How Can Couples Make Encore Career Decisions?

Say you’re ready for an encore career, but you have a partner who wants to retire to the golf course. Or you want to work part-year and travel, while your spouse wants to continue working full-time and stay put. A new book, The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Transitioning to the Second Half of Life, can provide some help. Authors Dorian Mintzer and Roberta Taylor are both therapists who have worked extensively with people in their encore years. Below is an edited conversation with the co-authors.

We’ve all heard of the classic situation in which retirement causes havoc in a marriage. Can the same be true if a partner chooses to have an encore career?
Whether one or both partners retire or pursue encore careers, they’re in for change. It’s a time of transition, which usually means some level of disturbance, when things are going to be in flux. Couples in transition need to deal with issues including finances, time together and time apart, roles and identity, where to live, and what gives each partner a sense of purpose and meaning. It’s most important that couples plan for this major life change and communicate. It’s easy for assumptions to be made when one partner isn’t aware of the hopes, dreams and goals of the other. If someone has passion for an encore career or a new project, it’s going to affect the other.

Your book gives great examples of how to craft compromises around everything from where to live to how to handle differences around spending leisure time. What are the keys to success?
Couples who navigate differences successfully are able to first acknowledge and accept that there are differences, communicate without being critical or blaming, show respect for one another, and shift from “positions” to shared interests that leads to opportunities for win-win solutions rather than win-lose struggles. They agree that although they may share separate interests and dreams and need space apart, they also need time together to nourish and enrich their relationship. The key involves good communication – being able to listen to and appreciate what the other is saying as well as being willing to compromise for the sake of the relationship.

When people start encore careers, they’re often consumed with enthusiasm and a desire to immerse 24/7. What advice would you give to someone who wants to do that without damaging a relationship? 
Getting absorbed in a project such as an encore career can be like having an affair. If you’re spending the majority of your time thinking about or being involved with something new and exciting, your partner is probably going to feel left out, hurt and threatened, as if he or she is losing you. We all feel anxious and want to understand what’s happening when things begin to shift in our relationships. Sharing what the engrossing project or encore career means to you can help your partner feel included rather than excluded. Listening to each other and being able to mutually express feelings can also lead to important conversations about values, meaning and purpose in life. When fear and anxiety are allayed, other issues such as making sure that the plan includes time together, are more easily resolved.

Some people at the encore stage are drawn to work overseas, which raises unique issues. Any tips for how someone could pursue this dream without family members feeling left behind?
Going abroad to pursue an encore career can be threatening to family as well as friends. Talking about your motivation and goals, explaining what you will be doing, and including partners in the decision making can help them feel part of the process. It’s also important to make joint decisions about how things will be maintained on the home front and the logistics of how to stay in contact when one person is abroad. With all the options that we have today – email, cell phone calls, blogs and Skype – you can reassure your partner and your family that you’ll stay connection and they’ll be part of your mission. They don’t necessarily have to agree with what you’re doing, but they may be able to understand the importance to you.

One couple in the book shared similar values and goals, along with a passion for working overseas in developing countries. Their goal was to work with NGOs in developing countries, empowering people by teaching them to use their skills and abilities. They were able to stay connected with family and friends through a regular blog post documenting their stories and adventures while living and working in eight different countries. For them, living their lives together with purpose and meaning was the greatest gift of all.

Surely you’ve encountered couples who solve their differences at the encore stage by choosing to change the terms of their relationship – for example, living apart after years of sharing a home. Is that a model you see growing in prevalence? 
Although we’ve seen this in only a small percentage of cases to date, there are indications of a growing trend for the future. There are more dual-career couples, and often spouses have different visions of when and how to retire. In addition, today’s women have developed their own authentic voices and want to live their dream, not someone else’s. We are already seeing that some couples who can afford it are choosing to live separately in different climates for several months of the year when one partner can’t stand the cold and the other hates the heat or when one partner has more time and the other is still working. We’ve also seen situations where there is a major renegotiating of the relationship with one partner going off to pursue a dream or encore career while the other may stay put or pursue his or her own dream. It’s not that they want to end the marriage, but they do want to have the freedom to live their own passion and purpose. This involves not only the ability to communicate openly and honestly, but it requires trust and honoring each other and the relationship.