How many of you remember this 1999 film? A modern remake of The Taming of the Shrew this movie starred Julia Stiles and a relatively unknown actor, Heath Ledger. His performance was the breakout role that catapulted him to stardom.
The movie title came to mind recently when I was thinking about how relationships change in retirement. In the first year after my husband, Chris, stopped working, the equilibrium of our marriage was majorly disrupted. We were more sensitive, out of sorts, argumentative, and unhappy than at any other time in our marriage. I was bewildered by what was happening to my husband and to me.
During this time it was easy to focus on “the 10 things I hate about you” when we thought about each other. If fact, at times there were probably more than 10 things we could identify that we hated about each other. But at some point, we recognized the folly of this thinking. Neither and Chris nor I was interested in splitting up. In fact, we wanted our relationship during this phase to deepen and grow. Hating what was happening was counterproductive. We were caught up in an emotional maelstrom of uncertainty and we both were doing our best to cope.
Even in our darkest moments, when we felt vulnerable and shut down, we never stopped talking with each other. We had to make a conscious choice to shift from creating a litany of what we hated to what we liked, what we enjoyed, and what we believed in for each other. Some days it was difficult, if not impossible, to come up with “the 10 things I love about you” but eventually we got there.
Even today, more than three years into Chris’s retirement, there are still days that require a conscious commitment to look for the good instead of the not so great. Our need for communication and commitment is increasing, not decreasing. After all, we both are changing dramatically in this third phase of life.
A good marriage in any phase of life requires work. Acknowledgement, appreciation, communication, intimacy, laughter, shared interests, and solitude are all elements Chris and I know that we need to keep our marriage vibrant. It is easy to misinterpret the silence, withdrawal, or emotional outbursts that occur in early retirement and it may be hard to stay upbeat, positive, and detached during your spouse’s emotional roller coaster ride.
But know this: the emotional maelstrom your partner is experiencing is about losing a lifelong identity. It is about facing a lack of daily structure and not having a clue about what to do next. It is about realizing he/she is no longer young and all that means in our society. It is not about you or anything you have done or have not done. It is about your spouse’s fear of what comes next.
When you are down in the dumps about your relationship you may need outside reinforcements. If your spouse cannot come up with a list of “the 10 things I love about you” then make a list of what you love about yourself, or ask a friend to make a list and hold on to those truths. It may seem dark now but brighter days are ahead.