I was recently reminded of a blog post I wrote back in January of 2014, entitled Existentialism, Disenchantment and the Six Phases of Retirement. It was written about five months after I retired. A fellow blogger who explores retirement issues found my post and used me, in a YouTube presentation, as his comic example of someone bumbling through the early adjustment phases of retirement. As I watched the YouTube presentation (slightly discomfited, listening to a complete stranger talk about the antics of “Betsy and her husband” like we were Lucy and Ricky), I was stuck by how much we’ve evolved since then.
I am quite content with my life now. Looking back, I see it really took me about two years to fully adjust to retirement. Five months after my retirement date, when I wrote that post, I was clearly in the Disenchantment Phase (Stage 4). The Honeymoon Phase (Stage 3) had worn off and I was starting to feel some loneliness, boredom, uselessness and disillusionment.
Stage 5, following Disenchantment, is described as the “Reorientation Stage,” where the retiree moves on to build a new identity in retirement. It is described as the “most difficult stage in the emotional retirement process and will take both time and conscious effort to accomplish. Perhaps the most difficult aspects of this stage to manage are the inevitable self-examination questions that must be answered once again, such as ‘Who am I, now?’ ‘What is my purpose at this point?’ and ‘Am I still useful in some capacity?’ New – and satisfying – answers to these questions must be found if the retiree is to feel a sense of closure from his or her working days. But many retires cannot achieve this and never truly escape this stage – make sure you do!” (Mark P. Cussen, “Journey Through the 6 Stages of Retirement”)
I wasn’t always mindful at the time, but in hindsight it’s clear I did go through this reorientation process, often in fits and starts. It forced me to take a hard look at myself and make some deliberate decisions about how I was going to spend the rest of my life. After all, the rest of my life could be another 30+ years! If I were to summarize my acquired bits of wisdom (and I emphasize that these are MY conclusions) they would be:
Throw out the expectations (especially of your partner) – Retirement is a wonderful and terrifying marriage laboratory, where you get one last chance to finally work out those thorny relationship issues so often ignored during the busy dual-career and childrearing years. Especially for my husband and I, polar opposites in many ways. Plus, I realized that I went into retirement with some unrealistic expectations. In my imaginary retirement la-la world, my husband (already retired) and I would be happily spending 24/7 together, having lunch dates and play dates and going to art museums. We would have an abundance of extra time, and we’d joyfully split the housework and tackle all those long-delayed projects around the house, like cleaning out the garage. We’d do all this together, with any relationship issues magically solved by the absence of work pressures.
That rose-colored bubble pretty much burst the first few weeks of retirement. We never spent that much time together, even when we were dating, so it was bone-headed to think we would start now. And my husband doesn’t even like art museums. After about a week of being together in the house, we had nothing interesting to report to each other. Plus, my homebody husband has vastly different ideas on how to spend his time, and was unwilling to give up his established and cherished routines and household chores. As I noticed my frustration and resentment start to build, I had a choice to make. I could either try to change my husband to fit my expectations, or I could respect his differences, let him be him, and focus on what I could do to structure my own life. I ultimately chose the latter, and also found it works far better to ask clearly for what I need than to expect it.
There are of course some things I still wish were different. For example, I really wish my husband would clean out the garage. I wish we entertained more, and we watched less TV (especially sports). But I finally realized there is an excellent chance our garage will never be tidy, that entertaining can be pretty stressful for us, and that watching a good football game together is a great shared activity. I had to look clear-eyed at those areas where reality and expectations collide and make some choices. If there were deal-breakers for me, I had to address them. If they were not, I had to come to peace with them. Just because Mr. and Mrs. McGillicudy down the street, also retired, work puzzles and drink Moscow Mules together every afternoon doesn’t mean we should. This process of letting go of unhelpful expectations and accepting, even embracing, the goodness in my own reality, with a spirit of gratitude, has been very liberating and my path to contentment.
Look no farther than thyself – I don’t mean this in a self-centered or narcissistic way, but I am learning that I am the one responsible for my own happiness. It is too easy, but not helpful, to look to others or go into blame mode when I am unhappy. As it is difficult, if not possible to do on my own, there is a spiritual component integral to remaining centered and open, in removing blame and extending grace.
Eliminating unhealthy expectations freed me to look pragmatically, even creatively, at myself, my husband (and our life together), and to craft a fulfilling life. If I need more social interaction, I have a wonderful network of friends to call on. When I need more physical exercise, I hang out at the YMCA right down the street. I have a women’s study group and a book club that provide plenty of regular female companionship.
I also gradually came to the conclusion that contributing to my disenchantment was a growing and nagging feeling of uselessness. Although I initially thought I would enjoy doing more around the house, I found I was honestly just as happy letting my husband keep his chores! (And I am, BTW, the envy of my girlfriends.) I found I need more time out of the house. I was someone who worked my entire life and was used to being the breadwinner in our family and a leader in the workplace. I missed the energy and camaraderie of the office, the business travel, and being a part of teams where we solved problems for our clients. I enjoyed all the fun I was having in retirement, but I began to feel that something was missing.
For me, a providential solution was my involvement with a charitable organization. A few months after I retired, I re-connected with a friend who was long interested in starting a non-profit. She enlisted my help and together we launched Alive and Well Women. Today I am the Chair of the Board and last year volunteered to take the lead on grant writing (something I’ve never done before).
My work with Alive and Well Women has proven to be a godsend. It gives me an outlet for using my professional talents, a sense of value and accomplishment, while allowing me to give back to the community. I love the women I work with and I’m learning new skills. We are in the midst of our first capital campaign and I’m finding it a joy to raise funds for a cause I feel passionate about. And since I am a volunteer, I work when I am home but still have the flexibility to travel with my husband.
Find some things to enjoy with your partner – when we are home, my husband and I find the ideal mix of together/independent time typically skews more toward separate schedules. We have breakfast and dinner together, and go for a daily walk around the neighborhood, but the rest of the day is typically individual time (often we are both home, but separately engaged.)
The danger with our natural parallel play tendency is that we can easily become disengaged. So, we deliberately look for activities that we can enjoy together. For us, our favorite joint activity is travel. Something special happens when we are on the road. We find we love being together 24/7, we work as a team, and we create amazing shared memories. These are the moments when I am overcome with gratitude. And as soon as we’re back from one trip, we start thinking about our next, which gives us something to dream about together.
We also try to do a few things each week while we are home. We rarely miss church and brunch on Sunday. We have at least one lunch or dinner out during the week, and we recently started ballroom dancing classes. We’re still more Lucy and Ricky than Fred and Ginger, but we’re having fun with our salsa!
The Routine Stage (Phase 6) of retirement is when “finally, a new daily schedule is created, new marital ground rules for time together versus time alone are established, and a new identity has been at least partially created. Eventually, the new landscape becomes familiar territory, and retirees can enjoy the last phase of their lives with a new sense of purpose.” (Mark P. Cussen)
You know, I think we might be there!