How to Survive (& Thrive In) Retirement When One Spouse Retires First

senior couple laughing and cooking in the kitchen

It’s a common scenario – one spouse retires, and the other is still working. 


What do you do when your partner decides to enter retirement, but you’re not quite ready (or vice versa)? 


There are ways to make it a more seamless adjustment. In this blog post, we will discuss some tips for making the transition easier for both of you. 


How Does Retirement Affect Marriage?

It’s no secret that retirement can affect marriages. If you’re approaching retirement, you may want to brace yourself for some marital conflict. 


For many couples, retirement is the first extended period of time they’ve spent together without the demands of work and child-rearing. As a result, it’s not uncommon for strains to develop in the relationship from the sudden dynamic shift. 


And when only one spouse retires, that too can change the relationship dynamic. The retiree may have more free time and want to spend more time with their spouse. Or, the retiree may want to spend more time doing activities they enjoy without their spouse. 


Not to mention retirement also leads to a loss of identity and purpose. All of these factors can make it difficult for couples to navigate together. 


According to a study by researchers at Cornell, the transition to retirement is particularly stressful — especially when one spouse retires before the other. 


Yes, newly retired couples fight more frequently and report less satisfaction with their relationship. But once both spouses are comfortably settled into retirement, they have the greatest levels of marital happiness and the fewest conflicts.

Couples who have settled into retirement report more happiness & less conflict than their newly-retired or pre-retired peers


So there’s definitely hope. Retirement doesn’t have to be a negative experience for marriages. 


With a bit of planning and open communication, you can find new ways to connect with your spouse and create meaningful experiences together in this next stage of life.


Who Should Retire First — Husband or Wife?

This, of course, is a tough question that doesn’t have a single right answer aside from — either one. According to a Fidelity Investments survey, 33% of baby boomers disagree about what age they plan to retire. 


The decision comes down to a number of factors, including health, income, and lifestyle preferences.


For example, if the husband is in poor health, it may make more sense for him to retire first so that he can enjoy the physical aspects of his retirement years while he’s still strong enough. 


Or, in another instance, if the wife is the primary breadwinner, she may want to wait until her partner is closer to retirement age before retiring herself. This way, they can both enjoy a financially comfortable retirement.


And if you enjoy spending time together and want to travel during retirement, then it may not matter who retires first. 


On the flip side, if you have different plans for your retirement years (e.g., one wants to travel while the other wants to stay home), then it may make more sense for one person to retire first so that they can pursue their own interests solo first.


You get the gist — there’s a lot to consider and a ton of options.


Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to deciding who should retire first. It’s a decision that should be made together after careful consideration of all the factors involved.


To help you navigate all the scenarios, here are five tips to help you cope if one of you does end up retiring first.


5 Tips to Survive When One Spouse Retires

5 tips to survive when one spouse retires: discuss plans and expectations, discuss finances, create a new routine, reasses chores, and establish boundaries


#1 Go Over Plans & Expectations

While talking about your plans and expectations for retirement is a vital component in any marriage, it’s especially important if only one spouse is retiring.


Research indicates that a lot of couples have different expectations in mind when it comes to imagining their ideal retirement. It’s wise to be on the same page about things like how you’re going to spend your time and what kind of lifestyle you want to maintain. 


This is not only important because it will help you avoid any surprises or disagreements down the road, but finding clarity in retirement is also vital for your own life satisfaction. 


For instance, you’ll need to decide how you’ll spend your time, money and energy:


  • Will you travel? 
  • Take up new hobbies? 
  • Invest in home improvements? 


It’s also important to think about how retirement will affect your relationship:


  • Will you have more time for each other?
  • Or will you find that you want to spend more time apart? 


Also, don’t forget to discuss the practicalities of retirement, like where you’ll live and how you’ll manage your healthcare needs. 


If you’re not sure where to start, sit down with your spouse and make a list of all the things you want to do in retirement. Once you have a good understanding of what each partner wants, start brainstorming ways to make those dreams a reality.


