“My Husband Is in His 70s and Won’t Retire. Can I Make Him?”

July 21, 2023

“My Husband Is in His 70s and Won’t Retire. Can I Make Him?”

May 29, 2023

I saw this headline in the New York Times Ethicist column and was intrigued by how the “Dear Abby” of Ethics would answer this question. I’ve excerpted it below along with a question for you at the end.

“I have been married for 50 years and dearly love my husband. We raised two children together and have always worked full time. I retired six months ago in the hope that my husband would leave his job as well. He is a hard worker who has been working remotely since March 2020. His job is both unpredictable and transactional. The chief executive of his company places unreasonable demands on him and his time and calls him even when we are on vacation.

Even though my husband seems to thrive on the intensity of his role in a privately owned, successful company, I am deeply troubled about this toxic situation. His compensation has not changed in over a decade, and his contributions to the company go unrecognized. I can’t understand why he is willing to put up with this, and I have tried to be patient with the situation for too long.

We have experienced many ups and downs across the years and have weathered the storms. Now that we are in our 70s, I’m worried that we’ll never be free of the tyranny of my husband’s job. He refuses to discuss his retirement plans or to give me a time frame for them. Is it unreasonable for me to expect that he will honor my feelings and make plans to free up time for us to enjoy whatever is left of the years ahead? Although he is a giving person, I feel he is being selfish by insisting that he is not ready to retire. Don’t I at the very least have a right to insist that he put some boundaries around his work and limit his working hours?

We are blessed by reasonably good health and a stable financial profile, but I am profoundly disappointed and hurt that we can’t agree on a plan for the rest of our lives together. Do you think spouses have an obligation to compromise on this important life decision? — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

“Compromise starts with communication. When you say you retired “in the hope” that your spouse would do likewise, you don’t say that you discussed the matter with him at the time. If he assured you that he would join you in retirement, you would have written about a broken promise. Perhaps you anticipated prevailing in the argument you’re now making. In a loving relationship of equals, though, it would have been better to talk things through in advance — even if it simply meant that you retired knowing that he didn’t plan to follow.

You present two reasons that he should quit his job. One is that his workplace is toxic: His boss is tyrannical and doesn’t value his contributions. What you report does sound awful. Yet you also say your spouse thrives at his job. Maybe he lacks the self-respect to insist on proper treatment. Or maybe he doesn’t see the situation the way you do.

A second reason you present is that your spouse owes it to you, and perhaps to himself, to free up time so that you can spend your remaining years doing things together. It’s certainly understandable that you would want him to make your relationship a priority at this point. But his reluctance to give up his role in his company is understandable, too. Many people derive so much of their sense of worth from work that they are scared by the prospect of a life without it. Depression is more common among retirees than among people of the same age who still work, and retirees are depressed at significantly higher rates than the overall population.

Give some thought, too, to how retirement will affect your relationship. You have spent half a century living together but working separately. That means you aren’t used to having quite so much time with each other. (Even though your husband has been working remotely, he is presumably spending hours in something like a home office, interacting with colleagues.) However devoted you are to each other, your spouse may not be drawn to a prospect of long, unbroken days together.

Yes, any successful relationship will involve compromise. What we properly call compromise, though, isn’t a matter of one spouse simply doing what the other spouse wishes. Compromise might be planning a vacation together where he agrees to leave those calls from the boss unanswered. Retirement is likely to seem more attractive to your husband if you can show him that he would enjoy the activities you’re imagining doing together.”

What do you think about the Ethicist’s response? How might you address this in your own relationship?

For many of us, retirement is a tricky topic. So, MEA has created a “Reframing Retirement” 5-day online course that starts August 28 with all kinds of thought leaders. Check out the introductory price and the special discount if you bring a friend. Kari Cardinale, who creates our online programs, is a master at developing “digital intimacy” so I highly recommend you consider this, especially if you’ve seen Kari’s magic with our Transitions or Purpose online courses.

Go deeper with a workshop, in person or online.

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