Bond through life passages — 15 March 2004
Young couples face unexpected retirement woes

Can you imagine being able to retire at age 39, 40 or 45? Does having a lifetime ahead of you without financial concerns sound like a dream come true? All the exciting things you can do, all the freedom you can have and the unencumbered days? If this is a blissful state, why are some young couples finding this fortunate position somewhat difficult?

Young retired couples experiencing marital difficulties due to their newfound freedom, is a recent phenomenon. It may be puzzling why young people who have attained financial independence find themselves unhappy?

To understand this question it is wise to look at our culture’s history. In the past, the vast majority of people worked to age sixty-five. They saved for, planned for, and looked forward to the few retirement years of joy, prior to their demise. Retirement has always, until recently, been associated with older age. No formulas for young retirees were available.

Work has also traditionally been the primary activity that structured our days and helped cement working people’s sense of self-esteem. The pursuit of financial security was a long -term goal shared by both partners and the role division within the family was negotiated accordingly. Our culture structured working years as the long preparation for a short-term freedom. Pleasure, travel, hobbies, talents and fun activities were reserved for the future.

With the advent of our technological era, attitudes toward work and play began to change. People became very invested in gaining their free time options earlier in life and extending their fun years.

Some gifted and fortunate people were able to do just that. They achieved financial autonomy at a young age and were free to restructure their lives in any way they chose to. They became the envy of many other hard working individuals who presumed that the early retirees have achieved nirvana.

Some did. Others, however faced new life challenges among which were time management, self-esteem issues and relationship difficulties.

As enticing as a free calendar with no scheduled meetings, assignments or time constraints initially were, for some people that openness began to feel like a void. The young retirees describe having no purpose in getting out of bed in the morning, feeling sad and lost. They also discovered that time management has become a burden rather than a joy.

These blessed people also experience a lowered sense of self-esteem. They miss contributing to others, getting validated and appreciated on the job, and feeling productive and valued.

Because of their personal crisis, the early retirees often look for their affirmations to be provided by their partners. Most commonly the partner is a wife and mother who has not retired. She continues with her household and mothering responsibilities as usual and is challenged to deal with a husband who is unhappy and lonely.

Some of these men choose to enlist their services at home. They willingly offer to share the parenting and household tasks. Some women welcome this new arrangement while others are troubled by it. The woman’s routine, domain, areas of competence and self-esteem may be threatened by her mate’s contributions. She has not chosen to “job-share”. She likes her role in the family and finds the offer of “semi-retirement” – premature for her. Marital difficulties may ensue.

Unfortunately, the bliss of early retirement creates a new way that both partners view each other. “When we married, I never expected that my husband will be home during the day. If he is helpful around the house I am annoyed, if he plays during the day I feel resentful”. This is one woman’s struggle in adjusting to the new family status.
If the wife is the early retiree, resentments and judgements by her partner are equally frequent.

Early retirement can be a blessing to both partners and their children. A few steps need to be taken to reconstruct the family routines, roles, and perceptions, so that both partners can continue to maintain a healthy respect for themselves and each other.

  • If you are going to become a young retiree and have time to plan for it, do so.
  • Realize that even though it is a great benefit, the change from work to home is huge and requires an adjustment period.
  • Allow for the early exhilaration to be followed by a stage of confusion, sadness and even depression as you get acclimated to your new life.
  • If you are the partner of the young retiree, be loving and patient as he or she devises a new life plan.
  • Understand that with early retirement comes time void, loss of self-esteem and relationship restructuring.
  • Deal with the change as a couple to maximize the benefits to your children. Territoriality, resentments and fear about your old role interfere with a better family structure.
  • Be creative in sharing chores and kids to allow both of you to carve out time for yourselves for personal needs.
  • Together and creatively structure your life so both of you can benefit from your new- found freedom.
  • If you are the retiree consider what activities you can select that will challenge you and enhance your self-esteem. Remember that this is a new career choice, though it may not require remuneration.
  • Be patient with yourself while you figure out your new life. Many people report that it takes about a year of active exploration to pick the right new path.
  • Please remember that both of you have been blessed, use your blessing to enrich others as well.

February 22, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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