'90s FAMILY : Retirement, Like Marriage, Is Only What You Make of It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What makes for success in marriage after retirement?

It's more than money and health, according to Tarzana counselor Betty Polston, who recently surveyed 25 retired couples in Southern California.

Polston was curious for a few reasons. One is that retirement is going to affect many more people. As the 70 million baby boomers slouch toward the senior years, it is estimated that 25% of the entire population will be 55 or older by the year 2010 and increasing numbers are opting for early retirement.

While many couples know they should make financial plans, most are clueless about how to handle around-the-clock togetherness--a state that commonly lasts 30 years or more. Polston had counseled groups of women at their wits' ends due to unhappily retired husbands.

Her second reason for curiosity was that the problem hit home five years ago. Polston, now 58, had been married for 30 years to a hard-working corporate lawyer she affectionately calls "Bernie the attorney" when he suddenly retired from the job that was basically his life. Knowing what retirement can do to men--and now increasingly women--whose identities are rooted in work, she was worried.

After a brief honeymoon period of lunches and day trips, Bernie began some work projects, scattering papers around her space and insisting she help him.

Giving advice to others is one thing, but when the problem is yours, the therapist said, "it takes on a whole new meaning."

Polston decided to launch a qualitative study of happy retirement couples as part of a doctorate project at Pacific Western University in West Los Angeles. Through corporations, churches and organizations in Southern California, she found 25 self-described happy couples of varied ethnic backgrounds, aged 56 to 82, who were like herself and her husband: middle to upper-middle income and married 30 years or more. The husbands had been retired for three to 15 years; the wives continued to work part time or not at all. If they turned out not to be happy, they were dropped from the study.

Most of all, Polston found, the couples were acutely aware of time running out, which tended to soften the edges of anger or disappointment and often made them more flexible and generous. A few had rocky marriages before retirement. "If they had a commitment to the marriage going in, then the time hung over them and caused them to either be more respectful to each other, to take a second look, to respect and be more tolerant of the other partner," she said.

Contrary to popular belief, she said, not all were emotionally close to their children for various reasons. "In some cases, they pulled inward and focused more on each other. A lot awoke to unrealized parts of each other they really loved."

Many people were not well, but 80% reported to be in excellent health, a fact Polston chalked up to attitude and perception.

One couple had a troubled marriage until both became ill. "They totally reinvented their marriage. They took out all the love letters from when they met as teen-agers, sat down at the kitchen table every morning and spent hours reading these letters. They realized time was of the essence."

As a result, Polston formulated 20 practical strategies for couples facing retirement; they include: sharing household tasks; showing respect and caring--or at least acting as if one respects and cares for the other person; increasing community involvement; expanding friendships; giving each other emotional and physical space; conducting periodic "marriage reviews," and maintaining a sense of humor.

She also urges women to take an active role in assisting their husbands through the retirement transition. Like it or not, she said, research shows that the emotional trajectory of a couple's adjustment to retirement depends on the husband's morale. She said that women are more used to playing various roles and that after retirement, men become more dependent on the marriage, often expecting it to fill the void left by leaving work.

As for her own marriage, Polston said she and her husband actually drew up a contract for the work she would perform for him. In return for doing the work with a positive attitude, he was to thank her. She also encouraged him to join a men's discussion group and other organizations.

Then last month, her husband was struck with a life-threatening brain tumor. The surgery was successful, but left her shocked, frightened, forced into a new role as caretaker and with a deeper appreciation for her husband.

Since then, they--like the couples in their study--have been talking about their early years, about their life together and their future. One discussion lasted three hours.

Bernie called the surgery a "wake-up call." Last weekend, he said he cried openly for the first time since his mother died in 1967. He said to his wife, "I love you so much. I don't want to fight with you. Life is too short."

He has resolved to not take any day for granted. "You don't know how many are left," he said. "What are you messing around for?"

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