Sage: Wife's habits from work years keep persisting well into retirement!

Dear Sage:


My wife, who spent the bulk of her career as the Executive Assistant to the CEO of a major corporation, has been retired for two years, and I keep waiting for her to mellow. Many of the traits that made her an excellent professional have carried over into retirement, such as excessively particular planning. She will make a date with a friend, for example, and say that she will meet for lunch at 12:25, after an errand, and she’ll be there on the dot. When we visit relatives – even ones who are four hours away – we arrive within a five-minute window. Somehow! She takes care of the bills and investments and is fastidious about adhering to our monthly budget, checking it day by day. I keep telling her that she needs to chill out, even though she seems well-adjusted in many ways and has plenty of friends. Now, I’m not suggesting that she buy a pair of Birkenstock sandals, hitch a ride to the Coachella music festival in California, let her hair grow down to her ankles, go skinny-dipping in someone’s pond, take up the didgeridoo and chant with Tibetan monks. But this is more than a bit frustrating for me, and I don’t feel that I can ever relax. Help!!!


  • Worried in Wisconsin


Dear Worried:


   Not to be impertinent, but The Sage, wise as he is, wonders if it would be possible for your Dear Bride to visit, as he has a tendency to miss the beginning of movies and TV programs by five minutes, thus finding himself confounded about the entire premise of the plot for the next hour or two. He also tends to be a little late for tee times and periodontal appointments … But he digresses.

   It is gratifying to hear that your wife is well-adjusted. It is entirely possible that she may be somewhat overly rigid and regimented, but that may make her comfortable and secure. There is such a thing as healthy perfectionism that motivates people to be meticulous (and respectful of others, as in being on time!). But taken to the extreme, you get into the sphere of obsessive-compulsive behavior, which can seriously reduce quality of life and require counseling and lots of loving support.

   Let’s assume that this is not the case, and that your wife is a great planner who is not emotionally scarred by such needs – but who could do with more relaxation. Will her personality traits continue into retirement, as they have so far? Can she change in a way that will be good for her? Do people change? That is the $64,000 question, or, by The Sage’s calculation, the $542,000 question, considering inflation over the years.

   People don’t start changing the minute they walk out of a retirement party, put on a bathing suit, and spend the next 25 years bumming around the beach on Maui. Behavior, mood and satisfaction levels can be greatly affected by the end of a career, by a resulting self-identity crisis, by genetics, relationships with significant others (particularly as people learn to live with each other full-time after careers), health, finances, boredom, depression, loss of friendships, the stress of a move to another state – many situations can trigger a complicated chain of emotions. Men, as another example, get cranky as testosterone levels decline around age 60, and researchers say that this can result in irritability, a reduction in tolerance levels and even loss of concentration (not that any spouses have ever noticed!).

   There have been many studies about happiness and satisfaction in retirement, and some are far from definitive because of these individual nuances and life experiences, but if you remove many of these factors – all other things being equal – experts believe that it’s fair to say that it’s up to each individual to discover opportunities for a fulfilling retirement when possible. And obviously that goes for you and your wife as well.

   In terms of your bride’s personality characteristics, if she’s always been conscientious or amiable, in general she will continue to be, if not more so, as she ages, according to a major study at the University of Houston, although the researchers found individual differences in change across time, ‘with some people changing more than others and some changing in more maladaptive or harmful ways,’ according to an article in Science Daily.

   Yet there is plenty to be optimistic about.

   For example, The New York Times quoted Adam Davey, a psychology professor at Temple University, as saying, “There’s an idea that has gained support that we become better at emotion regulation as we get older.” It may also be, Dr. Davey told The Times, that as we age, ‘we learn to cope with some situations not by trying to change them but by rethinking how we relate to them. We may also learn to choose our battles,’ the article reported.

   As for a fulfilling retirement, Dr. Nancy Schlossberg, a counselor, professor emerita at the University of Maryland and a leading expert on retirement and adult transitions, told The Sage that “it comes down to finding a new purpose and acknowledging the changes in your work and family relationships. People’s basic defense mechanism is ‘do not change easily.’

   She encourages people to find a new mission, a new purpose in life, something that gets them going each morning. But you have to work at it assiduously.

   And that is different for each of us. Some retire and discover that they need to leave some kind of legacy – helping to plan grandchildren’s education, or taking nature photographs, or writing about family ancestry. For others the goal may be volunteer work or an ‘encore career’ that takes them in an entirely new direction, something perhaps related to hobbies or passions. One expert suggested thinking about it in terms of a business card: If you were passing one out, what would it say now? Are you a volunteer? A hiking enthusiast? The world’s best grandparent? (Note: You probably don’t want a business card if it would list snake-skin collector, judge in the Rotten Sneaker Contest, or hamster psychiatrist).

   So bottom line, if your wife is happy, great. Clearly, she had structure in her business life, and it sounds as if structure, lists, schedules, predictability and a routine are still vital for her. Without such structure, many retirees waste hours, days, years and even decades, ending up disappointed and regretful about missed opportunities. If she is meticulous to the point where she is somewhat uncomfortable, then maybe some kind of new mission or sense of purpose will enable her to focus on other, perhaps more important, things – such as tutoring kids, or singing in a group that entertains nursing home residents. Maybe that mission will take center stage, the need for perfect planning will diminish, and it’s possible that she will become more flexible, slow down, and even embrace spur-of-the-moment activities. I would not hold my breath for her to buy those Birkenstocks and serenade you with that didgeridoo, but, hey, you never know!

   Wishing you both the very best,

   Humbly Yours,

   The Sage