WSJ: Retirement happiness – Happiness came from finding her own way.

Couples that have their own interests in retirement are much happier than those who want to do everything together… I witnessed this with my own parents – they grew apart as my father became angry that my mother had her writing and hobbies that didn’t involve him.

The Key to a Successful Retirement

One woman had envisioned retirement as a new honeymoon. She discovered that happiness came from finding her own way.


It’s fun to fantasize about retirement before you actually get there. In fact, those fantasies got me through a lot of tough days at work.

But retirement is so much more enjoyable when you stop forcing it to be something you think it’s supposed to be and just let it evolve in whatever direction it leads you.

Take my marriage.

Not that there was anything wrong with my marriage before I retired. It probably operated much like the marriages of most dual-career couples. Weary from the melodramas of the workday, we dragged ourselves home each evening with just enough energy to cook dinner, consume it comatose in front of the television, negotiate who would clean it up, and then go to sleep so we could wake up and do it all over again. Surely retirement would be the antidote.

A Dream Life

My husband, Doug, retired a few years before I did. He wore retirement well from the moment he slipped it on. And I must say, having a stay-at-home husband fit me pretty well, too. He managed things at home: grocery shopping, home maintenance and, most important, dinner. And on those exasperating days, if I alerted him before I left the office, I arrived home 17 minutes later to the sound of my martini shaking.

Maxwell Holyoke-Hirsch

I imagined our retirement days together, sleeping late and lingering over coffee and the paper. We’d ride our bikes to lunch, work together in the garden, and enjoy a glass of wine out on the patio, admiring our handiwork. We would rarely get on one another’s nerves because we would have removed the major source of aggravation—work—from our lives. It would be like a honeymoon all over again. It would be the perfect life.

Well, it turns out Doug already had a pretty good life. And since I was at work all day while he was living that life, it didn’t really include me. He had biking buddies, lunching buddies and things he liked to get done. Not only did he already have a structure to his days, he didn’t actually need me to coordinate his fun.

I guess I should have known this already. A couple of years before I retired, I took a month off from work, not to go anywhere, just to stay home and test-drive retirement. It was a delightful month. I had every day planned out for us. Each day we enjoyed some activity together: a bike ride, tennis, walks with the dog. We popped over to Santa Cruz for lunch on the beach. We sampled new restaurants in San Francisco. We explored the Napa Valley. We were on the go the whole month.

As the month drew to a close, our friends asked Doug if he would be sad to see me go back to work.

“No way,” he told them. “I can’t wait to get some rest. She’s exhausted me!”

I thought he was just kidding.

Letting Go

When I got to retirement for real, I was surprised how much it didn’t resemble that month I took off from work. I discovered things about Doug I never noticed before, like the way he eats his breakfast. He cuts a section of apple and leaves the rest on the cutting board clear across the kitchen. He takes that section of apple over to the breakfast table where we both sit with our laptops reading the morning news, emails and Facebook updates. A few minutes later, he gets up, walks across the kitchen, cuts another apple section and takes it back over to the breakfast table. This process takes about a half-hour.

I couldn’t believe that in 15 years of marriage I had never noticed this before.

Even more shocking than Doug’s breakfast routine, though, was the discovery that he didn’t actually need me as his camp counselor in retirement. He already had it all worked out. And if I wasn’t going to get to monopolize his time, I needed to figure out what to do with mine.

Luckily, I had a real live retirement expert living right under my own roof. First, I copied him. I scheduled a weekly walking date with one friend and a regular lunch date with another. Then I picked up yoga and a little volunteer job. And when Doug was off biking with his friends, I used the solo time to write. Now each evening, we have stories to share about our day, and they don’t involve my crappy day at work.

Before I retired, I thought I’d work out in the garden more often. Ditto for the gym. But as it turns out, I don’t really want to. And given the choice between doing things I don’t want to do and things I do want to do—well, I’d rather do things I do want to do, like writing. Writing is something I didn’t even know I wanted to do until I actually retired.

The truth is it’s hard to know who you’ll be without work until you take away the work and find out. Seeing where retirement takes you, discovering who you are now that work doesn’t define you, that’s the fun part.

Now one month each summer, Doug lets me whisk him away to New York City and plan out each day. We enjoy blues on the Hudson River and moonlit movies in Central Park. We stroll the Brooklyn Bridge and explore the outer boroughs. We stay out late at jazz clubs and then sleep late and linger over coffee and the paper. And at the end of that month we’re both exhausted and eager to get home and rest.

That’s the thing about fantasies. You really only need them when you’re looking for an escape, not so much when you’re already there.

Ms. Lagier is a writer in California. She can be reached at encore@wsj.com

A version of this article appeared September 9, 2013, on page R2 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: For One Spouse, Finding Her Own Way Was the Key to Happiness.

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