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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Hughes

He Wants to Retire....but She Doesn't, WSJ Encore

Updated: Feb 12, 2019


He Wants to Retire...but She Doesn't

How couples negotiate one of the toughest parts of retirement: deciding when to start

By Kathleen A. Hughes

April 9, 2012

Let's say you have managed to stay married—or even remarried—by the time you hit middle age. Get ready for one more marital hurdle.

The odds are your spouse won't feel the same way you do about when to retire. A recent study by Fidelity Investments found that well over half of couples—62%—disagree on the timing of their respective retirements.

Consider Deborah Ewing, a 55-year-old attorney practicing family law, and her husband, Patrick Hickey, 62, a tax-software programmer. Mr. Hickey has a two-hour-plus daily commute from their home in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., to his job in Los Angeles, and says he feels tired. He would like to retire "as soon as possible."

No go. "I have told him he has to stay working until the last kid is out of college in four years," Ms. Ewing says. "For me it would be annoying not to have someone pulling their weight. I realize he's older. But on a personal level, I don't see it as positive. My perspective is he would putter around the house."

Having watched her own father retire, she also thinks it's healthier to keep working. "I think when people retire they slow way down and become less productive, less interesting, less healthy, less financially robust," says Ms. Ewing. "I plan to work as long as I can."

Mr. Hickey sees it differently. "Her perspective is a little bit warped," he says. "She sees me riding in the saddle until the very last day when I drop from the saddle. My body feels the way it feels. She can't really know how I feel and function."

The New Par

So the debate is at a standstill—at least for now. "She is worried that I will quit too soon and start having fun and we won't have sufficient funds," says Mr. Hickey. "There may come a point when I retire even if she doesn't want me to."

The days when a husband automatically retires at 65 with a corporate pension and his wife dutifully follows him to a golf course in Florida are officially over. Most women approaching retirement age are now working, and many have their own retirement savings—and viewpoints.

"Many women have entered the work force later and are at their peak when men slow down and want out," says Dorian Mintzer, co-author of "The Couple's Retirement Puzzle." "The timing can create some struggles."

Only about half of couples retire within two years of each other, says Richard Johnson, a senior research analyst at the Urban Institute, a social-policy think tank in Washington, D.C. Men approaching retirement age are, on average, almost four years older than their spouses, he says. And the larger the age difference between spouses, the less likely they are to retire at the same time.

"There's a lot more for a couple to negotiate now," says Maximiliane Szinovacz, a professor of gerontology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. "It's no longer one retirement and one drastic transition." Indeed, some negotiations seem to go on and on, since many baby boomers expect to work longer and retire gradually, taking on a series of jobs or part- time work.

Talking About Everything

The talks about when to retire seem much more sensitive and difficult than the question of where to retire (which I recently examined in an article in these pages, "He Says Maine, She Says Florida"). The question of when involves focusing on money, age differences, job satisfaction and gender roles—often all at the same time. Not to mention marital happiness and the prospect of more time together.

Therapists, not surprisingly, stress the importance of planning, clear communication and compromise. "In order for it to work well, each person needs to clarify their own vision of what's important and learn to talk with each other," says Ms. Mintzer, the author, who is also a retirement coach.

"Sometimes it's agreeing to disagree," she adds. "People get stuck in positions—it's my way or your way. That doesn't work so well." Ms. Mintzer and her co-author, Roberta Taylor, lead groups in which they try to help couples approaching retirement reach a "shared vision."

Yes, but how many couples truly listen to each other and really appreciate the other's viewpoint? (Without professional help, that is.)

Many of the friends I tried to interview declined to talk. One friend, who earlier had spoken openly with me about the stress of having an older retired husband at home, didn't return my call after I left a message. When I finally called again, she said, "He doesn't want to talk about it."

And many of the couples I did interview told me they had discussed the subject more with me than they had with each other.

Lynne Berrett, 73, retired as a therapist last year when her sister became ill. She had hoped her husband, Joshua Berrett, now a 74-year-old music professor at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., might retire four years ago at age 70. He didn't.

When she first broached the subject, she recalls her husband said, "I just can't talk about it right now."

"It's not an easy thing," says Ms. Berrett. "I would like us both to be freer." The couple, who have been married for 47 years, have grandchildren in California and Washington, D.C., and she would like to go on extended visits—with her husband.

But Mr. Berrett loves teaching music history and music appreciation. "I'm very passionate about what I do," he says. "I'm living my love. It's so vital to me." He sees himself making a "gradual transition" and says he may be ready to retire in another year.