(By the way, we know that finding this clarity isn’t easy — figuring out your ideal retirement lifestyle is one of the biggest challenges we see people struggling with. Feel free to book a Breakthrough Session and we’ll chat through ideas and next steps that are meant for you.) 


In a nutshell: By communicating effectively and openly with each other, you can navigate these changes together and lessen stress or strain between the two of you. With communication, patience, and support, it’ll be much easier to enjoy your retirement as a couple.


#2 Discuss Finances

Money is one of the more important aspects of retirement planning, and it’s crucial that you make an effort to discuss your financial situation with your spouse, even if only one of you is retiring.


According to a study on couples and finances, effective communication is critical.


those who communicate well about finances are more likely to expect to live a comfortable lifestyle in retirement, rate their household's financial health as excellent or very good, discuss finances together at least monthly and say that money is not their greatest relationship challenge


If you’re used to having two incomes, there may be a period of adjustment when only one spouse is retired. The working spouse may feel like they’re shouldering all of the financial responsibility, while the retired spouse may feel like they’re not contributing as much. 


Having an open and honest discussion about finances, expectations, and boundaries can help both partners feel more comfortable with the whole situation. It can also help to identify any potential areas of conflict and help you figure out ways to resolve them.


Also, you’ll need to create a budget for your new lifestyle. This can be a difficult conversation to have, but it’s important to make sure that both of you are on the same page financially before making any major changes to your employment status.


Ultimately, discussing finances is an important part of maintaining a healthy relationship when one spouse is retired and the other is still working.


#3 Create a New Routine

When one spouse retires and the other doesn’t, it can be tricky adjusting to a new daily routine. Suddenly, you have different schedules and different priorities.


One of the best ways to ease into this new reality is to establish a shared routine. For instance, you might both agree to wake up and go to bed at the same time. Or, you might decide to take a walk together every evening after dinner.


It’s well known that shared time is central for couples’ togetherness and cohesion. What’s less well known is that the quality of that shared time is more important than the quantity.


the time mediation model of relationship satisfaction proposes that time quantity and quality of time spent together helps couples cope better with external stress and it impacts relationship satisfaction


So if you’re looking to improve your relationship, go beyond just spending more time together — make sure you have quality time weaved into your routines.


Having a shared routine will help you feel connected to your spouse and give you both a sense of connection and stability during this time of change.


#4 Reassess Chores

Retirement can be a time of increased stress if you’re not prepared for the change in workload. If only one spouse is retiring, it’s important to reassess the division of chores to ensure that the retired spouse is not taking on too much of the burden.


Household chores like cooking, cleaning and yard work can take up a significant amount of time, so it’s important to have a plan and expectation for how these tasks will be completed.


Suddenly, one spouse may have a lot more free time – and the other may feel like they’re shouldering all the work. It might seem like a minuscule detail, but it’s important to sit down and reassess your chores list to make sure it still feels fair. 


In some cases, you may need to ask the retired partner to take on a few more tasks. In others, you may need to hire help to lighten the load.


If you’re interested in how other retired couples have divided their housework, a recent study has found that couples who have one spouse retire before the other see a shift in their division of housework — keep in mind it’s not necessarily permanent, either. 


housework division when one spouse retires and the other one doesn't vs when they retire jointly throughout the years shows that those who retire first take on more of the housework


In sum: The partner who retires first ends up doing more around the house, regardless of which spouse it is. But, this increase only brings them up to about 40% of the total housework hours for the couple. Once both spouses retire, they usually go back to their previous division of duties. 


Whatever you do, don’t let chores during retirement put a strain on your marriage. Reassessing your chores is a good way to start.


#5 Establish Boundaries

When one spouse is preparing to retire and the other one is still working, it can be challenging to establish boundaries around a variety of issues. For example, it can be difficult for the partner that’s still working to know how much time to spend with their partner after hours or on weekends. 


And even when both spouses are retired, you may want to consider whether certain activities – like pursuing retirement hobbies together or alone – can interfere with each person’s ability to maintain their own social networks and emotional well-being.


One way to approach this challenge is by setting clear boundaries around retirement and work-related activities. This might mean carving out dedicated time for retirement hobbies, or simply letting go of expectations that your partner should always be available when you need them. 


