Why Too Much Togetherness Can Ruin Retirement

Many couples dream of being joined at the hip when they’re no longer working. A more satisfying approach may be ‘parallel play.’


Looking for the secret to a successful retirement with your partner?

Try watching two children in a sandbox—a boy playing with toy trucks and a girl using a pail and shovel to build sand castles.

Chances are good that the toddlers will be quite content. They’ll be next to each other, or moving farther apart; silent at times, and babbling to themselves or each other at other times. They will no doubt resolve minor disagreements if they occur—whereas they would probably be fighting if they tried to play with the same toy in that sandbox.

It’s a phenomenon called parallel play—two individuals engrossed in separate but parallel activities. And it might hold the key to happiness in later life.

Eight years ago, I wrote a book about the challenges that partners can expect to face when planning for and living together during retirement. In the time since, I have seen thousands of couples in connection with speeches, seminars, therapy sessions and email/mail/phone encounters. One issue has become abundantly clear: Individuals who do almost everything together in later life—who are “joined at the hip”—usually aren’t as satisfied or fulfilled as couples where spouses have their own interests and, ideally, are learning new skills.

That idea, of course, clashes with the traditional view of retirement, where togetherness has long been seen as a virtue. But then, women and men entering or thinking about retirement in 2013 have lived dramatically different lives compared with those of their parents and grandparents.

Women age 50 and older have been through “women’s lib”; have entered the workforce in large numbers; have held responsible volunteer positions; have sometimes had to support their husband and kids; and have planned their future by thinking more about pensions and 401(k)s than about constant togetherness.

Most men age 50-plus have worked with women and have learned to respect them; have come to see wives as partners more than underlings; and have come to value and want a partner with an equal voice in decision-making. (They may have even learned to cook and clean a little.)

In general, spouses in their 50s and 60s are much more adventurous than previous generations have been, as well as much more independent and comfortable with change. They have fewer rules about everything. They are less judgmental, and more accepting of people who are different from the norm.

It should be no surprise, then, that couples in retirement are becoming less tied to each other, and more interested in parallel play. That model meets our needs for both freedom and involvement and is quickly becoming the system in which many older adults are thriving.

Here’s a closer look at how parallel play can benefit both partners in a relationship:

Dinner conversations are much more interesting. Isn’t it sad how many older couples eat silently in restaurants? They seem to have nothing to talk about. (And smartphones are no better excuse for older couples than they are for young ones!)

Most of us would rather sit next to an arguing couple than a detached, uninterested one. It’s fun to eavesdrop on a couple who compete about who had the more interesting day or who ask each other lots of questions about their activities. They seem so much more alive than the quiet ones.

It is reassuring to know that both of you can function independently—because one of you will probably have to someday. It’s important that both of you can pay bills, handle investments, manage property, keep friends, drive well and travel independently, because one of you may eventually have to do these things alone.

And, whether or not we’ll ever be alone, we seem hard-wired to crave same-gender friendship and companionship. It obviously fills a need that cannot be satisfied any other way. How can either men or women resent this need in their partner?

Space and some time alone can be a wonderfully satisfying tonic for the soul. Who are you? What do you want out of life? Do you have a “bucket list”? What are your precious, enduring passions as well as your new ones? The answers to these questions will contribute significantly to a happy life, but only time and space for introspection will get you there.

Finding that “separateness” shouldn’t be difficult. The concept of a “man cave”—or the female equivalent—makes a lot of sense for many people. Others look outside the home: A class, volunteer commitments, spending time with a sick friend, baby-sitting grandchildren and dozens of other activities allow partners to be in different places. (Couples who can afford two houses have some especially easy options.)

And then there are those who take the easiest route: candor. They simply acknowledge that, periodically, they enjoy time apart.

Challenging yourself, even if you fail, usually brings new confidence and pride to both partners. Change and challenge are never easy, but they are usually rewarding for both you and your partner. They make you stronger and more interesting—to yourself and your friends and family, as well as to your partner.

For example, learning a new language will keep those brain synapses firing well—or learning new computer skills, or learning about other cultures to which you might travel, or joining a current-events discussion group. Getting involved in local or national politics can be very stimulating. Delivering meals to shut-ins can be both educational and gratifying. Learning a new sport like golf, or lowering your handicap, can be challenging and fun.

Even when one’s partner is temporarily a bit threatened because you are away so much or meeting new people, there is usually pride in your accomplishments, too. It feels good for both of you to know that old dogs can learn new tricks.

Absence often does make the heart grow fonder; couples usually enjoy each other more after they have had some time apart. Whether partners live in different cities part of the time or just spend a few hours apart, they usually appreciate each other more when they are together. They take each other for granted less; they probably communicate better; and they usually have a stronger bond of both physical and emotional intimacy because they have a greater appreciation of each other as capable, separate, interesting people.

Parallel play in a partnership does not suggest extreme emotional separation from each other. If you want to have total freedom, you probably need to examine your motivation. If you have little or no interest in your partner, are you extremely selfish? Narcissistic? Are you unable or unwilling to share? Might you benefit from psychotherapy—either alone or with your mate? Might you really want a divorce?

At the other end of the continuum, if you want to be “joined at the hip,” are you too needy or insecure to manage your life separately at least some of the time? If you crave total attention from your mate, aren’t you stifling development for both of you? Haven’t you learned it is foolhardy to be depressed or jealous if your partner wants to do things alone or with others because those activities can benefit you, too?

Your mate’s interests can make your life fuller when he or she talks about them; you learn something new that way, too. Furthermore, this gives you time to develop your own interests. Your partner’s independence allows you to concentrate on things you really care about and obtain rewards in your own way. A parallel arrangement forces you to make decisions that are right for only you, without being overly concerned about how your actions will affect others.

In short, this pattern gives you both roots and wings. It allows you to grow. It promotes the major task for this stage of life: becoming as whole as you can be.

Dr. Vandervelde is a Seattle-based psychologist. She is the author of six books, including “The Changing Life of the Corporate Wife,” “Retirement for Two” and—coming soon—”Parallel Play.” She can be reached at encore@wsj.com