A recent Wall Street Journal article about couples finding the re-jiggering of their relationships around retirement quite complex amused me a bit. The general theme of the article was that most modern retirees, those from in-home jobs and those from outside employment, come from a world where they have established fairly separate-but-equal lives and find it a challenge to spend so much more time directly with each other, doing things together. I’m so happy that my partner and I are not like most. In my book, there’s no need to be that different in retirement if you’re secure in your pre-retirement life. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that we won’t face nearly the same sorts of questions or find many of them nearly so daunting as this newspaper item intimates they could be. Despite a hectic daily life, we apparently live together like retirees already in some ways. After all, modern retirees are among the busiest, most active class of people I know.
There are a number of reasons I don’t worry about our transition. Working as we both have in art-related fields (and both of us in academia and elsewhere), where schedules and projects and income and venues and so much more have always been in flux, means that we’ve both dealt with fallow times, whether job-induced or voluntary, wherein we were responsible for directing ourselves and choosing what to pursue next and when. That means each of us has taken the lead occasionally in having the more fixed schedule, project, income or venue and left the other either more freedom or more angst about how to fill the void for the moment. We are both artists, yes, but of slightly different sorts (his the musical kind and mine the more visual/verbal); these don’t compete or conflict with each other, so no ego is at stake should either of us be hung up on that kind of thing, but rather our artistic views are complementary; both draw on similar resources of effort, inspiration, creativity and skill, so we can speak the same language even when the details differ widely. As it is, our core life-values are pretty similar, so we don’t have much reason to go far afield for purposeful or enjoyable conversation. We have a whole library of possibilities from which to choose.We have, in fact, worked side by side. Not only did our relationship start when we taught in next-door buildings at university, but I was already good friends with and had even collaborated with some of his colleagues on combined recital/art show projects, a sort of classical-based performance art, perhaps. As members of the same faculty, my future partner and I ended up at plenty of the same meetings and events over time, while both still having our own tracks of need and interest. Since our pairing, I have had the privilege of collaborating with him artistically as well, and his music provides a great deal of the soundtrack, live and recorded, of my life, working or otherwise, while he lives at home and work surrounded by my art and reads my writing. We are lucky in simply relishing time together, whether to Do Things or do nothing at all in companionable silence.
But we are neither conjoined twins in tastes and wants and needs nor dependent on each other for a primary sense of identity. He
inhales reads books as quickly and easily as though it were breathing, and I labor through them; his reading ranges from professional interests to serial mysteries and thrillers and more, and mine, when my dyslexia forbids the time and attention required for favorites like SJ Perelman with his dazzling wordplay, or Charles Dickens and Robertson Davies, is devoted more to blog articles and short-form works; I read and write fairly constantly, but it’s a slow-moving river indeed. My Foodie Tuesday posts here will tell you that our preferences in dining also differ widely, if not wildly. Sometimes it’s tricky finding a meal at home that will satisfy both of us equally, given the limitations of our common subset. As for movies, he’d happily be in a theatre watching the latest offerings on the big screen, but he opts to stay home with me where I’m not troubled by the overwhelming noise and the overpowering intensity of on-screen action that were intolerable to me in my anxiety-ridden days and remain somewhat unappealing even now. He still watches a lot of stuff that I have no interest in watching or even hearing, but then I’ve learned that an evening in front of our own big screen makes a great time for me to install a good pair of earplugs, rev up my trusty pencil to draw or my computer to work on blogging, photo editing, magazine proofreading and correspondence. I still get to spend time in his company and swap intermittent witticisms with my favorite companion, and we both get to do what’s more appealing to each of us.
I realized long ago that I have a different attitude about relationships in general than many others, and I know that my attitude differs greatly from my own when I was younger as well. Now that I have a number of years of marriage under my belt (no comments from the cheap seats about ‘love handles’!) I am even more baffled by the people who harp on about what constant hard work relationships and marriages are and how difficult it is to keep them operational. Seems to me that if they’re consistently hard work, they’re not really relationships other than perhaps in the form of a slave/master sort. If it’s really high maintenance, it’s a job, not a relationship. Any that are one-sided because of abuse or complete conformity or any other sort of enforced imbalance cease to be viable or valid in my eyes. Only when both parties have something to contribute that is genuinely respected and appreciated by the other does it seem purposeful and potentially joyful, and if neither of those aspects is in the equation for any length of time at all, it is based on something far different from a relationship in my book.
At the same time, if we thought in perfect synchrony and had no differences of opinion or thought or preferences, it seems to me there would be no point in the relationship either. It would be pretty much the equivalent of marrying oneself, and idea that is both ridiculous and more than a little creepy. Narcissism is inherently the inverse of relationship-ready.
Apropos of this: both my husband and I had spent a fair amount of our adult lives single (he, divorced and I, unmarried) when we first dated, and both of us were fairly certain that we would remain single for the rest of our lives–and most importantly, both of us were okay with that idea. We were whole, functioning, socially active, happy individuals with full lives and immersed in relationships with great companions of all sorts. We think it’s part of what made us ready to slide into a life partner, love relationship with very little adjustment at all. Our cosmic crash into each other was instead a landing beautifully cushioned and protected by the remarkable net of many of those other relationships of ours, almost as much as by our personal contentment, mutual attraction and shared interests. Seems to me entirely noteworthy that a strong and happy relationship was founded on and remains supported by a network of other relationships.
This, too, is significant in protecting us from the dangers of too much intermingling of lives in retirement. We already share a lot of time together that we really love. And we already share so many great friends and loved ones that it’s far from essential that all of the newly acquired ones be mutual. He knows and enjoys the company and support and good humor of plenty of friends and colleagues, many of whom I know only as names or email-senders or office acquaintances or voices on the phone, and I have my own contingent of blog friends, expedition companions, collaborators and mentors as well. If every part of life were spent together, what would we have to talk about at the end of the day?
There are so many aspects of our marriage that make it pretty easy for me to avoid worry about what-ifs when retirement comes, I almost feel guilty. But not! I appreciate that we like to do things together as often as we can, daily, hourly, and that we have a life that allows us to take advantage of it. When we worked in side-by-side buildings in years past, it meant we could meet for lunch or stop by each other’s offices or for any number of other excuses quite conveniently; now, when I’m homemaking and blogging, I have the flexibility of schedule to take the shuttle over to the campus where he now works and grab a quick supper somewhere nearby with him before a tightly scheduled evening recital or concert, or sit in on a rehearsal of one of his choirs, or tidy up his files before sitting down to write and draw while he studies a score for the next choral-orchestral extravaganza. If I’m able to get a job again, I’d like to make sure that it still allows space for our interaction, however different that will be, because we really do value time spent together, however it’s spent.
If that makes ours a little unlike the average relationship approaching retirement age, I’m just sorry for all of those out there making up the bulk of the average, let alone any who remain under the mark for any reason. I’d much rather be novel in this respect.