Monday, February 16, 2009

Getting Older, Staying Married

I had lunch today with someone I have known casually for more than 25 years but have never had an extended conversation with before. We bumped into one another at a social gathering more than six months ago and made vague vows to “have lunch sometime” and finally followed through.

She is, I think, a few years older than I am. About three years ago she retired from a demanding position and began what she thought would be a wonderful new phase of life, working part-time while returning to her long-neglected interest in doing art. She quickly discovered, as she put it, that “I do not do well without external structure.” She is once more working full-time in a demanding position and has no plans to leave it in the foreseeable future.

Her husband, meanwhile, has been retired for four years and has no intention of ever working again. I asked her if he was pressuring her to quit working so that they could have more time to play together, and she smiled and shook her head. That was another thing she learned during her brief period of retirement: their marriage works much better when they are not together all day. Her working schedule has a bit of variability, so on days when she is home he tends to take reading materials to a restaurant (he is well-known at McDonalds). She is pushing him to add some new activities to his life, but he is resisting. She even set up a blog for him so that he could write about his field of expertise, but he has yet to make an entry in it. It sounds as if he is perfectly content doing nothing much in particular.

I do not think their marriage is “troubled;” it is likely as good as or better than most. Like every marriage I know, it is its own unique creature. But I suspect that in the next few years, as growing numbers of baby boomers who are more-or-less happy in long-term marriages retire, we will see a lot of couples scratching their heads and sorting out what it is going to be all about. Who are we together, and what passions will drive out lives both individually and corporately? I have known many couples who struggled or even divorced after the nest emptied because parenting was the only thing they really knew how to do together. I wonder how many other couples basically bought themselves some extra years after the kids moved out by stepping up the pace with work/career. If there is truth to that, the chickens will come home to roost when retirement comes.

There are several variants of the retired husband joke whose punchline is “I married him for better or worse, but not for lunch.” More and more folks are living that joke and trying to figure out if it is funny, true or both. My broad observation is that men in retirement tend to become more isolated than women do (not always unhappily) but that both genders experience this to some degree. Relating to a spouse who is spending less time with other people on a daily basis can bring challenges that take us by surprise. I know that Susan frets a bit about me taking less initiative to get together with friends for lunch or coffee than I did a few years ago. I plead tight budget, which is certainly true. It is also true that there are a fair number of people I used to think it important to spend time with, say, once a month who I am now content to see three or four times a year. It is not that they have become less interesting or that we are less fond of one another; we simply do not have as many day-to-day shared experiences to talk about. Which appears to be what is happening to some couples as their respective worlds become a bit smaller in retirement.

What are the things that married couples express interest in doing more of when they finally both retire? Golfing? Shopping? We don’t do the first and hate the second. Travel? That would be great if our savings and pensions were not down the toilet. Moving to Florida? I have instructed our children to shoot me if I ever talk such foolishness. So it will likely involve more community service, writing, and speaking about topics we have passion about. Susan will live the life of a born academic as long as there is life in her, writing books and articles and hopping on airplanes for speaking engagements until her arthritic joints give out on her entirely. I will putter (I love to putter) about the house and yard, play my ukulele and tell bad jokes. We will likely continue to find things to talk about, and even eat the occasional lunch together. We are very fortunate.

But it will certainly help if we can both maintain active lives beyond our marriage. I suspect one of the reasons that my acquaintance was eager to have lunch with me today is that – despite her engaging job, her solid marriage and her grandchildren – she is a bit lonely. Loneliness in various forms will be one of the greatest challenges for our age cohort as we age. Which is precisely why we need to be thinking and talking about radical new forms of church and community. We baby boomers have already reinvented ourselves several times, or at least we have that conceit. Now it is time for us to reinvent old age.


rick in cos said...

Cindy says you're "spot on", but I'm still trying to get my hands around this one. I think it's a moot point for me; I'm probably not ever going to get to retire anyway, which should only strengthen our marriage! Hard to believe, in about 3 months we'll celebrate 30 years!

Lori said...

Very perceptive piece. I wonder if reading at a restaurant is part of the mentioned husband's routine whether the home is occupied or not. Perhaps, it's part of the structure he has built for himself.

John said...

Yeah, Lori, that may be the case: many of my fully retired friends have built new structures around being at certain places (outside the house) at certain times, with or without other people. There is a wonderful opportunity for the restaurant industry if they can learn how to make a buck from folks nursing a cup of coffee for several hours!

Anonymous said...


Speaking of marriages working, why would someone repeatedly over 15 years cheat on relationships and repeatedly commit adultery with married men and where children are involved - not once, not twice, but three or more times?

How can this not bother a woman? Do you consider this a form of emotional domestic violence by one woman against another woman, against the children of that marriage?

And is it emotional violence against the whole family, children and even the foolish, dishonorable father who is engaged in this paramount act of betrayal?

Why would the same woman enter into a marriage when she was already in love with a married man with children and not tell her new man about this, even after he asked if there were any unrequited loves in her life? What makes someone so selfish, and so unfeeling, and so okay with making these decisions, and raining these hurting freely down upon the lives of others with remorse, over and over and over?

This behavior is a mystery to me. Yet to have witnessed it befuddles me how any human can so willingly commit these crimes against another human being repeatedly.

And then laugh in the face of the man she promised to love about her betrayal as though it was funny and she revelled in his hurt. How broken does someone have to be to live this sort of life.

Utterly digusted

Anonymous said...

"...withOUT remorse..."