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A Strong Marriage in Retirement

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A stable marriage is the bedrock of personal and financial success for many of us.

Having recently celebrated my 30th anniversary, maybe I’m entitled to talk just a little bit about what works, and what doesn’t.

Though, I know there is no “formula” for human relationships. Each is unique. And each relationship requires effort every single day, to keep it alive and working.

Marriage is not a single, unified topic either. Marriages change dramatically from the honeymoon stage, to child rearing, to empty nest, and into retirement. Each stage requires different energies, and has different lessons to teach — both personal and financial.

But those latter stages — empty nest and retirement — are where I’m at now, so let me focus on those….

Relationship

A good marriage is a good, committed relationship between human beings. Long ago, somebody told me that each member of a successful partnership has to give more than 50%. That’s because of losses due to “friction.”

It’s true. We can’t expect a good marriage to feel like a 50/50 proposition. Each of us has to give more than that. Sometimes, in certain areas, it may feel like you’re carrying most of the load. Undoubtedly your partner feels the same way in other areas. Though at times it can be helpful to sit down and systematically divide up the work, most of the time it’s better not to: The healthier attitude, I find, is if both partners simply pitch in until the job is done, without keeping score. If you’re stronger in one area, that can be your specialty. Over the years, in good relationships, it all evens out.

Marriage is founded on intimacy. That’s why it’s more than a friendship. A good love life, regular talks, laughing and living with each other in good times and bad is what it’s all about. When humor and affection start to go out the window in a marriage, it’s a critical warning sign, in my opinion.

Those stressful junctures have usually been a signal to me: Time to stop taking myself and my agenda so seriously. Time to sit down and find out what’s going on for my wife, instead. But, it’s taken many years of practice to recognize and make space for those critical reflections. Ignore them only at the risk of the relationship.

Finances

It’s been clear to me since early on that finances are intricately tied up with the marriage relationship. I’ve witnessed or heard of very few strong marriages where being on the same financial page wasn’t a key ingredient. Sharing your values about what’s important, and how much material things are worth to you in time and money, is essential to building a life together. Those values lead to a lifestyle and certain patterns of earning, spending, and saving. This is true whether you have a formal “financial plan” or not.

Ideally, each partner would be equally fluent in managing cash flow, investments, and taxes. In reality, that’s rarely the case. Usually one spouse has more interest than the other. And that’s where effective communication and cooperation are key. This is much easier if your underlying financial philosophies are the same. It’s important that you share the same long-term goals: Large family, small family, or none? Mobile lifestyle or putting down roots? Fancy home and vehicles, or early retirement?

For daily cash management, many couples find it easiest to share a joint checking account. In our case, we each have our own credit card, but we are each joint on the other’s account, so it won’t have to be closed immediately when one of us is gone, which could be disruptive for scheduled payments. But every couple is different. In second marriages particularly, it’s more common for couples to keep at least some of their money separate. We each have our own retirement accounts, of course, with the other designated as beneficiary. And, we each have some personal “mad money” set aside that we can tap, if we want, without involving the other. I think that’s important for personal financial freedom.

Even if one of you specializes in managing investments, or working with a financial advisor, it’s important to share your views on risk. Most critically, how much market volatility can you stomach together in exchange for the possibility of higher growth? Don’t be the one who puts it all in stocks, only to have your spouse panic out of the market when it dives by 50% in the next major downturn. Or, don’t be the one who keeps your entire nest egg in an FDIC-insured savings account, only to have your spouse find out, after a decade, that your money has lost out to inflation.

Even if each partner isn’t intimately familiar with how to balance accounts, monitor investments, and file tax returns, it’s important that both have the information and contacts to do so if necessary. There needs to be a paper trail of necessary passwords, account statements, and tax records. If you’re the more financially savvy one, then it’s your job to educate and prepare the other to do without you, if needed. You need a survivor plan, built around your will, that provides for investments to be maintained, retirement income to be generated, bills to be paid, and taxes to be filed.

Transitions

Speaking for us and a number of other couples, I can say that — other than having children — the empty nest transition will be the biggest and potentially most disruptive change in your entire married life. It can be traumatic to see the kids leave home — your life’s project for the past 18 years, over. First, there is the emotion around their life decisions: choosing a college or career, moving out, becoming independent. Then there is the complete change in focus of your relationship with your spouse. Your biological purpose has been served. The kids are raised and gone. Now what?

Unless you proactively put new purposes in place, you’ll feel the strains on your marriage rise. In our case, our new mission was early retirement, relocation, traveling, taking care of our health. But it’s an evolving project that will go on for the rest of our lives.

I’m asked occasionally about the issues for a couple that is retiring at substantially different times. In my case, I retired in 2011, while my wife worked for two more years. (She had taken time off while raising our son, and had now found a great spot in the local school system. She wanted to work longer for the professional satisfaction, and to ensure our retirement health benefits.) Could this lead to tension? Can one spouse truly “retire” if the other is still working full time?

Of course, separate retirements could lead to problems if one partner perceives his or her role as unfair. But generally, by the time couples are in their 50’s and 60’s, they have their contributions to the marriage worked out. In our case, I’d worked a 29-year career, more or less straight through. My wife worked in several different stages, while we raised our son. When he was grown, she returned to teaching because she loved it, and it would qualify us for retirement health benefits.

Neither of us could have retired early without the other’s contribution. During her final teaching years, when I was already retired, I did extra house chores like cooking dinner, to even out her workload. There was never any tension: We were each doing what we wanted.

Once retired, part-time work by either partner should be strictly optional in my view. If you enjoy it, and it enhances your life, then the income is a bonus contribution to your shared lifestyle. But the details, timing, and amounts should never be an obligation. Otherwise, it’s not really retirement.

Growing Together

Retirement, probably more than any other time in marriage, is an opportunity to focus on individual growth and development, within the context of a supportive relationship.

This is the time to work on your bucket lists: take on new hobbies or interests or travel that you’ve always wanted to do. Some of those activities will make sense doing together, and some will work better done individually. I think a mixture is wise. Sharing some new interests will keep your marriage strong. But spending every waking minute together is a recipe for boredom, frayed nerves, and burnout. You know each other well enough to let go now.

In addition to regular weekly “dates,” my wife and I take several major trips together each year. And we take several each on our own. It’s a good compromise. Spending time apart can provide fresh perspective, a chance to grow, and can help prepare for the inevitable day when one of you will need to be on their own.

The emphasis in a good marriage changes over the years, but not the essence. The ultimate purpose is to help each other be happy, healthy, and involved in life. That goal is as relevant in retirement as it ever was….

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