more trouble with the new beginning?” Some people don’t have trouble with any of it. Some people might have more trouble with the ending and not so much with the unknown or new beginning. It may help you and your client begin thinking about this as they approach the retirement transition years and why there’s a bit of the anxiety or that sense of it being daunting when they don’t know what to expect.
In your role as an advisor, it’s constructive for people to think about the transition and to think about that safety net. Sometimes if people are part of big families, it can be taken for granted that the family is the safety net. However, it isn’t that way so much anymore as people might have kids, but they may be all over the globe. They may have different ages or capacities, and many, many more people are childless either by choice or life circumstances. It becomes crucial for clients to think about, “How do I provide for myself? How do I build that safety net?” It is a significant role that you as advisors have with your clients.
How to Achieve Well-Being in Retirement
Well-being is a combination of connection, engagement, purpose, and meaning. Step back and think about it. Work generally gives us that. It’s a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Usually, there’s comradery. There’s a connection with other people. We’re engaged. There may be busy work, but if it works well, there’s that engagement with other people and with the projects you’re working on, and a sense of purpose and meaning.
Active parenting, as well as work, also provides connection, engagement, purpose, and meaning. If people are beginning to think about either retiring or working differently, it maybe they have an empty nest because the kids are off at college. It becomes essential to think about how to build a sense of some connection, engagement, purpose, and meaning in your life. There’s no right way. It may be that you want to use your skills and still work but maybe not work full time. You might want to do what’s called an “encore career” where you use your skills in a giving back capacity where you’re still earning some money, helping a nonprofit or volunteer work, working with children, or intergenerational contact. It becomes important to think about how to build at least some structure in your life. It doesn’t have to be the kind of structure you had when you had kids or when you were working, but some structure that gets you out of bed in the morning, that gives you a sense of purpose and connection and engagement.
The Complexity of Retirement Planning for Couples in the 21st Century
There are so many different kinds of couples: heterosexual, same-sex couples, long-term marriages, and those with maybe second, third, or fourth marriages. There may be committed relationships, where committed people live together or perhaps, they don’t live together. There may be dual career or one career couples. There may be children – yours, mine, ours. There may be grandchildren – yours, mine, ours. There may not be children or grandchildren. Maybe childless by choice or life circumstances.
It’s also complicated because, in couples, we’re all separate people, so there can be differing values, beliefs, goals, hopes, and dreams. There may be couples that have different cultures or different races, different religions, different personality styles, different communication styles, different money styles, various health and energy levels.
There is a higher divorce rate for couples over 50. That seems to be on the rise. Because we’re living longer, if it’s not been a good relationship – and maybe there have been kids, and the kids are gone – a couple may realize that they don’t have that much common anymore. They haven’t nurtured their relationship. Also, since there are more women in the labor force now and more women earning money, women tend to initiate the divorce more because they say, “I don’t want to just be in a not happy relationship for all those years.”
A Retirement Transition Impacts the Entire Family System
George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has actually taken place.” What influenced my co-author and me to write our book, “The Couple Retirement Puzzle” is it was just becoming clear couples weren’t talking, that people weren’t talking in a deeper way that was leading to some compromise or resolution.
Each person has dealt differently with previous life transitions, and that’s going to impact dealing with their retirement transitions and the second half of life. They may really need help in figuring out their safety net, especially if there are no children and no available children as supports. It is not a given that each member of the couple is going to feel comfortable with you. It is important to think about the family system in your work because retirement impacts the entire family.
It is helpful to ask clients, “Have you thought about, discussed, and they agreed upon some of these topics?” It’s useful for you to be aware of these kinds of issues because it may help you normalize things for people if some problems or conflicts come up. Many people have concerns about the following. You can let clients know that it’s not really something you deal with and that they may want to think about seeing a coach or a therapist or some other kind of professional. It could even be a faith-based person depending on what the issue is.
