GETTING UNSTUCK; When Worlds Collide: Helping Couples Survive Life-Cycle Clashes

Article excerpt

Q:  Lately, I have been working with a number of couples who are battling over retirement--the husbands are older and ready to retire, but the wives are in the middle of successful careers. How can I help them establish a new equilibrium when their life-cycle stages are not in synch?

A: Developmental needs and life-cycle changes are the tectonic plates of our emotional lives--they move deep underground, outside of our control, responding to different pressures. Trying to override them with superficial measures or quick decisions is like filling the San Andreas fault with spackling. But conflicts are not always what they seem: it is important first to assess whether conflicts are actual time-of-life differences or chronic relationship patterns rearing their head anew.

Arnold and Sarah came to see me after 12 very good years of marriage, when they were at an impasse over an impending life change. Arnold, age 62, was ready to retire and Sarah, age 44, was in the prime of her career. When they married (his second, her first), they knew their age difference would pose some challenges, and over the years they had worked through many of them. Sarah had decided, after a lot of discussion, that she could live without a child, and they agreed to move to a new city for his career, which had worked out well for her, too. Now, Arnold was fed up with academia and longed to retire to his beloved family homestead in the rural Pacific Northwest. Sarah wasn't ready to give up her consulting career, based in the Washington, D.C., area, where they lived. Both felt it was "my turn to call the shots"--Arnold because of his age and his feeling that he was "running out of time"; Sarah because "this is my prime, and you only get one prime. He had his chance, and now I need to have mine." Heads down, battle lines drawn, each wanted me to persuade the other to acquiesce.

Before I could determine whether this was wholly a life-cycle conflict, or whether it was reflective of deeper relationship patterns, I needed more information about their history together. If they had described years of power struggles in which Arnold pushed to get his way and Sarah continually caved in to his demands, I would put aside, for the moment, the content of their disagreement--retirement--and focus instead on their relationship dynamic. I would have helped Arnold see that a win-lose solution is really a lose-lose, because getting his way occurred at the expense of his wife's happiness, which in the long run would not bode well for either of them. I would have helped Sarah see that the short-term peace of giving in to Arnold was bad for the future of their relationship. But they had experienced a fair and equal give-and-take in the past, and had been sensitive to the other's needs. …