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Why Retirement Can be a Tricky Time for Relationships

27/11/2014 14:46 GMT | Updated 26/01/2015 10:59 GMT

It's easy to believe that if a couple has successfully navigated the rollercoaster ride of the early stages of a relationship, the chances are that they'll stick together until their dying day.

Historically, over 60s have always been far less likely to divorce than the rest of the population. But trends are changing and the first decade of the twentieth century has heralded a rising number of over-60s separating - often after years of marriage.

While the divorce rate overall has fallen by around 20% in the last decade, the number of over 60s ending their marriages is increasing. In 2002 just 4% of people getting divorced were 60 or over. That number has now risen to 7%.

So what might be behind this increase in husbands and wives abandoning their marital bonds as they approach later life? And is there anything couples nearing retirement age can do to keep their relationship on solid ground?

From a sociologist's perspective, the fact that retirement can be a time when a relationship hits the rocks isn't really all that surprising. After all, other significant life-stage transitions, such as moving in together or having a baby, are often the time when the wheels can come off a relationship.

As times change, relationships do too. A significant life event can cause a shift in attitudes and expectations, as well as increases in stress, all of which will change the dynamic of a relationship.

And there is no reason why retirement is any different from any other major life transition.

It is not uncommon for people to have very different ideas of how they would like to spend their retirement. Many people now see their sixties as a time when they can broaden their horizons and embark on new adventures rather than slowly dwindle in to being pensioners. However, one spouse's vision for retirement is not always the same as their partner's.

For example, after years of working long hours to fund an affluent lifestyle, one spouse may yearn for a much simpler life, perhaps whiling away their retirement hundreds of miles away surrounded by goats in rural tranquillity. Or else want to uproot entirely and enjoy their retirement in sunnier climates.

However, their partner might be very happy with the comfortable existence in suburbia that they've been enjoying for the past few decades, and might be looking forward to a few decades of leisurely lunches with their established group of friends.

These radically different hopes and dreams can be an obvious source of conflict, especially if they come as a surprise to one or both spouses. Retirement can also bring about fears associated with getting older such as declining physical health and mental impairment, which people react to very differently. One spouse may feel anxious and want to play it safe, while the other may want to take up parachute jumping. However, this chasm in viewpoints is not necessarily insurmountable.

As retirement looms closer, it's more important than ever that both partners discuss openly and honestly how they envisage their new-found freedom from the working world unfolding.

When one partner proposes dramatic change it can feel like repudiation, particularly if it seems like they are unhappy with a life created together, but this does not necessarily mean they are looking to escape the relationship itself. Often, when couples really listen to one another, there is a third way.

They may well have conflicting expectations and will need to take the time to talk through possible compromises. But not all compromises are good, particularly if a couple settles for a 'lowest common denominator' option that doesn't really give either partner what they want.

A good compromise means each partner does get something they want. It also involves acknowledging what the other spouse is giving up to make that possible and being prepared to make reciprocal compromises. This might spell the start of an entirely new phase of marriage, and that can be very exciting.

Unfortunately there is no advice that comes with a cast-iron guarantee of keeping a couple together, however, honest and respectful communication that can lead to making compromises on both sides will go a long way in keeping a relationship on track.

Penny Mansfield CBE is the director of relationships charity OnePlusOne. She is a sociologist by background, specialising in evidence-based practice and policy relating to marriage and couple relationships. She has been a member of the Department of Health Expert Group for the Healthy Child Programme and of the Department for Work and Pension's Ministerial Steering Group for family support services. Penny was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2013 New Year honours list for her services to children and families.