Why husbands retire and wives don't

The implicit promise of retirement is that leaving the work world, by itself, will be a source of happiness, reward for all the years of slaving. That's baloney.

By Hara Estroff Marano

Published: Fri 19 Jun 2015, 11:45 PM

Last updated: Wed 8 Jul 2015, 3:15 PM

My husband of seven years recently took early retirement. I sold my business, which I ran for 27 years, when we married. Ever since, I’ve been doing pretty much everything--household duties, yard work, cooking--for our life together. Now that he’s home, I’m still doing all the chores. He sleeps in, reads the paper, reads online, and some days works out and then comes back home to watch TV. If I ask him to help out, he forgets, puts it off, or simply ignores my requests. If I ask him to go to the grocery store, he calls me “Mom.” He doesn’t cook but waits to be fed. I end up doing it all, and it’s getting on my nerves. Frankly, I’d rather leave town than watch him laze around. I never “retired”; I still manage rental properties I own. How can I give him the message that he’s driving me nuts?

The best way to give him the message is to leave the house early Monday morning and do something on your own for the entire day—with no advance notice. Don’t stay home to cook, clean the yard, feed him dinner, or watch him watch TV. Breeze back in after dinner. If he asks what’s up, tell him you took early retirement, too. That’s the clearest (and wittiest) way to let him know you’re in the same boat and you now have to figure out how to plot a course together. Then, because you both neglected to do this when he announced his intention to retire, sit down calmly and renegotiate the structure of your lives and, now that you’re both available, how everyday chores are to get done and by whom.

Retirement is rarely the dream people think it will be, unless couples have long planned together for it and made explicit arrangements that take into account the needs and interests of both partners. And that’s the core of the problem: Everyone has different dreams of retirement. You need to find out what your husband’s are, because he obviously forgot to share them with you and work out the details. Now that you’re married, neither of you can make a life change without involving the other.

It’s likely that whatever dream he has of retirement, this isn’t it. For the time being, he may be enjoying the freedom from strict routine. But the pleasure of doing nothing and answering to nobody will likely wear off, and then there will just be...nothing. Purposelessness is soulsapping and often leads to depression.

The implicit promise of retirement is that leaving the work world, by itself, will be a source of happiness, reward for all the years of slaving. That’s baloney. The newly retired rarely recognize on their own that retirement is making them miserable because the cultural script says it’s supposed to be fabulous. You can do your husband a favor by asking him if retirement is living up to his expectations.

It’s amazing how helpless some guys are when they step out of the work arena and it’s the only sphere they’ve really ever known. I’m not suggesting you come up with a master plan for his retirement--that’s his job, in consultation with you--but perhaps you can suggest some kind of activity that makes constructive use of what he knows. For example, there are organizations that bring retired executives in contact with young people to help them gain skills for the business world. These are activities one can commit to in doses less than full-time. They not only provide something to do but satisfy a deep need for being valued and paying life forward.

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