There’s a theme that I’m picking up lately from women acquaintances when I’m out and about—at the gym, neighborhood gatherings, picking up my dry cleaning. I don’t hear it from all women, nor even a majority. But it comes up often enough that it shouldn’t be ignored.
The common denominator: most of these women were successful in their jobs and raising families … bright, capable, resourceful. They’ve enjoyed empty-nest status by retiring early and having time for themselves. But all of a sudden, the husband retires too. And it’s driving them crazy.
“All he does every day is sit in his recliner watching the news on cable TV,” one told me. “He wants to go grocery shopping with me,” said another, “and it takes us twice as long to get through the store when I go with him than when I’m alone.”
Turns out, these are not arbitrary or unwarranted scenarios; it’s a real set of behaviors that professional therapists call “Retired Husband Syndrome.” The stress-related condition has had a name since the early 1990s and became more prevalent in the U.S. as the first members of the Baby Boom generation began reaching retirement age 15 years ago.
Jackie Van Zile, a licensed Professional Clinical Counselor at ProMedica Behavioral Health in Sylvania, told me that patients who reflect this condition show stress-related symptoms like tension headaches and high blood pressure, and also, “a lot of depressive symptoms … feelings of helplessness, hopelessness.”
Van Zile is quick to point out that a better name for this might be ‘Retired Spouse Syndrome’ because it takes two people to make a marriage. “For men, it’s more of a frustration that retirement is not what I expected it to be … whether that relates to the spouse or a new lifestyle. But for women, there’s a sense that they are trapped in a new life that can’t change … a feeling they won’t have the freedom they once had.”
She added, “When someone retires, you’ve got this huge change that happens rather suddenly. When getting ready for retirement, a lot of couples are focused on preparing financially rather than the breakdown in routine and structure that they’ve lived in their lives for so long. But preparing emotionally for retirement is just as important as preparing financially.”
“Communication by couples prior to retirement is important. Get on the same page regarding expectations and limitations …what your roles are going to be and how they might change. Yet sometimes I find that a couple thinks they agree, but they really don’t. For example, we see that both want to start travelling more, but soon one person is saying ‘we should travel all the time’ and the other feels ‘maybe not so much.’
I‘m an advocate that each person in a relationship should try to pursue some of their own personal goals. Consider volunteering or re-discovering a sport or game that you enjoyed at a younger age. If you are with your spouse 24/7 then some things are going to become annoying.”
Van Zile adds that many highly effective couples in retirement make it a point to touch base with each other informally—and regularly. “Think of yourself as a team,” she said. “If one of my teammates is not doing well, then I’d want to see what’s going on.” But, she cautioned, watch your approach. “When I work with relationship concerns, I encourage the couple not to focus necessarily on the other spouse’s behavior, but on the marriage itself. If you start the conversation by saying ‘you don’t do this or that,’ then we are in an argument. Start by asking ‘How are you doing? Do you have any concerns?’ Use a lot of statements about how you feel and language about how this affects the family,” she advises.
Van Zile acknowledged that counseling can sometimes help, too. “People often think that they need to have a major problem or something very wrong to see a counselor. But sometimes the counselor is just there to mediate or provide a perspective. I do tend to see more women because they are more forthright about their relationships … they’ve been encouraged to share emotional feelings and frustrations.”
Divorce rates in our older populations are pretty high today because of major changes like retirement … not entirely knowing how to prepare and navigate that change. So, preparing mentally for retirement and change is just as important as preparing financially, according to the clinical counselor.
“In our lives and marriages, we change and pivot all the time—in our careers, as we grow older. We handle a lot of changes naturally, but others take some work. So, although we already have those skills, we sometimes feel a bit vulnerable to put them into action. That’s why finding a sounding board can give a different perspective. Couples who do fairly well in retirement are those that stay engaged—both socially and emotionally, as well as individually and together.”

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