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What should I tell my wife? (or husband/partner/best friend ….)

23 November 2021 By Victoria Tomlinson

We recently ran a fantastic two-day workshop for partners coming up to retirement, in an international professional firm.

At the dinner on the first evening, I sat next to a partner who said, “Will you cover what I should say to my wife – and how to say it?” Yes, I said. We cover the whole issue of relationships, the discussions you need to have and some of the issues you might want to cover.

But I realized that I don’t usually cover the detail of what and how. So here I share stories of the issues that hit people post retirement – with partners, families and close friends. And some suggestions as to anticipate and pre-empt them.

Here are a few stories I have heard over the last few years

  • A while back, there was a research project with public sector employees who were a year out from retirement. The participants were asked to say what was worrying them about this next stage. There were a number of things but a theme emerged of concern that others would take over their lives. Children expecting grandparents to babysit several times a week; friends who had retired expecting them to play golf or tennis several times a week; wife finally getting the greenhouse discussed for years and so on
  • A high-flying executive had a dream of buying a boat and sailing the world. It’s just he forgot to mention it to his wife. When he said, “Now we can buy that boat” she had no idea what he was talking about. And more to the point, was embedded in her local community with commitments for years ahead
  • I caught up with a distant relative over one Christmas. “Are you loving having Timothy around?” I ask. Naively. Snap. This mild woman with the strongest of marriages said, “NO. He is driving me MAD. I was away for a couple of days and he reorganized the whole kitchen. And put labels on all the cupboards just to ensure I followed it
  • Similarly, I asked some dear friends of mine how they were enjoying having time together and the words couldn’t tumble out fast enough. “Nightmare trying to organize the dogs….I always have girlfriends round after tennis on Tuesdays and he’s always hanging around … I always feel in the way, I don’t know where to go in the house ….” And so on
  • I was working with a well known lawyer who said, “I know my wife wants me to stop working altogether and just have fun … but I know I can’t do it. I need to keep working, even if it’s not full time and different from before. I can’t see a solution to this, so I am just not discussing it”
  • And the last story was from years ago when I was lucky enough to go to an idyllic island on the Barrier Reef for part of our honeymoon. Sitting at the bar, I idly asked the owner what she enjoyed most about running this paradise. I expected to hear about the beaches, diving, endless sunshine. Instead, she said, “We get a lot of couples coming here for their second honeymoon. There are no papers, TV, phones here [this was pre-internet] so they have to talk to each other. The first few days they are awkward with each other – you can see they haven’t properly talked for years. But gradually you see them unwinding, relaxing with each other and talking. Really talking. Going off for long walks and getting to know each other again”

What are the themes here? With the kitchen, I could imagine the husband for years thinking that he could organize the kitchen better and would love to help his wife when he had time. On the other hand, the kitchen had been her domain and he was trampling all over what she had proudly run for most of their marriage.

The danger is that both sides of a couple or any relationship, have their own views of the future. And they may not match.

My suggestion is for all parties (which may include children, elderly parents, close friends and others) need to write down how they see or would like the future. In a lot of detail. And to articulate what they are worried about – such as a partner ‘hanging around’. The old phrase comes to mind, “I married him for love, not for lunch”.

Some ideas of what this can cover

  • Finances – work out detailed budgets and what changes will be needed. If you normally pick up the tab when all the family goes out, does that need to change? As much as where you shop, the car/s you have, the holidays you take and when you put on the heating
  • Routines that each enjoys and wants to retain – such as being the main person to cook, do the Christmas cards, garden, shopping, organizing the kitchen etc! Equally the things one of you never wants to do again!
  • As time is freed up, people you all want to spend more time with (or less perhaps) – from children and grandchildren to parents and friends
  • Dreams - things they want to take up, from flying to scuba diving. Places to go, buying a camper van (this seems the big dream at the moment!), hobbies to take up, goals to achieve. Is this the moment for everyone to do their bucket lists?
  • Houses/homes – ideas about downsizing, buying or selling second homes, building extensions, moving to a new country
  • Thoughts about future routines – both by the week and rhythms over months
  • As each of you retires, how do you see your futures? Do you want to do voluntary work, find part-time jobs, get non-executive or advisory roles, start a business or other venture? This may be the most difficult discussion of all, because neither of you may have any idea as to what you can do and what time or input will be needed. But if you can at least say “I’d like to ‘work’ around two or three days a week”, that is at least a starting point to start discussions and plans

Once you have each written down your visions of the future, you can share them with each other – and spot the clashes or where you are well aligned.

Don’t avoid discussing the hardest clashes – you know that is where resentment will build from. Almost certainly you will need to find compromises and it may take days, weeks, months to find ways that both of you are happy with.

The one thing I increasingly realise is that retirement has for years been seen as a dreamy time of doing what you want, having fun, seeing who you want. But actually it can be a time of great misery and tension. Retirement is a form of bereavement for many.

The more you think ahead, plan and try to anticipate areas of conflict, the more likely you are to create a time that is joyous – for you and those around you.

Victoria Tomlinson

Written by Victoria Tomlinson

Victoria Tomlinson is chief executive and founder of Next-Up. Next-Up supports employers with a range of services for directors, partners and employees to help them understand the impact of retirement on mental health and create a plan to use their skills and experience in new ways to ensure wellbeing. A key part of our role is to inspire people with ideas and contacts, beyond traditional expectations. A former director of EY, she is an international speaker on unretirement, personal branding and using LinkedIn strategically as well as on leadership and women on boards. She mentors chief executives and directors, start-up businesses and ex-offenders. Victoria is Honorary Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University and chaired an advisory board for University of Leeds.

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