After years of a long-distance relationship, I fear that when my husband retires he will resent my voluntary work and find his family life less perfect than he expects
PROBLEM: There are two issues I am writing to you about: having a long-distance relationship and impending retirement. My husband and I have been in a long-distance relationship for more than 20 years, and, while it has had severe challenges, we have come to some kind of understanding of how to manage it. He comes home exhausted from his work every couple of months and he is so looking forward to the perfect family that he inevitably suffers from disappointment.
He manages this by doing practical things around the house: building a new kitchen or sorting out the lawn, for example. My children and friends and I hold our breaths and try to keep everything perfect until he departs again. However, he is due to retire in July, and I am now palpitating at the prospect of having him home full-time and fear that he will have no real purpose.
I am very busy and am currently involved in a local voluntary group, something I relish and love. I am deeply concerned that he will resent my full life and social circle. There are many men in my group, and I worry that he will be jealous of this. I love him very much but wonder if I can adjust to adapting to someone in my life 24/7; this is not something I am used to or that I want.
ADVICE: They say that the best way to prepare for retirement is to start practising how you want it to be 20 years beforehand. If this is true, you could be in for a difficult time, because this marriage seems to have a lot of disappointment and circumspection. It is admirable that you have managed to sustain a relationship over a long distance for such a long time, that you have come through difficult times and that you are both still loyal and committed. However, it seems that both of you will have a lot of adjustment and changing to do in the face of retirement in July.
My guess is that what has sustained your husband is the idea that he is providing for and maintaining a lovely (perfect) family, and perhaps this fantasy needs to be dismantled gently. It seems that he is fearful of what might happen if this ideal is not true, and perhaps he needs reassurance. His jealousy may also be a representation of his fear that the relationship is in trouble. A person who is used to having his instructions followed immediately at work might struggle when they are not taken seriously at home. Is there any way you can help prepare him while he is still away?
A suggestion from other couples managing long-distance relationships is to begin a correspondence in writing, which allows for reflection and is less reactive than Skype. You could both write all the concerns and hopes you have for retirement and you could then take one issue at a time. These emails could then offer a kind of guideline for both of you when emotions might be stretched after July. How might the transition period to fully living together be best managed? Should you consider having separate rooms and “dating” for a period? Could your husband be booked into a course or programme where he might cultivate a group of people completely outside your influence?
You have a full and active life while your husband will have lost his separate existence, and he may well experience a period of grief, with all that this entails, including anger and depression. It is to be expected that you might resent this draw on your resources, but his need will be greater than yours for a while.
It is unlikely that your husband will be able to hear criticism immediately following retirement, even if you and those around him feel he would benefit from it. As he will very likely be stressed, it is important that he feels that he is safe in his relationship and that he has time and support to face the next stage of his life.
You also need to feel that your idea of the relationship is honoured, so a challenging conversation will need to be had. Could a time and place be arranged, a couple of months after he comes home, where you both know that the real issues will be put on the table and truth can be spoken? This might allow you to be patient with him and it might allow him recovery time.
He probably does not want to join in voluntary work, but getting involved in his local community and seeing old friends, even mutual friends, might be good. You could get an enthusiastic dog, and take long walks together that end in a pub somewhere. As rekindling romance takes time, you will need to sustain yourself and practise faith in the relationship.