A simple way to compartmentalize activities:


  • My activities
  • My partner’s activities
  • Our couple activities


It’s also important to leave space for independent activities and relationships. Especially if one spouse will have more free time than the other. 


In fact, according to the longest-running longitudinal study of marriage and divorce, having time for yourself is the determining factor in marital satisfaction. With these kinds of boundaries in place, you and your spouse can avoid any difficulties as you make the transition into retirement together.


Having time for yourself is the determining factor in marital satisfaction


To successfully navigate this transition, it is crucial for spouses to have honest conversations about retirement and be open with each other about what they need from each other during retirement. 


This will help both partners feel more supported as they enter this new phase of life. Whether that means scaling back work commitments or exploring new hobbies and interests together. 


#6 Schedule Date Nights

As cheesy as it may seem, one effective way to ensure that both partners feel supported during retirement is to schedule regular date nights. Having dedicated time each week just for the two of you will help to keep your relationship strong and create a sense of normalcy in your lives during such a major life change. 


This will help you stay connected, even as your schedules change and your priorities shift. After all, retirement is both exciting and emotionally challenging for many couples. 


By making time for each other and maintaining a regular connection, you can better navigate all the transitions that retirement may bring. Whether you do something simple like grabbing dinner or catching a movie together or something more elaborate like taking a road trip or planning a special vacation, just make sure to set aside time for each other on a regular basis. 


And here are 8 activities to help you plan your next date — there’s something for everyone.


Retirement doesn’t have to put a damper on your date nights if you make them a priority and enjoy this special time together.


Happy Marriage = Happy Retirement

When one spouse retires, and the other doesn’t, it can be a difficult and lonely time. This is especially true when it comes to retirement planning.


After all, retirement represents a huge transition that requires both spouses to adjust to new routines and responsibilities. 


In this article, we outlined some important steps to take to make sure that you survive retirement when one spouse retires first:


  • #1 Go over plans & expectations — ensure you’re on the same page as your spouse when it comes to retirement planning
  • #2 Discuss finances — honestly communicate about finances 
  • #3 Create a new routine — transitioning into retirement is a process that requires new routines to be established
  • #4 Reassess chores — housework division will likely change if only one spouse retires
  • #5 Establish boundaries — dedicate time to activities independently from one another
  • #6 Schedule date nights — keep your marriage strong with scheduled shared time


Now that you’ve read our tips on how to survive when your spouse retires first, it’s time to take action. Talk to your partner and figure out a plan that works for both of you to prevent marriage problems after retirement


With some dedicated planning and effort, you can make your retirement happy and healthy.

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portrait of Cyn Meyer, founder of Second Wind Movement and a certified retirement life coach
Cyn Meyer 

Retirement Life Coach

As a certified retirement life coach since 2018, Cyn has helped thousands of older adults turn their retirement years into remarkable years full of growth, purpose, and passion. Through her signature program Rewire My Retirement, she helps people achieve their best life across the 5 Rings of Retirement, which covers topics Growth, Community, Health, Giving Back, and Finance.

Cyn combines specific life coaching tools, neuroscience, and her extensive background in marketing (spanning 17 years) to make a powerful impact with Second Wind Movement – an organization dedicated to providing educational resources and coaching for seniors.

With meticulous research, insight, and passion, Cyn’s mission is to usher in a new wave of positive experiences for generations of retirees.

portrait of Cyn Meyer, founder of Second Wind Movement and a certified retirement life coach

Cyn Meyer 

Retirement Life Coach

As a certified retirement life coach since 2018, Cyn has helped thousands of older adults turn their retirement years into remarkable years full of growth, purpose, and passion (beyond the stereotypical financial planning side of retirement). 

She combines specific life coaching tools, neuroscience, and her extensive background in marketing (spanning 17 years) to make a powerful impact with Second Wind Movement – an organization dedicated to providing educational resources and coaching for seniors.

With meticulous research, insight, and passion, Cyn’s mission is to usher in a new wave of positive experiences for generations of retirees.