Abigail Trafford - Author, Journalist and Public Speaker


When Spouse Retires, Real Work Begins

by Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A new contagious illness has been reported in Asia -- not the bird flu that is creating so many headlines, but a stress disorder that graying husbands in Japan give to their long-suffering wives. It's called retired husband syndrome, or RHS.

As described in The Post last week, retired husbands in Japan are making their wives sick. Exiled from the workplace and a rigid corporate culture of command and control, these mini-martinets turn on their wives, barking orders, nitpicking every detail of dinner, demanding service.

Living under that kind of stress leads to illness. Symptoms include stomach ulcers, rashes, throat polyps, slurred speech. So many wives of retired men were turning up with stress-related illness that physicians in Japan started calling it retired husband syndrome.

American wives can relate to the plight of their Japanese sisters. We have our little jokes: For better or for worse, but not for lunch. And: Retirement is twice as much husband and half as much money.

But post-retirement marital malaise takes various forms in the United States. For starters, the retiring husband may be at greater risk of getting sick than his wife is. Retirement that marks the end of a career is often experienced as a loss. In the nation's capital, where workaholism is prevalent, a person's identity is mainly rooted in a job title. When the big job ends, he may wonder: Who am I? Depression is a major risk for the retiring spouse, especially if he has developed no outside interests during his career and has no network of friends beyond the office.

At the same time, the American strain of retirement malaise is not limited to husbands, and would be more accurately labeled retired spouse syndrome, or RSS. Many wives are in the workforce and confront the same issues as men at retirement. This is especially true of women in the baby boom generation. So there is his retirement and her retirement, the impact of his retirement on her and the impact of her retirement on him, and the impact of both retirements on the quality of the marriage.

Many couples go through years of churn as they grapple with retirement issues. Timing is significant. What if the husband, after 30 years on the job, is offered a retirement package -- while his wife, who has postponed her career to raise children, is offered a promotion to a more demanding job? He wants out; she wants in. They are out of synch.

Retired husbands are least satisfied if their wives remain employed, according to a study in the Journal of Marriage and Family. And working wives whose husbands had retired "experienced lower marital quality," reported Phyllis Moen, sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, than those who were in synch with their spouses -- both working, or both retired.

Moen's research also points to the importance of continuing to work after retirement from a primary career. The Japanese scenario of husband and wife locked together in a stay-at-home existence would be hazardous to most American couples. Having meaningful activities outside the home is important to both spouses' well-being.

Of course, retirement offers the prospect that husbands and wives will spend more time together. So much togetherness may reveal long-standing fissures in the relationship that could be ignored when the couple was separated for large parts of the day because one or both were working at a job. Some couples respond to this kind of retirement stress by breaking up.

For other couples, retirement heralds a renaissance of the marriage.

Some things don't change, points out Cheryl Mandala of Queenstown, Md.: "I go to the grocery store, I get the house cleaned. I get the cabinets painted. No one ever asked me what I was going to do [when my husband retired]. I do what I've always done."

But that's not the whole story. She had worked with her husband in a newsletter publishing business. When her husband sold the business and retired at age 52, she went to graduate school and earned a master's and a PhD in history. Her husband joined a softball team and became active in his boating club. "We're both busy. We don't have to be joined at the hip," says Mandala, 61. "We are having fun together."

A balance between being independent and being together in retirement seems to work for many American couples. But much is unknown about how couples fare in the decades after retirement. That's one thing we share with couples in Japan. We are all part of a global aging revolution that is changing the rules of marriage, and retired spouse syndrome is a real disorder on both sides of the Pacific.

Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to mytime@washpost.com. To send U.S. mail, see the address on Page F2; mark the envelope "My Time."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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