- The timing of retirement: If both people are working, sometimes one is feeling more burnt out than the other, or maybe one has health insurance. The jury is not out about if people should retire at the same time or not. Some people like to; other people like one person to retire and kind of get used to it while the other person is still bringing in some income. It’s not a given, and there are many issues. Some people are feeling, “I don’t want to keep doing what I’m doing, but I don’t want not to work, and I don’t want to outlive my money, so I want to earn some extra money.” Some industries allow for phased retirement or part-time work using your skills.
- Finance is one of the most significant pieces of the puzzle. Money is a tool. The amount people need for retirement depends on how they want to live their life. Sometimes people have a fantasy of once they retire, they are going to spend less money, and that’s not necessarily the case. It may be true you don’t have to commute, or it may be true you don’t have to buy a lot of professional clothes, but for some people, if they’ve got the money, they want to do some traveling. There are different things that they want to do on their bucket list or curious list to do while they’re still alive and healthy.
- Expectations are critical. Ask clients to discuss: “What do you envision you want to do in your retirement? What do you think is going to change for you individually and as a couple?” I have found that people need to clarify expectations. This example is a stereotype, but say the husband retires and the wife is used to having the home be more of her bailiwick. Suddenly he has more free time, and so he’s rearranging things. Or maybe it’s an issue of one or the other expecting the other to be the social secretary and the other person not wanting to be in that role. It becomes important to talk about the expectations so that you don’t keep setting up disappointments and always feel like you’re letting the other person down.
- Changing roles and identity. For some people, our work is everything that we know and do. Other people might have different kinds of roles, hobbies and identities. I see this much more with women now where work is such an essential part of who they are. If both people are suddenly at home, they may want to talk about some of the changing roles of how household things go because they’re both home more. How can they do things differently?
- Time together and apart can be a big bugaboo for couples. Just a quick little example of one couple that I had worked with. They both worked hard. She tended to work later than he did, and he would go out with his friends drinking. Then they’d meet later and have dinner. She ended up deciding to cut back and work part-time. They never talked about it, but in her head, her assumption was, “I’m will now have time to make great dinners! It’s going to be wonderful”. She made lovely dinners, and she found herself angrier and angrier because her husband was still coming home late because he went out every night with his friends. He had assumed that she decided to work part-time because she wanted more time to herself. He thought he was doing a good thing by continuing with what he was doing, and their marriage began to fall apart.
Finally, they talked and clarified that they were each working with assumptions. Assumptions get people into hot water. Once they explained their points of view, they were able to decide which nights he would come back early and have a nice dinner together, and which nights he’d be out with his friends, so she’d make plans with her friends. They then actually found a course they wanted to take together.
- Sexuality, romance, and identity. This may not be areas that you’re dealing with people, but it’s helpful to know about. We all need touch and love from birth to death. You may have couples with whom you’ve been working where someone divorces or has lost a spouse. Knowing that it’s very normal and important for people to think about these areas may be a way that you can encourage people to get some of the help that they need.
- Obligations with family and friends. There can be many disagreements of how people feel about who gets money. Children, grandchildren, mine, or yours. Even in the best of relationships, we need more than just our partner, so it’s important to think about the relationships and obligations with family and friends. It is important to build a social life and feel that you are a part of a community.
- Health and wellness. More people are either going to be the caregiver or care receiver as we live longer. There are many unexpected expenses, and this is where the puzzle piece of finances and health and wellness become essential. How and where to live is a fundamental and often tricky issue.
- How and where to live. Some people may think they are on the same page, and then you hear, “Oh, I want to live in a warmer climate,” and the other says, “I don’t like being in the warmer climate. I want to be near the kids.” I mentioned social life and community. Spirituality, purpose, and meaning are also vital. It’s not unusual that as people get older, they may question what life is all about, and try to figure out what is going to give them purpose and meaning.
- End of life issues. I know many time people want to avoid it. It is an act of love that can be very liberating. It’s helpful to tell people that. If you know what the wishes are of your partner or your parents or adult children and vice versa, it helps you at a time of crisis not having to second guess what you think would be important.
