Jack* had always considered his marriage as stable and relatively harmonious. But then he was faced with marital discord. His wife kept talking about moving closer to their daughter, an only child. “I didn’t think that was a good idea,” Jack says. “Our daughter has never been very settled. I can see us moving to be close to her, and in two years she’ll up and move again.”
Couples often face new challenges in midlife and beyond. Priorities change. New opportunities emerge. Sooner or later, the question of retirement surfaces along with several others: Should we move to a smaller house? Should I start a second career or go back to school? Should we relocate to help raise our grandchildren? Who’s going to care for us as we age?
Because these are later-in-life decisions, the flexibility of youth is gone. A sense of “this is my last chance” may increase decision-making tension. For many couples, the risks of change run high, as do emotions.
Even if couples have a poor track record for making big decisions together, they can learn the communication skills necessary to appreciate each other’s emotions and perspectives. The process of conflict resolution takes effort, but by taking a team approach, it is possible to blend the goals and interests of each spouse.
Learning to listen
Developing a team approach to conflict resolution begins with learning to listen to each other. This means being able to look at the issue from your spouse’s perspective, which is an important part of your retirement communication plan.
By nature, humans are selfish. Some of us listen to our spouse only long enough to rebuff his or her idea, thus ignoring his or her feelings. In order to overcome this natural tendency, I suggest that couples take turns talking in a structured setting. The process goes like this: She will take five minutes and share her ideas, and he will not interrupt. While the wife is talking, the husband should be genuinely trying to understand her thoughts and feelings, not merely reloading his intellectual guns in order to shoot down his wife’s ideas. Next, he will have five minutes to talk, and she will not interrupt, but actively pay attention. Their goal is empathetic listening.
This type of communication is necessary for couples to resolve conflicts. If a husband and wife listen long enough and ask clarifying questions, they can honestly come to say, “I think I am understanding what you’re saying, and I can see how that makes sense and why you feel that way.” At this point, the husband and wife are no longer enemies but a part of the same team.
Here’s a key that’s often overlooked: You don’t have to agree with your spouse’s ideas in order to affirm them. For example, Jack can say to his wife, “I understand that you really want to live near our daughter and that you feel lonely when you can’t see her on a regular basis.” He’s not agreeing to move; he’s simply acknowledging his wife’s desires. During this stage, you’re not seeking a solution—you’re listening to learn the other’s perspective.
Once couples express understanding for each other, they can then ask: “How can we resolve our conflict?” Now they are focusing on finding a solution, a retirement communication plan, rather than trying to win an argument.
Mary and Bob had agreed to move to a smaller, one-level house. They found a house they both liked and purchased it. The problem arose when they tried to decide what they would need to get rid of to accommodate the smaller space. Bob had a whole room of exercise equipment. Mary thought it could go. Bob thought Mary needed to get rid of half her clothes. From his perspective, she had enough to start her own secondhand clothing store.
After a few heated arguments, they came to me for help. I taught them the “taking turns talking” approach and how to listen empathetically. Then they were able to honestly affirm each other’s thoughts and feelings. When they began to focus on finding a solution rather than condemning each other’s ideas, they found common ground. Bob agreed to join a local fitness club, and Mary agreed to have a friend help her decide which clothes she could give away.
There are three basic ways to solve midlife conflicts after couples have affirmed each other’s ideas and feelings:
1.) Don’t insist on having things your own way.
After retirement, Rob was spending most of his time at home. He was staying up late watching television and getting up late every morning. He expected his wife, Rose, to have lunch for him and to prepare the evening meal. Rose had been cooking dinner for years—that was no problem—but being a chef twice a day was too much. She had other things to do and wondered why Rob didn’t become more engaged in doing something meaningful with his life. They had numerous arguments, which resulted in more frustration for both of them.
Rob and Rose agreed to talk with their pastor. After hearing their frustration, the pastor asked them to clarify what each of them really wanted. Rose wanted to resign from her lunch commitment so she’d have the freedom to spend time away from home doing things that she felt were important. Rob was OK with that, as long as she would stop telling him what he should do with his life.
Both of them were willing to change in order to make life more pleasant for the other. Within two months, Rob began volunteering at the local hospital three days a week from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Providentially, lunch was provided.
2.) Honor your spouse.
A second way to resolve a conflict is for one of you to agree with the other’s idea. Basically, you say, “Now that I understand what you want and why it is so important to you, I’ll meet you on your side.”
Martha had always wanted to start her own business. Now that both of the children were out of the home, she told her husband, Richard, about her idea. He was not nearly as excited about it. He reasoned that he was making enough money for both of them and that her starting a business would take away from their time to relax and enjoy life at their beach cottage.
However, he was wise enough to listen to Martha’s reasons for wanting to start a business. She had gone to college and majored in business and always dreamed of starting one. They were married the week after she graduated and one year later had their first child. She chose to be a stay-at-home mom.
Then came the second child. Later, she chose to home-school the children. Now that the kids were both in college, she reasoned it was time to pursue her dream. Yes, she still wanted to spend time at the beach with Richard. In fact, she probably would find that haven even more meaningful when the business got rolling. After hearing Martha’s heart, Richard agreed to wholeheartedly support her in pursuing her dream.
Often when a couple listens empathetically, truly hearing the other’s perspective, a husband or wife can honestly and freely agree to be supportive of the other’s idea, rather than demanding his or her own way. This is an important aspect of all retirement communication plans.
3.) Take a break to seek counsel.
A third way to solve a conflict is to agree to disagree for the moment and discuss it again at a later date. This is especially helpful when you both feel strongly about your own perspective. Taking time to back away from the heat can be helpful. While waiting, you might talk with friends who have had similar disagreements and ask how they resolved their conflict. Or, you might go for counseling and look for options that you may not have considered.
Couples who work through later-in-life decisions with respect and care for each other have a solid retirement communication plan. They will find that their golden years can often be happier because they know themselves better and can find peace together. With the increased likelihood that couples will reach and surpass their 50th wedding anniversary, keeping marriage harmonious by resolving conflict with a team approach will yield great contentment and increased satisfaction in companionship.