"I'm a little bit skeptical," says Ms. Berrett. "We'll see." She did say that after listening to his side of the interview, she better understood his position, adding, "It surprised me."

Playing a New Role

Men tend to be older than their wives, so they typically become eligible for retirement benefits, including Medicare, first. But their wives may want to keep working because their income is important to the family, and they often need to maintain their own health insurance.

Traditional gender roles—a sensitive subject—also complicate the discussions. Men who retire first may find themselves thrust into the role of househusband. Their wives often expect them to cook, clean and have dinner waiting. And since many husbands aren't used to scheduling social activities, they may find themselves home alone a lot.

"One of the interesting things you find in the data is that men who retire before their wives tend to be less satisfied with retirement than those who retire together," says Mr. Johnson at the Urban Institute. "Men seem to have more trouble retiring alone than women." As a result, he says, men who are more than five years older than their wives tend to work longer.

While baby boomers have redefined traditional Ozzie and Harriet gender roles, it isn't yet clear just how much.

Robert Kalayjian, 66, an anesthesiologist in Long Beach, Calif., says he would "retire in a minute" if his wife, Pat Kalayjian, 64, retired. But she likes her work as an associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills. She has a flexible schedule and says retirement would feel "unproductive."

So instead, Dr. Kalayjian has cut his schedule to two or three days a week. That has allowed him to

practice yoga; he's also working on a patent for a meditation bench.

Dr. Kalayjian admits he would feel funny about retiring first. "It's kind of a cultural thing. The man is supposed to bring home the bread."

Cutting back did lead to adjustments, since Ms. Kalayjian sometimes works from home. "The question of who is responsible for lunch comes up a lot," says Dr. Kalayjian. The solution: Each is now responsible for his or her own lunch.

Some women, particularly those who have been home alone for years, become downright panicked at the prospect of their spouse joining them—day in and day out—with nothing to do. "It often does play out along gender roles," says Ms. Mintzer. "Sometimes the expectation is that the husband will do more with the spouse—and the spouse has their own life." As a retirement coach, she works on getting couples to clarify how much time they will spend

together and apart. She also suggests they focus on what they want to retire to as opposed to what they are retiring from.

Making Plans

It helps to have an advance strategy.

David Slade, a lawyer in Boston, planned to retire last summer on his 65th birthday. But as the birthday approached, his wife, Judy Slade, 71, who retired nine years ago and was facing a health issue, encouraged him to wait. "He was ready to leave work, but he needed something else; 65 is still young," she says.

Ms. Slade says she was concerned about both of them being at home—without a plan. "I have my domain at home, and I have my activities. I really enjoy and treasure my time alone," says Ms. Slade. "If he didn't have something he was invested in, it wouldn't be a good situation."

Mr. Slade says his wife's concern, her health issue and economic uncertainty all led him to delay retirement. "I wanted to be sure we were going to be financially sound," he says.

The couple began to work with Ms. Mintzer and Ms. Taylor, the retirement coaches, in a couples' discussion group. "I'm not looking to play golf or shuffleboard," Mr. Slade says. "I was an attorney for 32 years." He is now considering working with orphans in Nepal, along with other volunteer opportunities.

The debate over when to retire is often mixed up with all sorts of other debates. It's hard to agree on when to retire if you aren't sure you can afford it. While selling your house might help you afford retirement, you may not agree on whether to sell, or where to go if you do.

It's no wonder some debates go on and on—and on.

Gail Brewer, a 56-year-old nurse and lawyer, says she would like her husband, Jim Katz, a 57- year-old cardiologist, "to retire right away." She has been managing his medical practice in Los Angeles for several years, and she would like to retire along with him. "We are totally in disagreement," she says.

Dr. Katz, who was recently diagnosed with malignant melanoma, says he wouldn't mind retiring "sooner rather than later," partly due to the uncertainty about his health. But he's concerned about financing retirement. "I'm no different than every other American, worrying about the worth of their nest egg," he says.

Ms. Brewer sees it this way: "I would be willing to sell the house and live out of backpacks, but Jim isn't willing to do that," she says. She envisions getting a small plot of land in Northern California and building a house there.

Dr. Katz sees it differently. He's concerned about the equity in their home, and he's worried about moving to an area with high property taxes. He sees them possibly buying an existing house on five acres in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas, a less expensive area than Northern California.

"We have some things to work out," Ms. Brewer concedes.

Dr. Katz likens their debates to a ball that's kept in a closet. "Every once in a while you take it out and throw it back and forth," he says. "Then you put it back in the closet."

And in the meantime, they both keep working.

Ms. Hughes is a writer in California. She can be reached at

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