Denver Bar Association
February 2008
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Retire and Go Home? Not. Working through sensitive issues

by Diane Hartman

People joke about the scenario.

A man who has argued mightily in court, negotiated delicate contracts, managed large groups of people, decides to retire … without a plan. His new job is telling his wife the best way to cook and wash dishes. He looks askance at her club attendance, book reading, bridge-playing. The home that was her private sanctuary has been invaded by a stranger who follows her around.

But, wait! Isn’t he the one who worked to pay for the home(s) and material goods? It’s his home, too. Sure, she raised the kids, but he deserves a nice retirement.

What’s fair? What can this couple — who once considered themselves happily married — do before retaining their own lawyers?

Of the surveys we sent out to all 650 DBA members over 65, we appreciated the two that were sent back. Okay, eight. Did we say this was a sensitive topic? We asked you: When one spouse wants to retire and the other balks, what can be done? We did hear from a couple of women, but mostly answers were from men in "traditional" marriages — obviously this will soon be a different problem with so many dual-income families and more women attorneys in the ranks.

For now, one (male) attorney summed up the situation of many: "I can retire if I want. I just can’t stay around the house."

Another said: "She said I have to find something else to do with my days, because she has her own activities and friends that she spends time with during the daylight hours. And how can I be annoyed when I have known it all these years?" When he tells his friends, he said, "They all either laugh or say that their wives told them the same thing."

Right after saying that in reality he still enjoys working, a third attorney admitted: "The other reality is that my wife states — and I agree — that I cannot retire until I have a hobby. And that doesn’t mean golf or stamp collecting."

One wife in an attorney couple says they had been on opposing tracks. She wanted to retire or cut back drastically. He wanted to continue practicing law full-time until he, well, expired. They compromised; she did retire and loves it, and he takes a minimum of "two three-week vacations each year." That has been making them both happy for quite a while.

A non-attorney who works part-time and is married to an attorney said she’s very happy with the status quo. "I don’t want him to retire. We have a certain social life because of his position. I don’t want to give it up." They still haven’t found a way to compromise (read: they’re not talking about it).

Counselor Robert Yourell said: "Work is a great way to avoid the things that make the relationship a challenge. It’s a case of absence makes the heart grow convenient."

Habits that used to work when a relationship is eclipsed by a heavy work schedule "can do quite the opposite when a work-oriented person retires," he added. "Consider all the momentum and intensity an attorney brings to work each day. Retiring attorneys must remember they need commitments that work for them even after retirement."

Don’t take it for granted things will just work out, he advised. That means having a talk — or really, many, many talks — about what the future could hold.

Mary Bernuth, M.A, a certified counselor and co-founder of the Psychotherapy Center of Cherry Creek, counseled an older couple. The husband decided to cut back on his practice and work from home. When they first came in, their stress level was high. "They were sharing a home desk computer (in her office) and the wife felt invaded on many levels." Their solution was to convert a guest bedroom in the basement into his office. "He bought a laptop and they invested in networking, which cost about $100, so they didn’t have to get another DSL hookup in the basement. This way he has his space and she has her office back. … He is making the adjustment and not her." — and that seemed important.

Another more subtle issue had to do with the fact that before he retired, she would cater to him at home because they didn’t see each other much. "The sense of entitlement that he had and lack of appreciation for how he was ‘attended to’ before he was there 24/7 was a big issue for her. It helped when he acknowledged that this kind of caretaking couldn’t continue daily." At first the husband was hurt that she didn’t want him in her office and didn’t pay full attention to him; maybe she didn’t love him as much now that he wasn’t bringing in a big paycheck. Neither realized what dynamics were in play, Bernuth said. Resentments began building fast and the wife began to feel that maybe she didn’t love him as much. Once they talked it out, she realized what looked like selfishness on his part was insecurity now that he was no longer in the role of provider. Once he was assured he was valued even if he wasn’t working, he was able to stay out of her way, find his own interests, and she felt more respected.

Both Yourell and Bernuth said even a few sessions with a counselor could help a couple get through hidden, thorny, or neglected issues. This can put the couple on a more secure footing and a brighter path.

Cozy Up to a Long Conversation

People put more creative energy into planning an addition to the house than they do their retirement, Robert Yourell said, "and that’s a shame." Whether you’re 25 or 65, he suggests that retirement is a subject needing regular attention. He suggests that you cozy up, or take a stroll from time to time without distractions. Here are some conversation starters:

1. How do you think we collaborate? How can we enhance that? How can we cultivate the old spark?

2. What would make talking about ticklish issues with me easier? What would show you that I really hear and care about what you’re saying?

3. What are your biggest concerns? What would you most like to see from me?

4. What about finances? Do we both know everything we should about our situation?

5. Where do we want to live? How important is it to live near our kids, or in a different climate? Will we split time in two places?

6. When we’re both home or working less, how shall we split chores? Who will handle the money, shop, plan the social calendar?

7. What about travel? Where? Lavish or more basic? Get an RV?

8. How can we conspire to be sharp-witted and youthful as we age? (Changes in diet, exercise, ways of thinking, new activities, etc.)

9. Share your dreams. What are the top five things you’d like to do before you leave the planet? How can you support each other in doing those?

If you can navigate by yourselves, that’s great; if not, plenty of help is available.

Yourell said that what looks like a huge crisis in a relationship can turn into a new way of looking at each other, a time to grow and begin enjoying each other again.

He advises attorneys, who are so used to the law, that "an adversarial approach will magnify any cracks in your relationship. … True collaboration must be the blood supply of your relationship in order for a major life transition to richly reward a couple."

Diane Hartman is the former director of communications for the DBA and CBA.

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