Retirement 103 – Can A Marriage Survive the Retirement Years?

It was 1999, and my wife (Tootie) and I were looking forward to retirement.  At 48, all five of our children had left home.  Though our golden years were still over a decade away, our nest was empty, and we relished the next season of “our time.”  For some couples, the empty nest season may be an imposing and perilous threat, especially to any marriage that has failed to cultivate love and friendship between spouses.  Not for us, we viewed the empty nest as an exciting next phase, a pre-retirement adjustment period.  We began to travel.  We enjoyed discussing plans, financial and otherwise, as to when and how we would embrace retirement.  We tentatively targeted age 62-64 to push the retirement button.

At the height of my professional career, and still more than a decade from retirement, I recall the first reality check about possible retirement potholes while playing golf with my good friend Tony.  Tony enjoyed golf, although his handicap was north of 20.  He regaled us on many a tee box with stories about his years as an executive with the U.S. Postal Service.  My ears perked up when he began discussing the months following his retirement.

He confessed that his first months of retirement were void of any routine.  He occasionally played a morning round of golf.  Otherwise, he would dilly dally around the house, eat a lunch prepared by his wife Nancy, take a nap, and piddle away the afternoon. It wasn’t long before Nancy grew tired of his aimless and purposeless lifestyle. Tony may have retired, but taking care of him had become his wife’s full-time job. So one day, Nancy sat him down and told him, “Tony, I married you for love, I married you for life, but I didn’t marry you for lunch.  You need to get a job.”  His golfing buddies chuckled as Tony related his wake-up call about the need to have purpose in retirement.  Yet, for me, our tee-box banter served as a heads-up that retirement planning involved far more than just the financial issues.  Retirement by one or both spouses could have a dramatic impact on a marriage.

Think about it.  For decades, work routines required you and your spouse to be apart during most of every weekday.  Then suddenly, the children have all grown up and left the nest, you retire, and SHAZAM, it’s just you and your beloved, 24/7.   For some couples, that’s a scary thought. 

But not for my wife and me.

While we focused on being good parents, we never forgot to nourish our relationship as husband and wife.  Weekly date nights, occasional weekends away, all served to keep the romantic fires burning.  We not only loved each other, but we liked each other.  We considered each other best friends.   Having observed other retired married couples, my wife and I were not naive about marital challenges in retirement.  Nevertheless, we eagerly anticipated the years ahead as an opportunity to dote upon and mentor our grandchildren, travel the country, and spend more time living out our faith in serving others. 

Alas, it was not to be. 

My wife of 38 years passed away at age 59.   And I worked another four years before retiring in 2015.  This was not the retirement I had planned.  None of my retirement scenarios envisioned me as a widower.   This was not supposed to be a solitary experience.  But I still recalled the lessons learned from friends like Tony. I knew how important establishing a routine was to having a retirement of significance. (I addressed the need for waking each day with a purpose in my blog posts Retirement 101 on March 28, 2019, and  Retirement 102 on April 5. 2019.)

Then, wonder of wonders, I found love again.  That wasn’t something I had expected either.

This new woman in my life was nothing like Tootie; she was so different in looks, in personality, in background.  She was not even a Southerner.  How could I fall in love with a woman who didn’t know how to fry okra, appreciate the delicacy known as shrimp and grits, or understand the difference between a first down and a touchdown?  Lord have mercy, it had to be love. 

Ah, but I soon realized her magnetic appeal found its power in her strong faith, her compassionate heart, and her ability to listen as well as converse.  We truly enjoyed talking with each other.  A friendship grew and soon blossomed into love.  Yes, it also helped that she was as cute and sweet as a scoop of vanilla ice cream oozing down a warm slice of peach pie. 

Getting married in 2017, I suddenly found myself in an unexpected state of wedded bliss as a retiree. Talk about adjusting one’s lifestyle. My new bride, Patrice, was still working full time as a paralegal, but her work situation allowed for little time off.  After much prayer and discussion, we agreed that her retirement would enable us to spend more time together, travel more, and provide relief from some of her health issues. And SHAZAM (there’s that word again), I found myself as a newlywed spending 24/7 with a new bride.  Flashback!  Recalling Tony’s story about his wife’s response to his retirement prompted much reflection on my part.  Yes, we now had more time together, but is there such a thing as overexposure in a marriage?  Is it possible that too much familiarity too fast in a marriage can breed contempt?

After only two years of marriage, one might accuse us of still being in our honeymoon period.  I disagree.  Reality has cleared any rose-colored glasses we may have worn, but the view is still sweet.  Marriage can be an opportunity for strife and conflict, especially in the retirement years.  Or, it can be the best part of your married life.  Here’s what offers as tips to make your retirement marriage years the best of your life.

Love your spouse, like your spouse.  In both of my marriages, I was/am madly in love with my wife.  And blessed that these two women were/are my best friends as well. I have heard some men state that they love their wife but don’t like her.  Horse-hockey.  That’s just a confession that you never nurtured your relationship or cherished your bride.  Get to know your spouse again. Friendship and love are not mutually exclusive.   Pray for them, ask the Lord to guide you in developing a love AND a friendship that exceeds all others. Having your wife as your best friend is a distinct advantage.  According to the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, spouses who are best friends are twice as happy as those who are not.   Some of the most precious moments of my life are those long drives down the interstate when my wife and I talk about family, faith, and the future.

