Editor’s Note: We published this story about coping with a newly retired spouse a year ago. It’s written by one of our favorite humorists, Mary Kay Jordan Fleming. Re-reading it during this crisis when so many of us are getting more time with our spouses than we ever imagined, we thought you might relate. Stay safe and SANE!
Four years ago, I was excited about my husband’s imminent retirement. I envisioned him cleaning the basement, repainting the house, and cooking dinner while I was at work. Now he’s retired, and I realize the odds are better that the whistling forest animals from Snow White will drop by to maintain our home.
There was no excuse for my ridiculous optimism. A quick internet search would have returned hundreds of hits promising “constant clinging” and “unhappily ever after.” One article warned that retirees must “find reasons to be kind to one another” lest we deteriorate into fisticuffs.
I get it.
A Lot Less Money, a Lot More Husband
I married the strong, silent type—an introvert like me who disliked small talk. For 30 plus years, our marriage thrived without spending much time on the weather or the comings and goings of wildlife in the backyard. Were my husband’s colleagues taking up this slack at the water cooler, or did he save up all those words for that many years?
Without coworkers or children at home, I am left alone to absorb all of him. When he exhausts conversation about the vagaries of mail delivery and such, attention turns to more pressing matters like bodily functions. Yesterday, he exited the bathroom boasting that his visit was “a testament to the capacity of the human colon.” Now I have to google How to gouge out my mind’s eye.
Not all conversations are quite so profound. The hubby devotes considerable time to hollering Why am I here? when aiming to retrieve something from the basement—a question that is not as metaphysical as it sounds.
My brother-in-law’s wife and I regularly conspire to get the boys out of the house for breakfast or lunch dates. Without that, we’d be reduced to advertising on Craigslist to sell the recliners out from under them.
Adjusting to retirement income requires careful planning, which, in my husband’s case, consisted of deciding to never leave the house. This strategy yields savings on gasoline and car maintenance, vacation travel, and new clothing. As I write, he is sporting a button-down shirt that is so frayed at the top edge it is being held in place only by two tiny buttons. I would throw it away but someone told him about Marie Kondo and now he walks around claiming that this ratty possession “sparks joy.”
In Sickness and in Health
Every spouse promises fidelity in good times and robust health, but long-term marriage tests your mettle about the other marital promises. Perhaps retirees need renewal ceremonies asking whether we’re willing to be driven crazy by things other than desire and to listen to drivel without ripping our own ears off.
Wedding vows should definitely expound on the “sickness” pledge. I’m not talking about the heroic grace and fortitude that long-term partners call forth during life-threatening illnesses. [Editor’s note: or if spouse was sick with coronavirus.] I’m talking about the dramatic convalescence accompanying hangnails and man-colds. My friend’s retired mate contracted the flu recently and declared himself out of commission for two weeks. It’s been three weeks and he’s still not “out of the woods.” We think he might stay there.
My beloved is plagued by dry skin despite wearing protective gloves for every activity from washing dishes to gardening. Every now and then the skin on his thumb will appear to crack open one nanometer if viewed under high-power microscopy. This urgent situation calls for triple-antibiotic creams and bandages for weeks on end as a defensive measure against the harsh winters of the temperate Midwest. When asked to perform some task with the bandaged digit, the hubby holds it aloft and claims it’s still “acting up.” No one doubts the acting.
Occasionally, we break the homefront monotony by eating out with other retired friends. This experience has taught me that retirees, who theoretically have all the time in the world to wait in line, are the most impatient people on Earth. Traffic and restaurant delays are deal-breakers. To avoid this, my brother-in-law insists on eating dinner precisely at 5:15. This time may not be convenient, but, trust me, it beats the alternative: my kitchen table. Again.
There are times in a marriage—caring for sleepless newborns and chasing rambunctious toddlers come to mind—when we yearn for “couple time” alone with our spouses. Let me assure you, retirement is not one of those times. To cope, I sometimes turn to Scripture for strength, including St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians read at our wedding 35 years ago.
Love is patient, love is kind … Love is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love never fails.
Was Paul married? He must not have been retired at the time. I’d like to hear his wife’s version of love. I suspect that, at least occasionally, she sent Paul off to confront some wayward Galatians or Colossians just to get some peace and quiet.
Test Your Readiness for Spousal Retirement
Curious about your tolerance for having a spouse underfoot every day? Try these simple questions to assess your preparedness for the golden years.
- Are you willing to abandon all hope for home improvement? Burn your wish list as a sign of good faith.
- Do you like potted plants, stationary bikes, and things that never go anywhere?
- Do you secretly wish someone would surveil the neighborhood and report who parks too close to the mailbox, what neighbors are doing in their own yards, and which dogs are urinating on your grass?
- Are you willing to celebrate your mate’s daily triumphs like finding a pull-through parking place or being the first in the neighborhood to retrieve the curbside recycle bin?
- Have you mastered the art of floating outside your body when someone regales you with the longest possible version of a conversation with a grocery store manager about the lack of half-and-half?
- Do you like having the newspaper read to you? Do you enjoy loud commentaries during news broadcasts?
- Most importantly, do you have girlfriends who will save your life by going out to lunch to commiserate, remind you of your blessings, and prevent you from committing a felony?
A version of this piece was originally published in March 2019.