- We all want to be remembered in big or small ways. Legacy may be financial or otherwise. It can be the stories we tell, ethical letters, ethical wills we write to children or grandchildren or nieces or nephews or making videos. If you’re an adult child, record your parents telling their stories. These things can be beautiful ways to connect people and be nice parts of communication.
Other Topics for Discussion Between Couples About Retirement
Part of the goal, again with the idea of the puzzle pieces, is how do these puzzle pieces fit with each other? Below are some questions that I have found helpful. Each couple should think about it individually and then to talk about it together.
- What have you always wanted to do but haven’t done?
- What are your biggest goals and dreams?
- If there was unlimited money, what would you want to do alone or together?
- What new things might you want to learn?
- What do you most want to see or experience? What relationships, if any, do you want to repair?
- Where do you want to live?
- How can you live your life with a greater sense of purpose and meaning?
This last question is crucial and is influenced by George Kinder. He’s a holistic financial life planner, and he has three questions that I’ve modified into one. I find it very powerful for people that if a doctor told you that you only had 24 to 48 hours to live, what would you regret not having said or done? This is something that clients can answer with you during a meeting with you or you can make these suggestions for them to do it at home. Have them take turns and share one item at a time, focusing on some of the similarities and differences on their list that are under their control.
The healthiest relationships are when people can do things together and separately. Ideally, the positive outcome is that it satisfies each of them and benefits the relationship. Like a financial portfolio, it’s a life portfolio that you have to come back to and reevaluate because interests may change, health may change, or finances may change. Having difficult conversations can bring couples closer together, and it really can lead to greater emotional intimacy.
Some of the challenges for the advisors is that even if you initially meet with one member of the couple, is to try to include both of them, at least for some of the meetings, so that the couple becomes your client. The importance of respecting them and helping them each have a voice is that is one of the partners dies, the other might continue with you, and so knowing you and having a sense and knowing some of the questions to ask can be helpful in this retention. Keep in mind that the individuals within a couple have different temperaments, communication style, ability to deal with thoughts and feelings, resilience, memories, and they put a different meaning on events, and history dealing with life transitions.
What I have found, often, is couples haven’t been talking. They may say they’ve just been too busy. People may know they’re going to disagree, and they want to avoid conflict. Why open up Pandora’s Box? They wrongly assume that they’re in agreement and then discover, hmm, we don’t necessarily want the same thing. They don’t want to think ahead as a way to avoid thinking about aging and, ultimately, death, and they may not have the skills to communicate effectively.
It is rewarding to help couples learn to communicate more effectively and to begin to develop their individual and shared vision and maybe listen to each other in a different way. It’s rewarding to watch them grow and develop and have more conversations at home.
It is also humbling to work with couples because what I find in the process of working with clients, whether individually or as a couple, is that it triggers our personal growth and deepens our awareness because we’re on a parallel journey. We may be different ages from our clients, but if we’re lucky, we’re all going to get older and we’re all going to need to think about this next stage of life.
About Dorian Mintzer, M.S.W., Ph.D., BCC, CSA
Dr. Dorian Mintzer is an experienced speaker, coach, therapist and consultant who weaves adult development, holistic life planning and positive psychology into programs that tap and shape clients’ energies into roadmaps for wiser, more enhanced living.
She is co-author of the award winning The Couples Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Creating an Amazing New Life Together, co-producer of The Career Playbook: Second Half Playsand has contributed to a number of other books such as Live Smart After 50!, Not your Mother’s Retirement, 65 Things to do when you Retire, 70 Things to do When you Turn 70, and 80 Things to do when you Turn 80.
She is host of the popular monthly Revolutionize your Retirement Interview with Expert’s Series. She’s been featured in a variety of media such as the NY Times, WSJ, USA Today, CNN Money, Forbes.com, Next Avenue, NPR, ABC Evening News and the Today Show and has given a Ted X talk focused on “Embracing your Bonus Years.” Learn more about her and her programs at www.revolutionizeretirement.com. (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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©2019, Dr Dorian Mintzer. All rights reserved. Used with permission.