8 Conversations Every Couple Needs to Have

Hopefully, you have at least a general idea of how you hope your life will unfold in the years to come.  You probably have some ideas (whether vague or specific) about where you’d really like to live, where you hope to travel, when you hope to retire, and an assortment of dreams and “bucket list” items you’d like to do someday.

Have you shared these dreams, desires, and goals with your spouse?  

How closely do they align with those of your spouse?

Do you know what his or her dreams, desires, and goals are well enough to describe them accurately?

You might be surprised how many couples haven’t had these conversations, or how many are operating under incorrect assumptions.  It’s easy to envision your ideal future, with your spouse by your side, without actually getting your spouse’s input and buy-in.

It’s easy to assume that your spouse envisions the same future that you do.

When Jeff and I first started discussing our visions of retirement, we found that we had some very different views on the topic.

My parents enjoyed a healthy, active and happy retirement that lasted almost thirty years.  Their retirement began when my father was 61 and my mother was 53 and lasted until my father died at 90.  My mother died three years later at 85.  For the first ten years, my father did freelance surveying on an occasional basis to bring in some extra money and keep himself active and occupied, but from about age 70 onward, he stopped working altogether.  He and my mother did some world traveling, some volunteer work, participated in a local lunch group for seniors, and my mother took art lessons and painted.

In contrast, Jeff had a very different perception of retirement life based upon the experience of his parents.  His father, following a career in the Navy, returned to his hometown and found a job to tide him over until he retired for good.  His father never had any real hobbies or interests outside of his work, so he felt bored and purposeless during retirement and his health declined quickly.  His parents had enough retirement income from his father’s military pension to meet day-to-day expenses, but very little money for anything beyond necessities.  His father died at age 74, which was probably ten years longer than he would have lived were it not for medical interventions.  His step-mother continues to scrape by in poor health.

Based on my observation of my parents’ experience, I always hoped to retire early and then enjoy a decades-long period of carefree relaxation, travel, and pursuit of numerous hobbies and interests.  Jeff saw himself continuing to work for many years in order to postpone retirement as long as possible, because to him retirement meant the rapid decline of health and overall quality of life.

Obviously, as a couple, this presented significant differences for us to reconcile.  You and your spouse may not be on the same page, either.

For every couple, there are many potential sources of difference which require both partners to talk and be flexible in order to find the right balance.   Here are eight conversations you and your spouse will benefit from having (not all in one sitting, of course!).

1.  When do you plan to retire?  Do you plan to retire at all?

Cases in which one spouse retires before the other happen frequently.  Perhaps there’s an age difference of ten or twenty years.  Maybe one spouse is laid off, accepts an early retirement package, or qualifies for his/her employer’s retirement benefits sooner that the other one.  Or it could be that one spouse is more engaged in a fulfilling career while the other has reached a career dead-end and is ready to move on.

Having one working spouse and one retired spouse is manageable, of course, but it requires some conversation to align on expectations.  If the first retired spouse dreams of extensive traveling, that will have to be postponed – unless that spouse wants to travel alone or with others, and that’s okay with the working spouse.

Perhaps the working spouse will now expect a home-cooked meal waiting at home each day after a long day at work, and he/she will expect the retired spouse to do a lot more of the housework.

What if one spouse says he or she doesn’t want to retire, and wants to work as long as possible?

2.  How much money do you need to have saved?

This is a complicated question in any case, and the answer depends a lot on what kind of lifestyle you hope to enjoy after you retire.  Do you wish to live in an upscale retirement community and maybe travel extensively?  Are you willing to downsize and be more frugal in order to retire sooner or make up for not having saved enough?  Do you want to have money left over to leave to your heirs or spend it all on yourselves?

As I have discussed in previous articles, the guidelines you may have read or heard about for how much you need to save are averages.  Your needs may vary significantly based on many factors.

Just as money matters for your current life are an essential discussion topic (and hopefully not an argument starter), how much money you’ll need for your future is definitely something to talk about.

Umbrella on Mountaintop

3.  Where and how do you want to live?

First, there’s the question of whether you both want to move somewhere else after you retire or stay right where you are.  Perhaps you want to stay in the same area, but downsize to a smaller home.

If you’re both inclined to move, there’s literally a world of possibilities for where you might choose to live.

There’s also the question of how you want to live.  This ties in closely with the subject of money, as discussed above.  Do you want to live in a senior community or stay in the mainstream?  Do you hope to live lavishly or frugally?  Do you want to travel the continent in a recreational vehicle?  Do you want to move to a foreign country?

To help guide your discussion, it might be helpful to first establish what criteria are most important to you.  This will provide a framework that will make it easier to focus on places you’ll be more likely to enjoy and avoid places that may seem attractive but lack important things you will need.

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4.  What activities do you plan to pursue?

This question is largely self-explanatory, but it’s important to compare your list with your spouse’s.   The Retirement Visualization Guide may help you with this discussion.

How closely do your lists align?  And perhaps more important, which of your desired activities are things you can do together as a couple vs. on your own?  You’ll probably want to have a mix of activities you enjoy doing together as well as some that provide you with some time on your own, but it’s important to align on the ratio of one to the other.

This leads nicely to the next question…

Couple Rowing on Lake

5.  How much time do you plan to spend together, without driving each other crazy?

Of course, you love your spouse.  But do you want to be with him or her 24/7?  During your working career, work dictates that you spend a lot of time apart (unless you own a business together or both work from home).    After you stop working, you’ll be seeing a lot more each other.

