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How Senior Couples Can Retire Without Drama

Maryalene LaPonsie

You've clocked out of work for the final time and are heading home to your spouse. The kids have left the nest, which means it will be just the two of you. Sounds like the beginning of a second honeymoon, right?

However, the reality can be much different. A 2017 report from the Pew Research Center found gray divorce -- that is, divorce after age 50 -- increased 109 percent from 1990 to 2015. Even couples who stay together may find their remaining years marked by conflict.

"They're not used to being together eight to 10 hours a day," says Chris Heerlein, investment advisor representative and partner at REAP Financial in Austin, Texas. All that togetherness can disrupt routines and leave spouses feeling resentful if their plans are suddenly waylaid by someone else's priorities.

Plus, retiring seniors may feel rudderless without a job. "Work is such an integral part of our lives," says Jared Snider, senior wealth advisor at Exencial Wealth Advisors in Oklahoma City. Seniors who have spent decades defining themselves by their jobs may find retirement leaves them feeling unsettled. That discontent can then spill over into conflict with a spouse.

Fortunately, spousal conflict after retirement is not a given. Couples can head off trouble by being proactive and open-minded about their next stage of life.

[Read: 6 Retirement Conversations Every Couple Needs to Have.]

Start the discussion early. Spouses can become resentful if they have plans for retirement that don't align with those of their husband or wife. Clear communication is essential to creating realistic expectations about what life will be like post-work. Unfortunately, many couples wait too long to have these talks.

"The majority of families don't have that conversation until after retirement," Heerlein says. At that point, couples may have dug in their heels or missed opportunities that could have made the transition smoother.

Another reason to start the discussion early is to provide time to cultivate new hobbies prior to retirement. These can be shared activities with a spouse or interests that can be pursued alone. "Carve an identity for yourself outside of your career before you retire," says Kyle Quinn, managing partner with Mariner Wealth Advisors in San Diego.

Have a purpose for retirement. Exploring new interests before retirement can help couples determine the goals or pursuits they will have after leaving the workforce. Snider says his most successful retired couples have clearly defined purposes for both themselves and their relationship. "They have thought it out ahead of time," he says.

Quinn says too many people drift into retirement without a plan. "Another misconception I see often is the idea that retirement will be like a vacation or extended weekend," he says. While living without an agenda can be refreshing in small doses, it makes for a boring and tedious retirement.

Having a hobby, volunteering with a nonprofit or even holding a part-time job can be beneficial. Taking on a new role can give you a sense of purpose, and solo activities can also provide retired spouses some much needed personal time and space.

[Read: 7 Tips for Thriving When One Spouse Retires.]

Have a budget for retirement. Money issues can be the cause of significant strife in some marriages. "You'll have one spouse that lives for the moment, and the other that doesn't want to throw a nickel around," Heerlein says.

While disagreements about money can occur at any stage of life, they may be more pronounced in retirement when couples move from living on income to living on savings. "Not many people live on a budget," Heerlein says. However, creating one together can be an effective way for senior couples to identify shared goals and spending priorities.

Compromise. Even couples who share many of the same interests are bound to disagree with one another on certain topics. "Money and family can be huge sources of conflict for couples," Snider says.

One spouse may want to move closer to the kids while the other would prefer to stay in their current hometown. Downsizing, travel and how to spend leisure time can all also lead to marital strife.

Snider says it's crucial to be empathetic to your spouse's wants and needs and to be willing to compromise. "Everything is a trade-off," he says. Couples need to work together to determine the highest priority for each person and then work to meet one another halfway if those priorities don't align.

[Read: 7 Tips to Maintain Social Connections in Retirement.]

Don't be afraid to hit reset. If retirement isn't going as expected, seniors shouldn't be afraid to go back to the drawing board. "It's OK to take a time out and say this didn't go as we had planned -- or not planned," Snider says.

To successfully reset a retirement gone wrong, couples need to openly discuss what is and is not working for them. Each spouse needs to listen without judgment. If that poses a challenge, couples may find it easier to each write down their retirement goals and wishes and share the information that way.

After that, spouses need to work together to reach a compromise that is positive for both parties. "If there is a wall of resistance, I tend to bring in the outside experts, such as a life coach or marriage counselor," Quinn says.

Couples should expect a few bumps when moving into retirement. However, with open communication, a budget and a spirit of compromise, the transition can be relatively drama-free.

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