These Couples Survived a Lot. Then Came Retirement.

This spring, Barbara and Joe, a retired couple in their 60s, sat down with me at a bistro in suburban Connecticut to talk about their relationship. That they were sitting there together at all was something of a triumph. In the past few days, they had hurled at each other the kinds of accusations that couples make when they are on the brink of mutual destruction. They were bruised from the words that had been exchanged, and although they sat close to each other, their energy was quiet and heavy.

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Barbara and Joe met 13 years ago, two divorced people who had relentlessly climbed their way up from working-class backgrounds. Barbara rose to be the vice president of a wholesale apparel business before moving into retail, then winding down her career; to keep herself busy, she sells clothing online a few hours a day. Joe co-founded a delivery business that he sold in 2021 for an amount that meant he would never have to work again; he retired in January last year. He and Barbara had time; they had money; they had leisure. They also had a problem: They were driving each other mad.

Barbara briefed me on her experience before we met in person. Since retirement, she reported, Joe had found himself untethered. He was underfoot, always around and not exactly occupied. It was bad enough that he was spending hours on his phone scrolling through Instagram, bad enough that he was doing so on a couch in the living room, a space that had always been hers and hers alone throughout the day. Now he also wanted her to look at the funny dog videos that made him laugh, and yes, funny pig videos too. She did not find this particularly sexy, but he also wanted more sex than when he was working, one of many ways she felt the burden of keeping him entertained. “Love him very much,” she texted. “But I’m going crazy or going back to work, whichever comes first.”

At lunch that day, Joe wore a pink flannel shirt that suited him and had clearly been picked out by someone with a tasteful eye. He seemed nervous about discussing his relationship, which reflected just one of the many differences the couple had to negotiate: Barbara was frank and open by nature; Joe was more private (which is why they’ve requested that only their first names be used).

For years, Joe said, he had been monomaniacally focused on his exit — on selling the business. He had given almost no thought to what his life would look like once he finally did. “I had visions of going to the gym,” he said. That turned out to take up no more than an hour of his day. Then what? He was at something of a loss. “It’s been a kind of transition trying to move away from people that were like my second family,” he said. “It’s been a little enlightening that once you’re gone, you’re gone.”

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