Death and Divorce and Unhappiness, Oh My! Might Early Retirement Actually Be Bad for Us?

And while it’s easy to brush that stuff off and say to ourselves, “Well that’s just talking about regular retirement, and I’m not doing that. I’m aiming for early retirement, and that’s different,” it’s worth examining whether early retirement is truly all that different when it comes to impacts on our health, happiness and life factors like divorce. Just as it was worth digging into that ominous “Won’t you be bored?” question instead of just brushing it off.

So let’s do exactly that. Let’s look at what the evidence says about whether early retirement is good for us or bad for us.

While we in the FIRE community like to wax poetic about how wonderful early retirement is and how much better life is without work, early retirement is not a magical cure-all.

Case in point: Last week I had a raging six-day migraine and couldn’t blog at all (hence the radio silence here), something that never happened when I was working, stressed out and sleep deprived. My ever-optimistic self hopes that that was just the last hurrah of my migraines, one last, apocalyptic exorcism of the bad brain juju on the path to early retirement happy brain. But more likely I’ll keep getting migraines sometimes, though (I hope) less frequently.

And maybe it was the multi-day stabby/crushy feeling over my right eye, combined with the hangover-style migraine nausea, or maybe it was seeing another fresh round of “Early retirement will totally kill you!” headlines the week before, but I started to wonder if maybe I’d been too quick to dismiss those studies in the past as not really being about us. Maybe it actually was possible that early retirement would lead us down a road toward worse health or greater unhappiness. Could it be?

After all, I’d read stories like this one in Harvard Business Review of former striver careerists who found themselves in the depths of depression after losing their career identities, and I know that mental health is closely linked to physical health. I’d heard the arguments in those doom-and-gloom early retirement stories saying that it’s so much easier to be sedentary when you don’t have to go into work every day and walk around your workplace. I’ve written many times about how easy it is to become socially isolated when your friends are still working and you’ve got this free time, and how critical social networks are to health and longevity.

The idea that early retirement might not be as rosy as we all hoped suddenly seemed a lot more plausible. So I decided to dig into the research. Really dig. Because this is important stuff, and I want to know whether there is anything innate about early retirement that’s bad for us, and if so, what we can do to guard against it.

So what does the research say? Let’s start with the slightly less complicated subjects and build toward health, with its multitude of factors and questions of correlation vs. causation.

Divorce

According to Rob Pascale, a retired marketing research executive, and Dr. Louis H. Primavera, dean of Touro College School of Health Sciences, co-authors of The Retirement Maze, in that HuffPost story: “Some couples might find they don’t have quite as much in common as they once thought,” they wrote. “While still in the workforce, underlying differences can be masked, because so much attention is taken up by work and raising a family. But these differences can come to the forefront when couples are more focused just on each other.”

They go on to list other factors that make couples feel out-of-sync after retirement, like mismatches in assumptions about who will do what chores (ahem, emotional labor), how they want to spend their time and so on, before dropping in this telling nugget:

Then there is the issue of social over-dependency. Psychologists assert that being socially connected is essential for mental health, and we found that happily retired couples have active social lives with lots of friends. Women seem to grasp this — they are generally more socially integrated, having more and stronger emotional ties to friends and family. Men, in contrast, have fewer close relationships, and many depend on their wives to keep them socially involved. A certain amount of social dependency is reasonable. But for some wives dependency can become extreme. In fact, we found that many men expect to be the primary focus of their wives’ attention when newly retired. This of course is not at all realistic nor is it healthy for either spouse. And many wives might become angry and resentful if they have to surrender more of their personal time than they’d like to.

This gender imbalance pops up again and again in stories about retirement and divorce. Here’s another example:

Miriam Goodman, author of Too Much Togetherness: Surviving Retirement As A Couple found that most of the women she talked to said, “I’m not worried about me, I’m worried about my husband … he’s not allowed to retire because he won’t know what to do.”  Outside of general concerns, many women fear their husband’s retirement because they’re worried about losing their personal time and space, having their spending restricted, or being constantly questioned about where they are going or what they’re doing.

Goodman made the issue very real by noting that Japanese researchers have come up with a clinical diagnosis called Retired Husband Syndrome. “Japanese women were showing up at doctor offices with physiological reactions like rashes, nervous tics, upset stomachs and headaches, which they were able to conclude was a result of a spouse’s recent retirement.”

It’s interesting to note the trends observed by social scientists, but it’s also striking in the divorce stats how much of what goes on in couples is a matter of dynamics that can be changed. Not that it’s easy or obvious how to guard against the problems that can arise at early retirement, but it’s highly possible, especially if you know what to look out for.

In addition, my highly unscientific theory is that the longer your career (meaning the more time you have away from your spouse or partner), the more time you have to grow apart or develop divergent aspirations. In this way, it makes sense that traditional retirement would be more perilous for marriages than would early retirement.

Verdict: Early retirement is a potential danger to marriages and partnerships but you can guard against those problems.

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