6 Tips For Surviving Retirement With Your Spouse According To An Expert

Former coaching clients Bob and Elise were at their wits’ end. Bob’s retirement from his 30+ year career in advertising was looming. Elise had been volunteering and keeping busy with hobbies, but was ready for a change. Turns out, they weren’t sure what they wanted, and their attempts to come up with a retirement plan that both of them could live with were going nowhere. 

I started out by asking them lots of open-ended questions, which encouraged them to dig deeper and look at things from a fresh perspective. This enabled them to unearth what they really wanted and view their differences as opportunities rather than challenges. Fieldwork helped them take strategic action to explore a wide variety of options, communicate more effectively, and design a retirement plan that was a good fit for both of them. 

If retirement is right around the corner and you and your partner are not on the same page, how will you bridge the gap? The good news is there are many ways to get around the blocks and obstacles standing in your way. All it takes is knowing what you really want, active listening, clear communication, creative compromise, and commitment. Here’s the step-by-step process you and your spouse can follow to get there.

1. Define What You Want In Retirement

It’s not unusual to be clearer about what you don’t want than what you do want. So before you engage in yet another circular conversation with your partner leaving both of you frustrated or angry, do your homework. Sit down in a quiet place and start writing down all of the things you envision yourself doing in retirement, even if you think your partner may not be on board.

Include as many details as possible — activities, travel, lifestyle, housing preferences, et cetera. Writing it down helps clarify your retirement goals for yourself and your partner. But don’t share your list just yet. You will be using it as a tool to improve your communication and listening skills in an exercise later on.

2. Actively Listen

Speaking of listening, one of the biggest problems facing couples who are navigating retirement planning is the failure to actively listen to one another. Most of us think we’re good listeners, but there’s a big difference between listening and hearing. Hearing requires no effort, whereas listening is an intentional act. When you listen actively, you are paying close attention to what your partner is saying and your partner feels genuinely heard.

3. Clearly Communicate 

Like any other skill, learning how to listen actively takes practice, and what better way to practice than by sitting down with your partner and discussing retirement planning with some new tools and strategies? Heads-up! This may feel like unchartered territory.

Instead of interrupting, talking over one another, or just hearing, you’ll be taking your communication and listening skills to the next level.

Be prepared with a list in hand, then choose one of you (or even a coach, therapist, couple’s counselor, or friend!) to be the moderator. The moderator will make sure that both of you adhere to the following protocol in your discussions…

4. Do Your Homework

Round 1: Take Turns Sharing Your Retirement Wish List, Time Out, Then Assess

Each of you will take turns sharing your list. Partner #1 will read their entire list, uninterrupted by Partner #2, who will listen actively, take notes if desired, and write down any questions.

When Partner #1 is finished, switch roles so that Partner #2 reads their entire list, uninterrupted by Partner #1 who will listen actively, take notes, and write down any questions.

You may want to set a timer so that each of you gets to speak for a maximum of 3 minutes. You can use less time if needed. This helps keep your discussion moving forward and on track. 

Now that you’ve heard your partner’s wish list, it’s time to assess and prepare your response. Using your notes as a guide, notice where you and your partner are on the same page and where you are not. If any compromises come to mind, jot them down to share with your partner. Think about how their list fits or doesn’t fit with your vision of retirement.

Round 2: Respond to Your Partner’s List, Second Time-Out, Reassess, And Go Deeper

In this round, you will take turns responding to each other’s lists. Using the same protocol as in the first round, Partner #1 will respond to Partner #2’s list, and then Partner #2 will respond to Partner #1’s list.

This is when you will let your partner know what you think and how you feel. Communicate any observations, concerns, and preferences. Point out where you think your visions do or do not align. Some tips for this deepening round:

  1. Be In Neutral: This means maintaining a calm, pleasant openness rather than being annoyed or angry. An unpleasant demeanor can result in push-back from your partner, shutting down communication.
  2. Less Is More: Make your communications as brief and to the point as possible (remember, the timer is set for 3 minutes). The longer you speak, the more it sounds like a lecture or tangent, making it hard for your partner to remain focused and actively listen.
  3. Stay In The Here And Now: Rather than blaming or dredging up old, unresolved conflicts, remain present and focused on the task at hand, which is to hammer out a retirement plan that works for both of you.

Analyze your partner’s response again, this time going deeper by identifying key takeaways. A takeaway is something that got your attention — a thought, feeling, or epiphany. It need not be a solution. Now that you have more information, you may be getting a better sense of where the two of you are stuck or where there may be room for compromise.

Round 3: Take A Break

Per the same protocol, each partner will share their top two or three takeaways in addition to any other thoughts or feelings. Now it’s time for a break from discussion to process further and reflect. 

There should be no discussion with your partner about retirement planning until the next round, which should occur within one to two days. The break is designed to let your thoughts “marinate.” It provides distance and with distance, comes perspective.

During this time, review your notes and check in with yourself. Are you leaning one way or the other? Are you clearer about what you want or don’t want? Is a theme or pattern appearing? Do you see a retirement plan starting to emerge?

Round 4: Compromise And Explore Trade-Offs

During this round, you’ll want your dialog to become more dynamic and start moving you toward a definitive plan. This is where compromise and trade-offs come into play. A trade-off is something that someone is willing to go along with or give up (without anger or resentment), in exchange for something they want. Unlike a bribe, which forces someone to cooperate in order to avoid negative consequences, a trade-off is based on choice. 

For example, if Partner #1 wants to move to an adult community and travel more frequently, whereas Partner #2 wants to remain in their current home and travel less frequently, the tradeoff might be that Partner #1 gets the adult community, but agrees to less travel. 

Here’s another example. Let’s say Partner #1 wants to spend a significant amount of time traveling around the country in an RV while Partner #2, who also loves to travel, is not fond of “roughing it.” This is a no-brainer. Alternate between RV travel and more conventional travel, so it’s a win-win for both. Compromise and trade-offs often provide a middle ground that both partners can live with. 

5. Finally, Pull Out All the Stops

What if there is a stalemate and neither partner will budge? This is where creativity and out-of-the-box thinking come in. Out-of-the-box thinking is like creativity on steroids. It frees you up to use your imagination and allows you to come up with novel ideas, ideas that may be out in left field, that break the rules and have no parameters but are still within the realm of possibility. 

To jump-start this expansive way of thinking, ask yourself these questions and answer them in writing. When you are finished, share your answers with your partner to stimulate more discussion.

Questions To Ask

  1. Can there be more than one way to view retirement? What might that look like?
  2. Can we reside in more than one place during retirement? If yes, what might that look like?
  3. Can work still be part of our retirement plan? If yes, what might that look like?
  4. What have we always wanted to do or try that we never had time for?
  5. Can experimentation and spontaneity be built into our retirement plan? What might that look like?

6. Commit

Now that you’ve clarified your goals, become a better listener, and learned to communicate more effectively and compromise creatively, the last requirement is commitment. Commitment to each other, to your goals, and to a shared vision. Keep in mind that any ongoing problems or challenges in your relationship will not magically disappear just because you’re retired. If anything, they might be magnified because you’re spending even more time together, which is why continuing to work on them is extremely important. 

If old, dysfunctional patterns continue to plague your relationship, now is the time to address them. It’s never too late to improve and strengthen your relationship. You can continue to grow your relationship in a positive direction, no matter how long you’ve been together or how “hard-wired” your bad habits may seem. Retirement can be the best chapter yet. All it takes are a few new tools in your toolkit.

To find a retirement coach, visit the International Coaching Federation, and for more retirement inspiration, see all our retirement content here.

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