Be patient.  Adjusting to a new lifestyle takes time.  Whether it’s an empty nest after decades of raising children or the first years of a new marriage in retirement, expect an adjustment period.  Kind of like wearing a new pair of jeans — the more you wear them, the better they feel.  (But please don’t tell my wife I just compared her to a pair of Levi’s.)  Patience is an undervalued virtue and one more easily lived when often accompanied by a soft, sweet kiss of affirmation.

Be kind. Act like a salt shaker. Let’s be honest, there are times in marriage when couples take each other for granted.  Simple courtesies begin to disappear. Then, you wake up one morning and realize your spouse doesn’t like you.  And you aren’t particularly fond of her either. Start acting like a salt shaker.  Salt is a preservative, so maybe your marriage in the later years needs a little salt.  There is no guarantee here, but sprinkle your spouse throughout the day with the salt of endearing, unexpected acts of kindness.  Don’t forget good manners, saying please, thank you and you’re welcome. Such thoughtful gestures have been known to soften hearts. And the power of a kind heart is magnified with age. 

Calibrate expectations.  Even though we dated a year before we married, Patrice and I realize that, on occasion, our expectations are, shall I say, on different wavelengths.  When potential sources of conflict arise, we use these differences as an opportunity to re-calibrate expectations.  Communicate, Communicate, Communicate, and Misunderstandings will Evaporate. (Bumper sticker worthy?)

Show some respect.  Honoring your spouse is a way to demonstrate that her needs, her interests, her hobbies are just as important to her as yours are to you. Patrice loves music and has the voice of an angel, while I don’t know the difference between a chord, an octave, or a treble clef.  And frankly, don’t care to learn.  But when she sings at church, the spirit of our congregation, along with my own, is lifted to new heights.  This Godly gift should be affirmed, and I encourage her to sing at every opportunity.  She, on the other hand, encourages me to write…and play as much golf as I want.  Did I marry the right woman or what?

Have designated space for each spouse in the home. Fortunately, we have a home that allows each of us to have our own offices.  We have space and time to explore our own interests.  Giving each other space allows our relationship to breathe.  She dives deep into genealogy research.  I research ideas for my blog posts.  We do not have to be together all the time.  We each have hobbies and interests of our own, and that’s OK. Such differences only enhance the richness of our conversations. 

Pray together.  You don’t have to wait until retirement to do this.  Praying together as a couple is a powerful act of oneness.  With as many children and grandchildren as we have between us, there is a lot to pray for and about.  We have our own personal devotional times, but we always cherish the times we can do so as one.  Want true intimacy with your spouse?  Pray together.

Compromise.  Since you are spending more time together in retirement, the opportunities for conflict can increase — thus the need to consider when and how to compromise.  Sources of conflict can range from children to finances, from chores to decorating, from vacations to what television shows to watch. Be a man, learn to share the remote control.  Who knows, you might enjoy watching those BBC dramas.  When all else fails, act like an archeologist.  As Agatha Christie once said, “An archeologist is the best husband a woman can have.  The older she gets, the more interested he is in her.”

Have a sense of humor.  Laughter has returned to my soul.  Patrice and I find humor in simple things. While our personalities may complement one another, there is just enough diversity to spark humorous dialogue.  I have laughed more in the past two years than the previous seven.  I recall reading somewhere that laughter is carbonated holiness. Our shared laughter is neither sarcastic, demeaning, nor mean-spirited.  Our laughter derives from a shared sense of humor, the kind we create together.  Jay Leno once said, “You can’t stay mad at someone who makes you laugh.”  Marriage in retirement needs a daily dose of humor.  Such a positive view of life adds years to your life and life to your years.

When I think of words to describe a healthy and dynamic marriage during the retirement years, I think of Patience, Friendship, Communication, Compromise, Encouragement, Kindness, Patience, Loving, Supportive, and Respect.  And did I mention Patience? Of course, these virtues are essential for marriage at any stage. Yet their value is magnified when you are spending more time together.

Marriage in your retirement years can be the best season of your life together, but only if you prepare for it and work on it before and during this final phase of life.  Be a We instead of an I. By embracing the challenges, you will be a stronger person and a stronger couple.  You will discover that the small sacrifices you make for your marriage during the retirement years will produce a joy and contentment of unimaginable depth.

Patrice told me recently that she married me for love and married me for life.  I told her ditto. 

And I’ll even make lunch.

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  1. Pete Sposaro

    Thanks Buddy for all the encouragement on marriage. Lou and I celebrated 59 years yesterday. The most I lacked in our 59 years of marriage was, and some time still is, is patience. And, being Italian, patience doesn’t fit in our make up most of the time. However Lou has put up with me all these years and I love her more now than ever. As you know, since she had bypass surgery and a stroke in 2013, I have been taking care of her. She is a trouper. Doesn’t complain and doesn’t give up. Thanks again for the encouraging blog. Take care and God Bless.


    1. Buddy McElhannon

      Pete. You are an inspiration to me. As a golfer, a husband, and a man, you sir are a model of servanthood. I am blessed to call you friend.


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