One of you may envision spending all your time together and doing everything together.  The other may be dreaming of time alone for reading, or participating in projects and activities that don’t involve the other person.  Your visions of how much time you spend at home vs. outside the home may be quite different.

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6.  What family obligations and responsibilities will you have?

Your retirement visions probably focus primarily on you and your spouse.  However, other people in your lives may complicate the picture, and the two of you may have differing views on how you will accommodate these situations.

Here are just a few examples:

  • An adult child asks to live with you, due to unemployment or a divorce, for example
  • You are asked to help care for grandchildren
  • One or both of you have aging parents that need additional care

Scenarios such as these can impact many aspects of your retirement.  In addition to the financial impact, they may also dictate your choice for where to live, how much you can travel, and even how much free time you have.

One of you may feel that you’ve earned your retirement, and you need to stand firm in not letting these requests and situations hijack your golden years.  The other may feel a stronger pull to help the family members in need.  It’s something to talk about.

It’s also worth discussing how much time you want to spend visiting family members, and how important it is to each of you to live near them (and which ones).

7.  How will your identities change after you stop working?

After devoting many years to your career, you have probably come to identify yourself closely with what you do for a living.  When you meet someone new and they ask what you do, it’s easy to say, “I’m a teacher” or “I’m an engineer” or “I’m a manager,” whatever the case may be.

Sometimes after people retire, they suffer from a loss of identity.  It may not be quite as satisfying to say, “I’m a retired ____” or simply “I’m retired.”

One of the greatest aspects of retiring (if you choose to look at it this way) is the opportunity to rediscover and redefine yourself.  Jeff and I have the attitude that our post-working years are not so much a retirement as a renaissance, and I encourage you to approach the next chapter of your life the same way.

I’m redefining myself as a writer, a presentation skills trainer and workshop leader, and a jazz trombonist.  Jeff is redefining himself as a medium and a musician.  Perhaps you’re planning to start a business, become a writer or artist, volunteer for a cause, etc.

In any case, your identity and the pursuits you focus on will change, and so will your spouse’s.  Hopefully, you’ll become new, rejuvenated people.  While I’m sure we all want to be as supportive of our spouses as possible, it’s important to consider and discuss how these changes may impact who you are, your lives together, and how you will view each other as you both change.

2014-04-10 Thomas Szasz

8.  What are your attitudes about aging?

When I was in my 20s, I looked at my approaching 30th birthday with dread.  It seemed to me that this milestone birthday meant that I was truly getting older and the fun years would be over.  Once in my 30s, I found out that this decade wasn’t so bad after all – in fact, it was pretty darn great.

As I approached 40, my attitude was “40 is the new 30!”  I’ve since learned that every age brings its rewards, and how much I enjoy it is truly my choice.

Many people view life as a mountain, and retirement is the downside you experience after you’ve reached your peak.  It’s a time for throttling back, coasting, and slowing down.

It’s true that our bodies age and we won’t be able to do all the things we used to do, at least not as fast or as long – although I’ve seen some 70-year-olds who are very physically fit.   But that’s no reason not to look forward to enjoyment, vitality, and adventure in our later years.

What are your attitudes about aging?  What are your spouse’s?  How closely do they align?

I believe that your attitude towards aging significantly influences your plans for how you want to live the rest of your life.  It also provides the motivation to save and plan.  You can look towards your renaissance years with eager anticipation or dread – the choice is yours.

2014-04-10 Bernard Baruch

For a much more thorough examination of these issues and others, I can recommend an excellent book, The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle, by Roberta K. Taylor and Dorian Mintzer.  It’s loaded with stories and case studies, and it’s full of practical advice.

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©2014 Dave Hughes.  All rights reserved.

Photo credits:
Couple at table:  Alejandro Escamilla
Umbrella on Mountaintop:  Keon  Some rights reserved.
Couple Rowing on Lake:  Leyla.a  Some rights reserved.

5 Responses

  1. About Creativity says:

    Number 5, How much time do you plan to spend together, without driving each other crazy? == This on very good and for us has been a challenge her in Greece, Its been a total of 4 years in may of 2017. Good weather helps a lot for our minds. We are from the USA. Number 7 very good also. For this one we both have found other ways to live, walking, cooking all our meals from scratch, turning in words for our lives, living from the inside our if you will. That’s a start and thanks for this web site!

  2. William says:

    This is an eye opening article for all people. Even singles. The fact of the matter is when a person retires, they no longer work, and at that point lose some friends that still work. Preparing for something to do when you retire is very important. I will start by taking classes to improve my skills. I realize now, I have been a work-aholic and have hardly joined my wife in anything. She has spent years saving “for one day” when it would be our time. (Losing her job at 50 left her scrambling for odd jobs and identity.) She wants distance from being the “babysitter” or the “banker” when our children mess up. Our “renaissance” is being created together,
    5 year goals, as we know money isn’t everything. Having your health, and love in a secure affordable place is more important.

    • Dave Hughes says:

      It sounds like you are your wife are doing all the right things – and doing them together, which is most important.

      U.S. culture has conditioned many of us to be workaholics. Shifting gears away from that into a self-directed life with leisure time is sometimes the most challenging adjustment.

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