Q: Many of the older couples I counsel have disagreements about how to live out their retirement years. How can I help them develop a plan?
A: Several years ago, I left a full-time university counseling job to open a family-counseling center in my coastal community in South Carolina, where many retirees move for its balmy weather, relaxed way of life, and plentiful opportunities for golf, tennis, swimming, and sailing.
Not long after I opened my private practice, I realized that many of the older couples who came to see me were struggling with arriving at a cooperative and collaborative view of how to spend their time, money, and energy in retirement. After all, when spouses have different views about how to spend their retirement years, it can lead to resentment and a sense of isolation in the relationship. Designing a shared vision became an important part of our work, and eventually, I came to specialize in working with retired couples.
When I first ask older clients about a shared vision or mission for their future together, I’ll usually get some blank stares, awkward silence, or perhaps a laugh or two. Few have ever asked this question of themselves, even as retirement loomed.
According to Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, we reach a crisis of generativity vs. stagnation between the ages of 40 and 65, which is followed by a crisis of ego integrity (the sense of a life fulfilled) vs. despair. Successful resolution of these last two stages of life, Erikson posited, would lead to living the virtues of care (a sense of making a lasting contribution) and wisdom (a sense of closure and completion). People struggling with these psychosocial crises will often express feeling undervalued, trapped, and isolated. They may have regrets and feel powerless to resolve conflicts in their relationships.
A Struggle of Priorities
My clients Jacklyn and Ray were struggling in just this way. The two fell in love with South Carolina when they traveled to Myrtle Beach for a golf tournament in 2018. They both took early retirements and moved to a bungalow that overlooked their favorite golf course. Although the move was initially exciting, they now find living in their smaller home stressful, and they play far less golf than they’d planned. Instead, they spend most of their time caring for their grandchildren, who live nearby—which brings them joy, but detracts from time they could be spending with each other.
As important as grandparents are and should be in family life, I’ve found older clients often want more in their remaining years than the selfless giving that often defines being a hands-on grandparent. This can be difficult to express, not only to their children, but also to each other, so it’s important to have this discussion early on, before resentments build, as they had with Jacklyn and Ray.
Another couple, Myra and Dan, renovated an old farmhouse 25 years ago in rural South Carolina. This tranquil homestead was to serve as their family home, even into retirement. Designed for large gatherings and grandchildren filling the rooms, it was equipped with multiple bathrooms, fireplaces, kitchens on the first and second floors, and even a three-car garage. But when Dan developed chronic health problems, he thought it prudent to buy a townhouse in the city to be closer to hospitals and doctors. Now he believes the time has come to sell the homestead and move into the townhouse full-time.
Myra opposes him on this, holding fast to the belief that their home represents their family history and needs to remain available for when the children and grandchildren visit. Since money isn’t a concern for them, she doesn’t understand Dan’s eagerness to sell a home where they’ve spent so many happy years. Loving memories fill the halls for Myra, and she can’t envision living elsewhere. Their ongoing debate about how and where to spend their retirement years is a constant source of stress, and they’ve been growing more resentful and distant from each other.
Strong, unexpressed needs are embedded in these couples’ conflicts—which I’ve found can be reconciled within the context of a shared vision. So often, however, retired couples plan and prepare for their future together based on logistics, like being closer to grandchildren, having fewer responsibilities, downsizing to accommodate their new budget, and living close to doctors and good medical care.
These considerations may appear realistic, even prudent. But they can be shortsighted and based in fear and anxiety, instead of hope, faith, and mutuality. And if both parties disagree about what the priorities should be, they may even come to believe they’re dealing with irreconcilable differences.
Encouraging a Marriage of Vision
In my practice, I’ve met with many couples who believed they’d planned wisely for their future, only to discover they’ve traded one set of worries and responsibilities for unanticipated new ones. The loss of their former psychic moorings—like supportive friends, a religious community, or comforting familiarities—might be deeply grieved by both partners, but they’ll rarely discuss it openly. That’s when they often seek counseling, asking me to help them resolve their differences and learn to coexist, or find a way to end the relationship.
To help them reset the course of their future and begin to think in terms of a shared vision, I may suggest that they visit a special place I’ve discovered: a world-famous sculpture and garden sanctuary here in South Carolina that features an iconic sculpture, “The Visionaries.”
