Five Mindfulness Tips for Surviving Retirement as a Couple

Photo courtesy of Lisa Burdsall

Five Mindfulness Tips for Surviving Retirement as a Couple

“Marriage is finding that special someone you want to annoy for the rest of your life.”

–author, unknown.

For me, there is nothing more annoying than a mate who spends hours in his recliner, alternating between snoring and watching YouTube videos on UFO conspiracy theories.  Not that I actually know anyone who does that…LOL!  The fact is that retirement is fraught with relationship pitfalls.  Even if you’ve been married for forty years and you feel like you know your spouse inside and out; you may not imagine how increased time together can make you feel like you’re married to an alien.  Maybe those conspiracy theories are right!

Winter is often a time when we spend more time in the house.  This month, so far, has been especially confining for Jim and me.  An unusually severe east coast storm brought us a foot of snow, high winds and temperatures near zero.  The good news is that I’m trying out all kinds of slow cooker recipes.  The bad news is that cabin fever and spouse fever have reached an all-time high!

My mindful retirement journey provides me with a perspective and a set of tools to help me navigate retirement relationship issues.  Here are my five tips for using a practice of mindfulness to help us have happier relationships:

  1. Be attentive and present.  Research shows that mindfulness changes areas of the brain associated with directing attention and focus. Therefore, mindfulness can help us notice when we are stuck in negative reactions to our partner and redirect attention to whatever they may be feeling and needing. This can help us be more loving and present in our relationships, which builds intimacy and makes our relationships happier and more connected. This is especially true when increased time with a partner increases instances of a triggering behavior.  (Melanie Greenberg, http://www.psychologytoday.com)
  2. Strive for non-attachment. The Buddhist idea of non-attachment has been powerful to me in shifting my values away from cravings to appreciating what is available to me in each present moment.  The concept also applies to our “cravings” for the perfect partner.  Telling ourselves that our loved one “should” be or act in a certain way is not realistic; nor is it compassionate.  It holds our loved one to an impossible standard.  Greenberg asks, “How much am I using my partner’s love to fill a void in my own love and acceptance of myself?”  The idea of unconditional love doesn’t mean I should abandon my safety or security.  It does mean that we can accept a partner for who they are unconditionally.
  3. Regulate emotions. When we are under stress in our relationships, the brain’s “fight, flight, freeze” mode is jump-started.  We see our partners as threats to our wellbeing.  We shut down emotionally and attack them with angry words or actions. Mindfulness changes this brain response and enables us to say to ourselves, “Stop!  This is not helpful.”  We can replace our angry or hurt behaviors with more helpful behaviors such as asking questions and lowering the “volume.”  Taking deep breaths can prompt our brain to change the stress response to the relaxation response.  (Greenberg)
  4. Feel real compassion. Compassion is motivated by cherishing other living beings and our wish to release them from their suffering.  In the case of a loved one, we sometimes want that person to be free of suffering more for ourselves.  If our partner is ill or depressed, for example, we may wish him to recover quickly so that we can enjoy his company again; but this wish is basically self-centered and is not true compassion. True compassion is necessarily based on cherishing others.  In retirement, and throughout our lives, we often believe our partner will be “better off” or, if we are honest with ourselves, “I will be better off” if he engages in certain desired behaviors.  But that is not compassion.  Compassion is about loving that person without tying it to certain behaviors.
  5. Show empathy. We can replace our destructive impulses for power and control with empathy.   However, empathy without real compassion often feels empty or false.  According to Paul Bloom (Boston Review, 2014), empathy is the capacity to experience the suffering of others, while compassion is a response to suffering from feelings of warmth and care. In other words, your empathy may be impossible in most cases, because you have never, nor will you ever, experience the particular suffering of others.  It’s exhausting, too.  For me, compassion and love toward Jim mean that when he “gets going” on certain subjects, I listen, reflect what I hear him saying and feeling, help with some related tasks, and get him a cup of tea.  I love him because of all that he is.  That doesn’t mean that I experience what he is experiencing;  nor do I want to!

The Sympathies of the Long Married

By Robert Bly

Oh well, let’s go on eating the grains of eternity.

What do we care about improvements in travel?

Angels sometimes cross the river on old turtles.

Shall we worry about who gets left behind?

That one bird flying through the clouds is enough.

Your sweet face at the door of the house is enough.

The two farm horses stubbornly pull the wagon.

The mad crows carry away the tablecloth.

Most of the time, we live through the night.

Let’s not drive the wild angels from our door.

Maybe the mad fields of grain will move.

Maybe the troubled rocks will learn to walk.

It’s all right if we’re troubled by the night.

It’s all right if we can’t recall our own name.

It’s all right if this rough music keeps on playing.

I’ve given up worrying about men living alone.

I do worry about the couple who live next door.

Some words heard through the screen door are enough.

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