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Redefining relationships in retirement

           An older aged groupe on a couch laughing.           

It’s important to open the lines of communication, rather than making assumptions about the way you’ll interact with loved ones

When you retire, the cascade of lifestyle changes that follows can put stress on relationships. This applies primarily to your relationship with your spouse, since you’ll no doubt find yourselves spending much more time together. But relationships with your adult children, colleagues and friends may also have to change due to your new circumstances.

As a physician, you’ll find that preparation for this new chapter of your life is especially important for a few reasons, including:

  • your career demanded a large investment of time and energy that will now be liberated;
  • you’ll no longer have close contact with all the colleagues you’ve bonded with;
  • you’ll no longer have those work accomplishments that previously framed your identity and sense of fulfillment.

Dr. Amy D’Aprix, a gerontologist and life transitions expert based in Toronto, says that the adjustments will be smoother if you have discussions with those who will be affected, before major changes take place.

“A lot of people who retire operate on assumptions instead of having conversations about them,” she explains, identifying open communication as the fundamental relationship challenge. Instead of thinking, “Now I’m available; everybody should be ready for me,” she advises  those planning to retire to have “essential conversations—talk to the most important people about the most important things.”

Adjusting to new roles

Dr. Amy, as she prefers to be called, says that physicians commonly experience a period of disequilibrium in their relationship with their spouse following retirement. “If one person’s been home and the other’s been working, the person who’s been home may feel like you’re invading [her or his] space,” she says. And then there are role assumptions: A homemaking spouse may assume you’ll start doing more domestic things, such as cooking or cleaning, while you may be thinking that you’ve done your part by working outside the home for the family all those years.

If spouses are retiring around the same time, they may need to make even bigger adjustments. Both parties may appreciate spending more time together, but that doesn’t remove the need for each to have his or her own activities and own space. Having essential conversations with your spouse about such matters will leave both of you with a better understanding of what to expect and time to make adjustments.

“Spouses have to look at a few things,” notes Dr. Amy. “You’re really going to have to talk about time together versus time apart, what your roles and responsibilities are now, and how they may shift in retirement.”

Balancing time with kids and grandkids

Mistaken assumptions can also complicate relationships with your adult children and grandchildren.

“Again, you have to recognize that [your kids and grandkids] have lives that you’ve been a part of, but now you’re changing things,” says Dr. Amy. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding during this phase because people don’t talk about it. You may assume that now that you’re available, your kids are just going to fold you into their lives. I encourage people to tell their children that they’d like to spend more time with them and their kids, but [also to recognize] that’s not always possible because their kids and grandchildren may be very busy.

“On the other hand, your children may suddenly see you as a potential child-care provider, and while you love your grandchildren, you won’t necessarily want to spend three days a week with them.”

The bottom line? You’ll need to recognize your assumptions and understand that your children may have competing ones.

Shoptalk after you’ve left the “shop”

Physicians often build friendships with work colleagues due to common professional interests, and then frequently develop deeper bonds. What’s more, they may not have had a lot of time to build friendships outside the profession.

“People have a fantasy that when they leave a job they’re going to stay in touch with a lot of their colleagues,” explains Dr. Amy, “but usually it comes down to just a couple of people.” The reason: If your colleagues continue with their careers while you are pursuing new interests, some of that commonality will be lost. Over time, that can impact the feeling of connection.

You’ll likely be spending less day-to-day time with them anyway and more time with other people, such as your family and friends from outside work. It’s important to consider how you’re going to take the opportunity and time to deepen those non-work relationships.

Comparing relationships to a hanging mobile

Dr. Amy compares relationships to a hanging, spinning mobile. If you remove one piece, all the other parts shift to establish a new balance. If you think ahead about how your relationships will change in retirement, you’ll have time for the “essential conversations” that can help to re-establish equilibrium. And you’ll replace assumptions with a clear understanding of what the people around you want and expect as you enter this new chapter in your life.