Christina was in her mid-fifties when she sold her interior design business to focus on her new marriage to Charlie. Life was fantastic for a number of years. But sadly, their happiness didn’t last.
When Charlie sold his business, their life changed in ways they didn’t anticipate. Everything fell apart. By then, Christina was in her late sixties and faced recovering from her divorce and building a new life in retirement. Let’s explore what went so wrong — and what went right. But first, a few observations.
Over the past 20 or so years, divorce among couples over 50, often referred to as “gray divorce,” has increased dramatically, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
It’s happening to long-time relationships as well as relative newlyweds like Christina and Charlie. It goes without saying that the financial impact of divorce at this point in life can be very difficult.
Why is retirement so hard on relationships?
So much changes when you move from the career phase of life into your next chapter. You have to rediscover who you are when you are no longer an interior designer or the owner of a successful company. When you invest a lot of time and talent in what you do professionally, what you do becomes a significant part of how you see yourself fitting into the world. When that is gone, it is common to lose sight of who you are.
You also lose a sense of purpose, a familiar routine, and a chunk of social connections. It is understandable how all of this can create a strain on any relationship.
In addition, couples usually are not prepared for how the tempo of their relationship will change. When the beat of their familiar dance changes, they often lose their balance. Christina and Charlie did.
Hard to transition
For several years before Charlie sold his business, Christina enjoyed a much-needed reprieve from the stress and pressure of running her high-demand, successful interior design practice. She was happy to redirect her energy into planning trips for them, exploring new interests, and redecorating Charlie’s house. She was thriving.
When it was time to sell, it was hard for Charlie to move away from the business he had created and had grown into a very successful enterprise. Taking a few great trips helped for a while, but then Charlie felt lost with no goals and not enough things to fill his days. He looked to Christina to entertain him, but their interests were very different and she felt he was encroaching on her space. That created tension in their relationship.
Charlie decided he needed a project, so he bought a beautiful ranch in the Colorado Rockies. Christina was thrilled. They decided to combine their strengths and experience to develop it into a destination event venue.
The excitement of planning the project helped a lot — for a while. Then the reality of working together crept in. Charlie was “managing” Christina like she was an employee, and she didn’t like it. She expected to have equal input into the decisions, but Charlie was used to doing things his way.
In addition, they were spending a lot more time together than they had in the past. The small things they used to ignore grew from pebbles into boulders. They fought a lot.
Assumptions and expectation hangovers
Part of the problem was they never talked about their roles and responsibilities as they embarked on their new project. Actor Henry Winkler said it clearly, “Assumptions are the termites of relationships.” Christina’s and Charlie’s assumptions were not aligned, which became grist for conflict.
We all have conscious and unconscious expectations about how something is going to unfold. When it doesn’t go the way we assumed it would, we are disappointed and react to that feeling. Sometimes we don’t say anything and expect the other person to know we are upset. Other times, we erupt in anger because we assume the other person purposely let us down. “Expectation Hangover: Overcoming Disappointment in Work, Love, and Life” by Christine Hassler has great advice about how to overcome this trap we all fall into way too often.
One very helpful way to avoid “expectation hangovers” from all the things that change as you move into your new chapter is to talk about your assumptions. Discuss your hopes, fears and plans with everyone who matters to you, especially your life partner.
‘Me Time’ vs. ‘We Time’
Another issue that creates relationship problems as couples work to adjust to life after their careers is how much time they want to spend doing things together and how much time they want to pursue independent activities. In other words, how much “We Time” and how much “Me Time” is good for them?
Charlie and Christina lost the balance that worked for them. After they started the ranch project, neither of them had the opportunity to nurture the things that made them individuals. They began to feel stifled.
In addition, Charlie hadn’t let go of his “I’m the boss” mindset. It is very understandable because that is how he got to where he is. But the mindset that “I have to be in control of everything” doesn’t work in this next chapter. Letting go of that need for control is tough for most exiting business executives. But the consequences of holding on to behaviors that no longer serve you are damaging to relationships, especially when your partner is the target.
One of the most important things you have to be in control of now is your mindset — how you are looking at your world today in this new chapter. That also means shifting your definition of success. The things that will make you successful in life are different than what made you successful in your career.
Rather than defining success as the bottom line of your business, your new metrics should be about the things that drive your happiness and fulfillment. Charlie was not willing to make that important shift.
Gray divorce does not have to happen. Plenty of people who faced the same kinds of challenges that Charlie and Christina did were able to overcome them. Usually, that requires working with a relationship coach or a therapist as an independent advisor and guide. Charlie was not willing to do that and their marriage ended. But those who are willing to do the work often end up with relationships that are better than they have ever been.
Christina was willing to seek help to put her life back together. She and I worked on rebuilding her self-esteem and confidence so that she could function successfully on her own again. She was able to envision a life that she could love. She determined what would make her happy and put it into action. Today she is living a full and happy life on her terms — she is flourishing.
Advice for financial advisors
Should you as an advisor do something to help clients with relationship issues? Yes.
Here’s what you can do.
• Look for warning signs that something is wrong. You may notice a shift in how a couple interacts with each other. You may see signs of tension or conflict between them.
• Bringing up the elephant in the room is never easy. But, if problems are brewing and not addressed, the end result will likely be painful for them and for you. You might say, “I’ve noticed a change in how to talk to each other. Is something wrong?”
• When you read the last bullet, you probably thought, “What if they think I’m prying into their personal life?” The truth is you already know more about a very sensitive part of their personal life — their financial situation — which they don’t share with many people if anyone. If your clients are having relationship problems, it will impact their financial situation — so you are already in that game. Don’t wait until they are headed to the divorce attorney to participate.
• The earlier relationship problems are acknowledged and addressed, the more likely they can be solved in very positive ways. So, bringing the subject up in a soft way may serve everyone well.
• But then you may think, “What in the world do I say if they start talking about their problems?” You don’t have to say much. The most important thing you can do is listen and express compassion about what they are experiencing.
• You do not have to be a relationship coach. However, you should have the names of one or two people you can suggest they call. Ideally, you also have articles and books you can recommend to support them.
• Then follow-up to see if things have improved or if they are working with a professional.
The journey into retirement opens many doors. Some are very pleasant, but others are painful. Part of your role as an advisor is to support both the financial and non-financial aspects of that journey, even when it is uncomfortable. You can do that best when you are armed with resources that will support your clients.
Marianne Oehser is the author of Your Happiness Portfolio® for Retirement: It’s Not About the Money, and co-founder of Next Chapter Lifestyle Advisors. Marianne and her partner, Susan Latremoille, empower financial advisors to help their clients thrive in their post-career by having a clear lifestyle plan to complement their financial plan. To learn more, contact her at Marianne@NextChapterLifestyleAdvisors.com or visit NextChapterLifestyleAdvisors.com.