Warmest regards: Irreconcilable differences after retirement
“My wife moved out,” said the sad voice on the telephone. “After 35 years of marriage she’s divorcing me.”
It was a shock to hear that news from my longtime friend.
It was especially sad because this guy who seldom shows his feelings got choked up when he said he loves her and there is no way he wants to end the marriage.
But she made clear to him getting divorced is a done deal.
“In her divorce petition she’s claiming we have irreconcilable differences. Who the heck can have irreconcilable differences when you’ve been married for 35 years?” he asked.
Actually, the answer is divorce after a long-term marriage is much more prevalent than you might think.
While the overall divorce rate is declining, it’s escalating for couples over 50.
“If late-life divorce were a disease, it would now be an epidemic,” noted family life psychologist Jay Lebow.
In her book, “The Gray Divorce Resolution,” Dr. Susan Brown says retirement is an especially risky time for couples.
“Flaws and problems that might have been masked while both spouses were working become ever so apparent when they suddenly start spending all their time with each other,” she said.
In retirement, many couples discover something they didn’t realize while both worked: They have little in common.
The case of irreconcilable differences rears its ugly head.
That’s exactly what happened with my friend and his wife.
She had an all-consuming job where her leadership ability came into play. When we got together with her and her husband, I noticed how much of her conversation revolved around her job.
I had one big question for her when she told me she was planning to retire.
“How will you fill your days when you are no longer working?”
She said she was just looking forward to relaxing and having less stress.
Her husband, on the other hand, was counting the days to his retirement so he could finally spend more time fishing, hunting and getting out in nature.
With only three weeks of vacation a year, he’s had little chance to do that.
I remember telling both of them it’s important to know how you’ll fill the many hours you once spent at work.
No one thinks that will be much of a problem. They are focused only on the work life they are leaving, not the new stage of life they are entering.
Experts tell us couples should talk about their retirement plans, making sure they each have the same expectations.
My two friends didn’t do that. As a result, she became resentful when her husband wanted to spend time in his outdoor pursuits.
She, on the other hand, wanted absolutely nothing to do with outdoor activities. He couldn’t understand how she could spend so much time sitting on the couch watching TV, her favorite way to relax.
While it sounds like a bit of counseling might open them to compromise, she said no.
It became a true case of irreconcilable differences when she realized that after the children were gone she had nothing in common with her husband.
When my friends and I discuss mutual interests, we all agree that it’s critically important to share at least some interests after retirement. It’s more important in retirement than during our working years.
Experts say it’s best when couples have things they enjoy doing together as well as their own separate activities.
Six years after Andy died I married David and a new chapter in my life began. It never would have happened if we didn’t share the same interests, including outdoor activities, kayaking and biking.
Years ago when I was interviewing a local marriage counselor at a women’s conference, I didn’t quite believe his assertion that retirement in Florida could be hard on a marriage.
What’s so hard about living in paradise?
The Florida lifestyle doesn’t suit everyone, he said, and some don’t discover that until they move here.
I still thought it sounded far-fetched until I met couples that divorced when one partner wanted to “go back home” and the other wanted to stay here. Smart couples come for a test run before they move here.
In talking with other women, a few tell me their retirement isn’t what they envisioned it would be after they stopped working.
“With the unfair division of labor my husband and I have, he’s the only one that has a true retirement,” complained one woman.
She mentioned she still has to do all the cooking, cleaning and food shopping while he plays golf.
Several of us told her our husbands help with all that. Hers might help too if they had talked more about expectations before retirement.
I think it’s never to late have that talk, to compromise, and to make both partners reasonably happy.
It depends on your approach when you have the talk. I once took an interesting course called conflict resolution that taught us the right way and wrong way for a productive marital discussion.
It isn’t about who is right or who’s being unfair. (Those are both accusatory words that won’t help.)
Focus instead on finding a way to make the marriage stronger for both partners, experts say.
That way, there’s a better chance of never being blindsided like my friend who had divorce papers with the words “irreconcilable differences” shoved at him.
Contact Pattie Mihalik at email@example.com.