One way to make sure that you are happier in retirement is by caring for your couple relationship.
For most of February my husband was away on his annual solo vacation. By choice I stayed at home. Each of us enjoyed some ‘alone’ time.
Now that he is home I am again taking delight in the joys of a couple relationship.
During the month alone, there was lots of time to think about and appreciate what it means to live in retirement as a couple.
I reflected on some of the joys and struggles of 46 years of marriage as both of us attended graduate school, established careers, lived through parenting and child-rearing, dealt with middle age changes, and now face the challenges of growing old.
There was also time to consider what it may mean to live alone as do many of my friends who are widowed, divorced, or who stayed single by choice.
Doing things separately — whether it’s a solo vacation or an afternoon away from your partner — brings novelty and change into the couple relationship. No system can survive without new inputs. New and diverse interests are essential to each of us as individuals and important for a happy couple relationship.
Secrets for Keeping a Strong Marriage
Volumes have been written on the secrets for keeping a marriage strong with advice such as keeping romance alive, attending to physical and emotional intimacy, and building common interests.
To keep romance alive, most couples build their own romantic routines such date nights, a glass of wine together before dinner, sharing a special movie, and cuddling before sleep. Romance gets refined as couples grow older and their interests change.
Romantic routines may lead to physical and emotional intimacy both of which are foundations for a strong couple relationship.
Building common interests means having shared activities. These vary with the age and stage of the marriage. In our early years as a couple it was grad school at McGill U and long cycling trips. During the parenting years it was Suzuki piano lessons, parent nights, birthday parties and soccer practise as well as attending soccer tournaments locally and nationally. In our later years shared activities involve gardening, cottaging, entertaining friends and occasional travel together.
Every Couple is Unique
In my training and work as a marriage and family therapist I learned quickly that there is no one way to achieve a happy couple relationship.
Every relationship is unique. Every couple will need to find its own way to care for, support, and develop a strong couple relationship.
Looking back over 46 years that included some bumpy years, I have developed my personal list of essentials for caring for a couple relationships.
Mutual respect based on love is the starting point. Many years ago the Minister of a church we attended did a series of sermons on parenting. He advised that the best way to show love to a child was to show love and respect to each other as parents. Growing up in a home where a child sees parental love and respect for each other provides the greatest security a parent can give to a child. It also provides the foundation for a good marriage.
This advice has proved enduring — for parenting and for a healthy couple relationship. Without respect disagreements deteriorate from discussions to full-blown arguments. Respect allows for difference of opinion within the relationship or the couple ‘team’ while remaining committed to similar end goals.
Closely linked with mutual respect is the need for strong communication. Communication that starts with listening as well as talking sounds easy but is so difficult — especially if, like me, you are naturally gregarious.
Paul Tillick, a famous philosopher and theologian, advises that the first duty of love is to listen.
Listening to the perspective of my husband while keeping my mouth shut takes constant awareness and practise. When I don’t try to force my perspective on him it is easier to achieve a solution without a fuss or an argument that ruins a day.
Having fun together is an important way of caring for a couple relationship. I’m sad when people, who name their partner as their best friend, despair that ‘he never wants to go out’ or ‘she is such a deadbeat’. Strong relationships need time together to develop physical and emotional intimacy.
‘Fun’ together can involve uninterrupted time for warmth and caring, shared jokes, shared travel or for just hanging out. For us, spending time together at the cottage ranks high for ramping up the ‘fun together’ times.
Many couples have strained relationships over financial issues. Keeping a rainy day stash provides a safety net and avoids disagreements about spending money. When an unexpected household or car expense arises or when an opportunity to travel or purchase a luxury item proves tempting, it’s always good to have both personal and couple funds.
Over the years we always tried to avoid the worst effects of financial stress by saving 10% of any money we earned for emergencies and by living ‘below’ our means. Saving 10% came from David Chilton’s book The Wealthy Barber that someone gave to us many years ago. His advice proved invaluable especially when we faced very high costs for our son’s post secondary education in the US and later, for his graduate education in the UK.
As well as joint accounts and joint investments we each keep some personal funds. This strategy of saving 10% isn’t always easy but the stress it avoids provides a big payoff in terms of a healthy couple relationship — and the ability to enjoy a retirement lifestyle similar to that which we had when both of us worked.
Having shared values adds to a rich couple relationship. This might include shared spiritual connections/religious affiliations and attending church, temple, mosque, or enjoying other spiritual pursuits. Shared values involve a mutual and deep appreciation that life has purpose beyond the immediate selfish needs and that there are obligations to the wider society such as volunteering, seeking justice and aspiring to a life of fairness for all.
Finally, caring for your couple relationship means paying attention to daily routines and to solving problems as they arise. Gretchen Rubin in her writing on happiness emphasizes that what you do every day adds more to the richness of couple life than the occasional special gift or date night. Rubin urges attention to routines such as giving warm greetings and saying sincere good-byes when entering or leaving the house. It makes me think of how my husband enters the house and cheerfully announces “I’m home!”. His sincere greeting is one of the special cues we share as a signal that we are together again.
Ultimately, each couple develops their own secrets for keeping their relationship strong. Code words, secret messages, shared values and special cues build an enduring relationship. Maintaining closeness is a life-long process especially in our North American culture where impermanent and transitory relationships are increasingly common. The payoff comes with increased happiness in retirement.