Much has been made of the fact that baby boomers are nearing retirement age, but that doesn’t mean boomers and their spouses will necessarily be in sync with each other. Take actor Michael Douglas, for example. If he retires next year when he’s eligible for a full Social Security benefit, he’ll have to wait 26 years for Catherine Zeta-Jones to qualify for a full retirement check of her own. That’s a long time to postpone enjoying your golden years with your spouse! Then take a look at it from her point of view: How would you like to work for the next 26 years while your carefree mate goes golfing or lounges by the pool?
Aside from age differences, complications can also ensue when one partner enjoys her work while the other wants to quit, or (an increasing likelihood amid today’s perfect economic storm) a continuing paycheck is needed to keep the marital ship afloat. If they’re both retiring, one spouse may want to move closer to the children while the other yearns for adventure. A spouse who wants to relax and have fun may be at odds with a mate who prefers active philanthropy. I’ve also seen situations where one partner longs to simplify life while the other craves the affluent lifestyle they’ve enjoyed for years.
In short, maintaining a harmonious relationship after one (or both) retire can be tricky for couples who don’t have the resources of Hollywood mega-stars.
Money, Power, and Polarity
When conflicts arise among clients who are transitioning into retirement, in many cases the core issue is power. For more than 30 years, I’ve been involved in helping couples resolve the power-struggle phase of relationships so they can arrive at what Don Montagna, former head of the Washington Ethical Society, calls “no-fault love,” where each person takes responsibility for his own imperfections. At no time are harmony and no-fault love more important than in the Third Age–the term William Sadler and others use for the stage of life when the central task of achievement is replaced by the need for fulfillment.
Power problems may crop up when a husband has always earned more than his wife. In such cases, men often believe they should have the decision-making authority about the couple’s spending, saving, and life goals. By contrast, women are socialized to share decision-making, no matter who makes more money.
Gender issues are only one reason for the differences in a husband’s and wife’s attitudes toward money. That’s because of Mellan’s Law, which holds that for a couple, opposites often attract–and if they’re not opposite to begin with, they’ll eventually become that way. I’ve discovered that couples may be polarized in any of seven oppositional behaviors:
Conflict No. 1: Saver vs. Spender
The market meltdown, credit crunch, and job insecurity all give Savers an edge today. However, a more frugal lifestyle will increase Spenders’ need to soothe or reward themselves for the stress it causes them. As a result, Spenders in a power-struggle relationship may well feel even more judged and controlled. Instead of continuing to sacrifice for a day that may never come, they may rebel and sneak gratification now.
Conflict No. 2: Worrier vs. Avoider
The financial crisis will intensify the stress modes of these money types, a common couples polarization. Right now, many Worriers are cringing at the latest market news and losing sleep to visions of bankruptcy, while Avoiders blithely ignore the financial headlines and file their 401(k) statements unread.
Conflict No. 3: Planner vs. Dreamer
In a couple whose stored-up resentments typify the power-struggle dynamic, Dreamers will fantasize about a life where work is no longer central. They may want to travel to exotic places, sell the house and buy an RV, or start a whole new life direction. Meanwhile, their Planner spouses are trying to calculate a retirement budget, estimate portfolio yield, and chart their Social Security options.
Conflict No. 4: Money Monk vs. Money Amasser
This is one of the hardest couples’ oppositions to heal. Money Monks tend to look forward to retirement as an opportunity to simplify life and give it more meaning and purpose, far away from the corrupting influence of money. Their Amasser partners, on the other hand, will be focused (possibly even obsessed) with growing their assets so they can feel more successful, powerful, happy, and secure.
Conflict No. 5: Risk Taker vs. Risk Avoider
In the Third Age, the Risk Taker (often male) may want to sell everything and buy a boat to sail around the world. The Risk Avoider, by contrast, may prefer to deepen her attachment to home, family, and friends rather than radically changing her life.
Conflict No. 6: Money Merger vs. Money Separatist
When a wife inherits money from a relative, she may want to keep some or all of it separate. If her husband has been the primary breadwinner so far and the couple has totally merged the rest of their money, his reaction is likely to be hurt and anger: “All these years when I made most of the money, you were fine sharing it. Now you finally have some money to share, and you want to keep it to yourself?” He may perceive her as selfish and unfair, and fear that she doesn’t trust him or is even planning to leave him.
Conflict No. 7: Polarizing Around Different Priorities
Most people are a blend of these money styles. In addition,just about any couple will take opposite stances on individual priorities. These may be similar to the different goals I mentioned earlier. For example, he wants to go to graduate school and she would rather contribute that money to a Third World charity.
Whatever their polarization, both spouses need to become equal partners for the sake of a successful intimate relationship. Power and decision-making should be shared, no matter who is still working and who isn’t, and no matter who makes or made the most money.
For an advisor, the task of guiding clients to explore their desires and priorities for their Third Age may seem daunting. However, some industry professionals have begun developing tools and processes to help couples approach this powerful life change on a more equal footing. I asked three of them to tell me how they do it.
Identifying the Differences
Michael Burnham, CEO and co-founder with two psychologists of My Next Phase, consults with advisors about “non-financial retirement planning,” as he calls it. Burnham considers retirement to be among life’s major transitions, ranking with marriage, childbirth, divorce and the passing of a loved one. He points out that both people enter this new phase even if only one spouse retires.
To help clients facing retirement understand their differences, Burnham has created a model with exercises to be done individually and then discussed and integrated as a couple. First, each spouse is asked, “What will change in your life? Is it a major or minor change? Is it voluntary or involuntary?” They are asked to describe everyday life in this next phase, dividing things into two categories: “My job” and “Not my job.” These simple exercises can uncover differing expectations that otherwise may escalate into disappointment and conflict.