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Video: Dealing with a life change

updated 3/15/2005 11:17:48 AM ET 2005-03-15T16:17:48

Retirement can be the time that couples look forward to for years — a chance to renew their relationship without the pressures of going to work every day. But it can also add new stresses to a relationship, especially when one partner retires and the other is still working. Couples need to think and prepare for the mental and emotional changes that may come with retirement. Dr. Stephen Treat, the director and CEO of the Council for Relationships and an instructor in psychiatry and human behavior at Jefferson Medical College, was invited on “Today” to share his advice for couples thinking about retirement.

What should a couple do before retiring?
It's important to get them to sit down face-to-face, with no TV, no newspapers. Couples should talk about retirement and start to anticipate it, along with ideas about what roles (masculine and feminine) they're now going to play. They should talk about how much time they want to spend together. The financial part is also really important to discuss.

The partner retiring is going to have to break out of decades-long work patterns. They're going to have to learn to be and not do. By that I mean, living, being in the moment — not the future, not the past.

Couples have to try to anticipate what retirement will really be like, so they're not shocked. I think couples should not make any kind of important decisions immediately. You have no clue what it's really going to be like, so don't sell the house or move. Just be for a while and see how you feel. Try it on.

How do you talk about retiring and not spending so much time together without hurting the other person's feelings?
It's a difficult conversation to have, but it's extremely important for both partners to process those feelings out loud. You should not be accusatory or judgmental — ask the difficult questions, but do it in a loving way. You could say something like, "How are we going to be as individuals and how are we going to be as a couple?"

People should also join activities that are independent of their partner. If you hold on to your partner, it's going to cause resentment and anger. So figure out what both of you want and find a middle ground.

How far in advance should you start planning for retirement?
The real essential answer is the day you get married. But that's not usually the case.

I think five years before, you should start having intentional discussions about timing and what you see for your future. Six months before is going to be crunch time and you really need to have a serious talk. What are our roles going to be? What do we do with all the time we're going to have now? How do we manage the difference in distance and closeness? What kinds of big decisions do we want to think about — moving, health issues, etc.?

What if a couple is reluctant to get help from counselors?
I think the stigma about getting help is waning in our culture. There's no reason to think we can operate on ourselves. We need to have perspective on ourselves, and therapy can be helpful in that way.

You don't have to come to therapy twice a week. Treat it as an advisory thing — you don't have to sign up for regular sessions.

When people are not talking about it, not communicating about it, that's what causes problems. Couples that do well in retirement, anticipate it.  You don't even have to go to therapy — just get two chairs, sit down and ask process questions like, "How is our marriage doing? How is our retirement doing?" Ask questions and honestly talk to each other.

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What are some tips you have?
Stay intimate
We're not talking about sexual relationships, but you can go out on a date night. You can sit down and try this exercise called risk and safety. Basically, they're intimacy building blocks — one partner takes a risk, talking about a feeling, the other partner makes it safe to talk about it. You should ask yourself — can you make it safe for your partner to talk?

Appreciate the present
Ask questions of each other. Do things that are about the moment, like talking a walk, playing games with each other. Enjoy the present time — doing and being with each other, not doing something.

Maintain individuality
You should discuss individuality and being part of a couple. You don't want the retirement to be a process for two people to merge. There should be private time and couple time. Figure out how to balance those things.

Be responsive, don't react
Responding would be saying, "What are you scared about?" Reacting would be, "What are you talking about? You haven't worked in three years, why are you getting on my case?" Which do you think is more likely to get your partner to open up? Responding and not reacting is very important.

Accept limitations
Gracefully allow limitations and weaknesses into your life.

Retirement could turn into a time for a person to mourn their unfulfilled dreams. How can a partner help deal with that?
If a person continues to cling to unfulfilled dreams, it contributes to a person's low self-concept. The goal is to notice what was actually accomplished; it may not be exactly how you dreamed it would be, but it's a lot. The other partner has a limited ability to help. It's more of an internal process. The only thing they can do is be patient and understanding.

Is it best when both partners retire at the same time?
I actually think it's the opposite, that it's best for a couple to retire separately. That way they're not meshed together immediately. I believe that helps each person become more whole on their own.

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