When our son was young, we read several books from The Berenstain Bears series, formulaic children’s stories about a family of bears confronting common concerns. The stories often dealt with excess, for example, Too Much Teasing, Too Much TV and Too Much Junk Food.
Although Glen and I analyzed various aspects of retirement, we didn’t really visualize day-to-day living. Like many couples, we assumed by taking suitable decisions on the big issues — moving, downsizing, becoming snowbirds — we’d slip into a comfortable retirement together. Then one day we awoke to a stage where there we sat, facing each other, 24-7. Uh-oh! Was this stage going to be about too much togetherness?
We both had to learn how to adapt to retirement, with its absence of structure, in a city of strangers. (A future post will describe how we uprooted ourselves after 30 years in Quebec to live 3000 miles away in Vancouver.) As someone who thrives on disparate pastimes, I found ways to fill my days. Less so Glen, who kinda counted on togetherness. He turned to me to set up our new life, and I took on the job: meeting tennis partners, making friends, organizing outings, and so on. I didn’t collapse under the pressure, but it was difficult, particularly as I like large doses of solitude.
Conversation between us can be challenging. After all, what’s to talk about when we spend so much time together? If one of us encounters a topic of interest during the day, we postpone our discussion of it to the evening meal or morning coffee. Vancouver is, arguably, the foodie capital of Canada, yet we don’t very often dine out, unless it’s with friends. Or, we go out for dinner after seeing a movie, visiting an art gallery or museum, attending a special event, any activity that will provide fodder for conversation as we look at each other across a table. I don’t want us to enact the scene in Two for the Road where Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney conclude, sadly, that only married people sit in silence at restaurants.
FOUR TIPS FOR ENJOYING TOGETHERNESS
- Respect. Without a doubt, respect ranks of paramount importance — throughout our entire relationship, not just in retirement. We must esteem our partners, believe in them, and trust that they do their best within their capabilities. Without a foundation of respect, cracks will appear, our other efforts falter.
- Communication. Couples may not hold the same view of retirement. Does it offer a new beginning? More time to engage in favourite activities? Boredom in our new freedom? To get on the same page we must communicate openly and honestly. Discuss, debate, negotiate and, finally, agree on the substance of togetherness. Respect (that word again) our different needs and desires, acknowledging there’s no correct formula.
- Parallel play. Maryanne Vandervelde claims we can derive pleasure from being near our partner while pursuing independent interests, staying close but avoiding codependency. “Individuals who do almost everything together in later life … aren’t as satisfied or fulfilled as couples where spouses have their own interests.” Yet couples who do nothing together become mere roommates. So it’s really about balance.
- Responsibility. Our partner cannot give us well-being. Healthy and happy togetherness requires two healthy and happy individuals. We each must accept responsibility for our own state, bringing to all relationships our good selves.
After missteps along the way, Glen and I eventually settled into some regular rituals that we do together, alone or with friends and family. •