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Marital Stress When Retirement Hits

Poor Adaptation to Retirement Life Induced Stress

The average life expectancy of Hong Kong people is 84.3 years. As such, our new phase of life after retirement is relatively long. In some industries, for example investment banking, the average retirement age is lower. Hence, many senior executives from these industries can spend more time with their spouses after retirement. Based on the cases that we have worked with, the flip side of this, unfortunately, is retirees experiencing unexpected marriage issues after retirement.

Retirement can be a challenging life event for many executives. These high flyers, who are used to attending to a myriad of work issues and leading their staff in achieving the company’s goals, now have to face a lack of income and other issues that they may not be accustomed to. For instance, they no longer have business cards to pass out when they meet new acquaintances, and will not have staff around to readily help with some trivial tasks such as fixing laptop issues. 

Learning to Adapt to Retirement

While many are prepared for their upcoming retirement, most are unaware of the typical stages that a retiree will experience after leaving the workforce. In the first year of retirement, most retirees would have fulfilled what they have planned to do, such as learning calligraphy, travel the world, read more books, exercise, etc. Usually, after the first year, they will enter a “rebound” phase that signifies the end of their retirement honeymoon. This is when retirees start to feel a void, feeling that something is lacking when they wake up each day. They become concerned that they will get bored if this continues and consider it as a waste of life. Gradually, they may become less energetic and more listless. This scenario is similar to the early part of the movie “The Intern”, which tells the story of a senior management executive who decided to return to work as he was bored with having nothing to do after retirement.

There was a couple who held senior management roles before their retirement. The couple’s children are married, thus do not live with them. When they were in their jobs, the couple rarely had dinner at home as they had business events to attend during most evenings. Their Saturdays were also packed with work-related social events; either attending horse racing events organised by the husband’s company or cruising events organised by the wife’s company. When both retired, there was no one for them to manage at home. Unconsciously, they started to fight over various rights to control at home to fill that gap. First, the husband, who never interfered with the helper’s work, started to audit how much she spent on their meals. His wife also started questioning why he did not take his health supplements on time. Both husband and wife are straightforward and were trying hard to convince one another, hence their exchanges were not too pleasant. Furthermore, the couple had to face each other at home every day because there were not many places that they could go to. As this went on, their mutual respect deteriorated to loathing as they could not tolerate each other’s “commands”. Their initial quarrels gradually turned into adamant demands that both should not interfere with one another. It finally reached a point that the couple felt they rather choose divorce than to live with the constant fighting.

The above-mentioned couple had lived together for a long time and their conflicts surfaced because both were unable to adapt to their retirement. Working with a counsellor can resolve this. A counsellor can meet with each spouse separately to first work on adapting to retirement life. Thereafter, the couple can meet the counsellor together to redefine their roles. The counsellor can also guide them into opening up, letting each other know their needs and challenges faced with their retirement. With support from the counsellor, both will learn to communicate more effectively. Alternatively, if one finds it hard to seek help from others, bear in mind that the problem is not related to marriage, but is due to poor adjustment to retirement life. Having this awareness is the first step towards a solution.

Tips for Executives to Improve Marriage Relationship After Retirement

  1. Husband and wife should develop separate interests, giving each other space and avoid interfering
  2. Consider sharing a common activity of interest but do not force your spouse to participate
  3. Try spending time to visit each other’s family and friends, and participate in meaningful activities
  4. If an argument is inevitable, learn to control your voice (loudness and tone). Alternatively, consider expressing yourself through a letter to your spouse with the intent to confide in him or her
  5. Practice ways to relax, such as doing deep breathing exercises

The Companions
Alice Lam