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Thursday, 22 March 2001

Expert Comments on "To Retire or Not"

Written by  Fran Ackerman

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Retirement is a complex issue that affects the individual as well as the
family. For many of us, work is a major part of our self definition. Who is Bob if he is not a lawyer? Is he proud of being a husband, a father? He has probably invested more time in thinking about succeeding as a lawyer than in thinking about the kind of husband he wants to be.

In addition to supporting our sense of self, work also occupies a major portion of our time. What would Bob do if he retired? Would he begin to experience loneliness, or ask himself some difficult questions which do not have easy answers, such as: What is the purpose of life in general, of my life in particular? What is really important to me?

He might have to face problems in his relationship with his wife. Bob does not want to address these issues; he prefers to continue the status quo.

Retirement, like all changes, creates anxiety. Responses range from depression to enthusiastic embracing of new possibilities. Understandably, many retirees, including those who choose to stop working respond initially by feeling sad and somewhat bewildered. The retirement party and the long awaited trip are over. Now what?

Many people think about themselves in narrow terms and have difficulty seeing beyond their present self- image. But each person is, in fact, a complex individual capable of developing new interests. In order to discover latent aspects of oneself, a person might ask himself/herself: What am I curious about? What would give me a sense of satisfaction? Would I like to learn more about nature, history, or religion? Would I like to develop a new skill that would be fun, such as cooking? Would I like to work with the disadvantaged? Can I use my skill as a lawyer in community work? Can I translate my knowledge of music or auto mechanics into volunteering with teenagers?

Retirement affords the time and flexibility to define our values. There are important questions that must be considered. What is truly important to me? How would I like to be remembered? Can I use the hopefully many years remaining to fulfill goals that reflect my principles? Answers to these questions can guide the way I spend my newly found resource--time.

The scenario of Bob and Carol deal specifically with the issue of retirement. However, it also raises issues that are related to couples of all ages. Carol wants Bob to change, to work less so they can have a different lifestyle. Bob prefers to maintain the status quo. Expecting a spouse to change is present in many relationships. As a rule, if several attempts at negotiating this modification have been unsuccessful, it is best to assume that one's spouse will continue in his other pattern of behavior. Continuing to push for the change leads to disappointment, mutual frustration and anger. There are many issues in which there is no one correct answer. But rather different points of view, each of which can be understood. To retire or not, is a dilemma with advantages and disadvantages. Instead of working at changing one's spouse, it is preferable to work at changing one's self. I f Bob decides not to retire, Carol can consider creating a lifestyle that better suits her own needs. She can make plans independent of Bob. Perhaps, she can travel to the children without him. She may have a sister or women friends who are also eager to do interesting things, are also waiting for their husbands to retire. They might, for example, plan a trip without their spouses.

Carol is dissatisfied with the quality of her relationship with Bob. She wants Bob to change so they will have more closeness. Bob wants Carol to leave him alone.This pattern is so common that family therapists coined a term to describe it: pursue/distancer. Generally, the more the pursuer runs after his partner, the more the latter runs away. It is counterintuitive to stop chasing after something you want. In close human relationships, however, if pursuing closeness with your partner has not succeeded, persisting is not productive.

Accepting one's partner with his or her limitations is not easy for many people. In spite of the difficulty, it is considerably more productive to stop waiting for one's partner to change and to take responsibility for one's own gratification.

This means learning more about oneself. It is worthwhile to reflect about the factors that contributed to one's choosing a partner with traits that one wishes were different.

It might be sad and disappointing to Carol that she can't change Bob. However, it creates a far healthier relationship, frees her from focusing on him and enables her to plan for herself. This does not mean that Carol gives up on her relationship with Bob. Within the constraints of their schedules, they will spend time together, having fun and seeking way to deepen their relationship. For example, Carol can talk with Bob about her own dilemmas and feelings without complaining about him or expecting him to respond according to her wishes.


Another issue presented in this scenario which relates to many individuals and couples of all ages is the decision making process. In contemplating an important decision, it is generally useful to identify the many factors that contribute to the short and long term advantages and disadvantages of each option.

At times, a person's choice is based on what seems least uncomfortable in the short run, with little, if any realistic consideration of the long term implications of the decision for themselves and /or their families.

Was Carol's decision to retire based on her expectation that Bob would follow suit? Did she discuss this with Bob? Had she known that Bob would not retire, would her decision have been different? Is Bob's wish to continue the status quo based primarily on his fear of facing retirement as long as he can? Has he considered the fact that his situation might change, that he might not have as much energy as time goes on? Is he preparing for this possibility? Will the time come when he will regret not having explored other possibilities while his energy level was relatively high?


The issue of retirement cannot be considered without thinking about aging. Preparing for old age as an individual and a couple is uncomfortable because it includes facing the possibilities of decline, illness, being alone and eventual death. Many people avoid discussing these issues, telling themselves they will deal with them if and when they must. However, in situations of sudden illness, for example, the lack of preparation has serious drawbacks.

Some couples divide responsibility for different aspects of the household to the extent, at times, that one of them is totally unfamiliar with certain matters. At a certain time, sooner rather than later, it makes sense for couples to shift from an arrangement of "superspecialization" to one in which each spouse is at least familiar with every aspect of the household.

With Marge and Ken, for example, is Marge familiar with the family finances, their health and disability insurance? Does she know whom she can consult regarding these and other financial matters? If Carol were suddenly seriously disabled, has she discussed with Bob and the children or does she have a will that states to whom she would like to leave personal possessions such as heirlooms and/or jewelry?

Optimal preparation cannot allay the pain and suffering of serous illness. However, it avoids the avoidable complications that lack of planning adds to the serious burdens of the family.


Contemplating retirement, like all significant issues is a challenge to the individual and the family. Although the issues discussed may be different, the patterns of interaction among older couples are similar to those of younger couples. Planning for the future, working at accepting one's spouse and developing oneself can free people of all ages to enjoy the present more fully as individuals and as a couple.

Last modified on Tuesday, 17 May 2011 10:24
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Fran Ackerman

Fran Ackerman

Fran Ackerman received her MSW from Simmons School of Social Work in Boston. She did postgraduate training in family therapy at the Ackerman Institute, Georgetown Family Center and at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic. Her major interest is Bowen Family Systems Theory. She is currently on the faculty of the Hebrew University School of Social Work and has been on the faculty of the Ackerman Institute and the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic.

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