Can your marriage survive retirement?Jan 27, 2023 12:29PM ● By Grace Penn
Three days. That’s the total length of time Cassidy and Walt Finn spent together throughout the entire month of December.
After nearly 40 years of marriage, the Finns are leading separate lives and their relationship is suffering. Their marriage road diverged and they can’t find a way to travel both paths.
The Finns will tell you their marriage journey bisected some 15 years ago when Walt’s father died, leaving an inheritance that included farmland in Nebraska. To Walt, maintaining the cornfields and raising horses are akin to reaching nirvana. To Cassidy, the whole ranch thing is nerve-wracking. She doesn’t enjoy living in a dumpy RV in the middle of nowhere. They now have separate residences and vastly different visions for what will happen when Cassidy retires in two years.
Marriage counselor Teri Reisser will tell you the couple’s road most likely diverged long before the inheritance came and Wayne relocated from Colorado to Nebraska. She believes couples like the Finns are in danger of what has been coined as “gray divorce.” Couples who let hurt and dissatisfaction build and fester often split up once the kids move out.
In fact, according to the American Bar Association, a quarter of U.S. divorces are among couples age 50 or older.
Not all gray discord leads to divorce, but it can derail happiness and significantly erode marital intimacy, both physical and emotional. This tension often comes at a time when retirement decisions must be discussed, and it can interfere with the communication process.
There is hope, however. Even if your marriage has hit a fork in the road and each of you desires a different retirement path, there are ways to reroute your journey to avoid hazards and arrive at a satisfactory destination to live out your golden years.
Nelson Mandela was perhaps one of the most significant negotiators in recent history. But the negotiations to end Apartheid in South Africa took three years. One historian described Mandela’s style: “He rejected the simple-minded notion that one must either negotiate with the devil or forcibly resist. He did both. He was willing to make concessions, but not about what was most important to him. With respect to his key political principles, he was unmovable.”
Marriage experts and authors Tim and Anne Evans agree that finding out what is most important to your spouse takes time and that making snap decisions can snap relationship trust.
In their book, “Together: Reclaiming Co-Leadership in Marriage,” they note that couples in conflict question their relationships: “Why isn’t our marriage as fulfilling as I’d hoped? How did we get so far from where we started? Where did we take a wrong turn?”
Early on in their marriage, the Evanses discovered a key to unity that kept them from going in opposite directions.
“[We decided] we would not move ahead until we both agreed,” is the first part of their rule. “We would resist the temptation to justify our positions, power up or allow the stronger personality to make the final decision.”
One example is that Tim had to wait years before Anne felt peace that Tim’s upgrading to a new motorcycle was right for them. Though Tim wanted the newer motorcycle, he wanted harmony with Anne even more.
The first ground rule for a successful retirement is patience. The Evanses kept working on a solution until both spouses agreed on a course of action. Negotiations take time. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, a successful marriage—especially after retirement—most likely can’t be built in one discussion.
In both Mandela’s and the Evans’ models, taking the time to identify core values and principles was key to making a satisfying plan.
The Finns are in the process of choosing what is most important for them. Walt and Cassidy managed to see each other often enough until the 2020 pandemic, when the labor market shrank and Walt couldn’t find workers to care for his horses on the farm. Suddenly, he was forced to stay in Nebraska for longer and longer periods. Cassidy felt abandoned and like a single mother because Walt wasn’t in Colorado to help raise their children.
As they take time to negotiate their plans for retirement, the Finns have identified some core values: Cassidy prioritizes civilization and family togetherness. For Walt, the solitude and physical labor of farm life keep him feeling alive and connected to the land. He’s not willing to give that up. He had to bury those needs when he lived in the suburbs.
Since Cassidy now understands what makes Walt happy, she’s willing to make adjustments. But she wonders how neither of them knew about his love for the demanding life of a farmer until the inheritance arrived.
Reisser isn’t surprised by such gaps. In her practice, she meets couples who don’t know each other or themselves until they intentionally find out what’s going on internally on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Few couples have such communication skills. Awareness arises on all fronts when intentional communication takes place. Until a person articulates their thoughts to a loving recipient, sometimes they don’t know their own heart and mind either.
Reisser recommends that couples ask each other a standard list of questions weekly, and she adds, “without giving any negative feedback, advice or problem-solving (unless your partner specifically asks for it).” The result of this weekly commitment can be a greater awareness of your partner’s inner needs, a closer marriage and a better chance of making a great retirement plan.
• What were the best and worst things that happened to you this week?
• How did I best meet your needs this week?
• How did I least meet your needs this week?
• What are you feeling right now?
• Is there something I could have done differently that would’ve helped us more?
• What are you most worried about right now? (This is the single most important question you can ask to understand core values.)
• Is there any way I can help you with that concern?
Such communication is the basis for building trust and mutual understanding, both of which are needed when negotiating life plans.
Neil Clark Warren, psychologist and founder of eHarmony, writes in his book “The Triumphant Marriage”: “Magnificent marriages involve two people who dream magnificently. The partners encourage each other to dig deeper and dream bigger, and in the process, they get in touch with a level of being and doing that otherwise would be far beyond them.”
When you’re negotiating your retirement plan together, don’t be competitive or shortsighted. Encourage your partner to dream big. Explore ways your respective aspirations can overlap and become something greater than each of your individual plans. If your retirement solution is not win-win, both of you will lose in the long run.
The Finns are looking at selling their family home and the farm and buying a property on the Front Range. That way Cassidy will be closer to the airport and visiting her children will be easier. The kids will also enjoy visiting their parents more if they can stay in a house near amenities and not in an RV near the horse poop heap.
Walt has agreed to be content with an extensive garden and raising horses. He knows that at some point he won’t be able to manage the Nebraska corn business anyway. Plus, there’s a bonus dream for both of them: his daughter is studying to be a large animal veterinarian and has expressed interest in helping him with the horses—if he moves. Having a child live nearby would be Cassidy’s dream come true.
When your marriage roads diverge and you can take only one path, stay at the fork until you reach agreement through good communication. That will make all the difference.
Names and details for the “Finns” have been changed to protect their privacy.
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