The sculpture depicts Anna Hyatt Huntington, the sculptor, and Archer Milton Huntington, her husband. They married in mid-life and went on to establish museums across the country. In this depiction, they sit on the edge of their marital bed, drinking what might be their morning coffee. Their heads are bent as they gaze over a blueprint depicting the outdoor American sculpture garden where the sculpture will eventually be housed.
I suggest they visit this piece of art because it so clearly represents a mature couple’s shared mission and vision. I ask my clients to make a date to sit on the wrought iron bench directly across from Anna and Archer, and I advise them not to talk but just gaze at the sculpture and take in all they can about it.
Then I request that they ask themselves, “What does this sculpture suggest to me about marriage? What does this sculpture suggest to me about our marriage? And what does it suggest to me about the possibilities for our future together?
When they leave the garden, I ask that they have a meal together, share their reflections, and ask each other, What about us? What is our vision for our own marriage and future together?
The responses I’ve received following this exercise are among the most moving and profound reflections on marriage and relationships that I’ve ever heard. And the actions some couples have taken have been quite impressive. For example, Myra and Dan told me they planned to turn part of the family estate that they’d been at odds over into a community garden, so neighbors and younger families could benefit from all they’d created together over the years.
But I’ve also had couples struggle with this exercise, as Jacklyn and Ray did. They got stuck on the issue of their roles as grandparents. Ray was disgruntled by the fact that Jacklyn still felt the need to be at the beck and call of the grandkids. How could he be motivated to develop a shared vision when she was so insistent on sharing herself so entirely with them?
Your Blank Canvas of Togetherness
Whenever we work on their vision, I tell couples to try to imagine the years ahead not with fear or anxiety, but as their own tabula rasa: an inviting, blank canvas on which they’re free to paint, or a musical score only the two of them can compose. Focusing on their shared gifts and talents, their uniqueness as a couple, and what they still want to complete in life helps them begin.
Myra and Dan discovered that their shared love of nature, gardening, and giving back to their community had been lost in their focusing on where to live. As is true for many couples, they’d lost sight of that common passion until they were asked to dig down deep and find it. Other couples will tell me about how they shaped their vision with charitable, artistic, or philanthropic projects, uplifting spiritual pilgrimages, and meaningful involvement with extended family and friends.
For Jacklyn and Ray, the process was harder. They’d had a quarrel during the ride over to the garden, when anger and regret about what they saw as their current incompatibilities seemed to sink any possibilities for a happy future.
They were still angry when they found Anna and Archer, so they agreed to take a short walk separately and try to come back to the sculpture with open hearts. When they sat down again, the sense of peace and hope that seemed to emanate from the sculpture and setting managed to edge out, at least for a time, their fears of giving up control. At dinner later, Jacklyn admitted to a fear of running out of time, and Ray to a fear of running out of money and good health—and they managed to empathize with one another’s feelings.
When they came to see me the following week, they explained what had happened, and we worked on a plan for transforming their fears into opportunities and a shared legacy. They agreed to see the grandchildren on a more flexible schedule, one that would allow Ray to pursue his dream of learning to sail a catamaran, and to begin working on a family memoir that would incorporate their old photos and letters of historical significance: a gift they could leave to their children and grandchildren.
Asking the Right Questions
Of course, you don’t have to send your clients to a sculpture garden for them to experience the fruits of this exercise. They could meditate on a painting, a poem, a piece of music, or a sanctuary you’ve chosen that evokes the same kinds of reflective questions.
If they’re having trouble being reflective, ask them to consider questions such as:
What brought you together in the first place? What themes have recurred during your marriage? What makes you unlike any other couple? What are your shared gifts, talents, and passions? What do you regret not completing in your life together so far? What would you want to pursue? How would you prepare for what your soul needs, as opposed to preparing for shocks to the soul, such as health problems, the loss of friends, and living on a fixed income? What’s the shared story whose final chapters you have yet to compose?
Along the way, your clients may ask you: “Isn’t it better to be realistic about a future of limited incomes and compromised health, rather than to start cultivating gifts and passions and some idea of our uniqueness? Isn’t it more proactive to anticipate the inevitable slings and arrows and plan accordingly?”
I like to address such concerns by noting that we can keep maps on hand for dealing with challenges that await us later in life, but no map can prepare us for the beauty that stretches out ahead of us. When we embrace a shared vision for the final frontier of marriage, we ensure an openness to possibilities for unexpected joy and inspiration, as well as the possibility of a shared sense of fulfillment at the end of the journey.
PHOTO © ISTOCK/FG TRADE
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