Are you parallel players or joined at the hip? Lee Rodwell asks how much time couples should spend together.
Have you ever watched toddlers at playgroups? It’s only when they both want the same toy that disagreements break out. Most of the time they play alongside each other happily – one pushing a car, another stacking bricks.
Experts call this parallel play – and it could hold the secret to happy relationships in retirement. Research suggests that older couples who do almost everything together are often less happy than those who have their own interests. But why should this be true?
Life in parallel
Dr Maryanne Vandervelde is a psychologist who has written extensively about the challenges that people can expect to face in retirement. She observes that, in general, couples in their 50s and 60s are nowadays much more adventurous than previous generations, as well as much more independent and comfortable with change.
“It should be no surprise, then,” she says, “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.”
On the surface it’s easy to see the advantages of not being together 24/7. For one thing, having separate interests means you also have more to talk about when you are together.
How often do you see older couples sitting silently in restaurants or checking their smart phones rather than having an animated converation? Are they really comfortably silent – or have they simply run out of things to say to each other?
Besides, learning a new skill – whether it’s bridge or Italian – keeps your brain active. Joining a pilates class or taking up golf could do the same for your body.
As Dr Vandervelde notes: “Space and some time alone can be a wonderfully satisfying tonic for the soul. Who are you? What do you want out of life? 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.”
In the past, when men wanted time to themselves they would slope off to the allotment or potter about in the shed. These days women are just as likely to be shed owners or allotment holders.
So should everyone have a shed they can retreat to – whether it’s real or metaphorical?
Gurpreet Singh, a relationship counsellor at Relate, says there is no one-size-fits-all answer. “If your relationship is better when you spend most of your time together then that’s what you should be doing. It’s what you both agree on, what works for you that matters.”
But what happens if one half of a couple has looked forward to spending more time with their partner – perhaps going on a world cruise ¬– while their spouse has been making plans to spend more time fishing or watching cricket?
Linda and Paul both retired within three years of each other. Paul had always supported a Premiership football team but after his retirement he began to take a more active interest, going to home games and watching other matches on television.
Linda says: “I didn’t mind at first – I was still working and it was nice to have some quiet time to myself when Paul was out, or watching tv.
“But now that I’m retired, too, I have started to resent the fact that the things we do together – like going away to visit friends abroad - are governed by the fixtures list. Worse still, the season seems to get longer and longer!”
Gurpreet Singh says: “The later life stages – of which retirement is one – always bring realignments and readjustments in relationships. If you have been putting any problems in that relationship on one side for a long time, when change occurs there will be trouble.
“Planning for change is the best way to manage it. Once you are no longer working you may have a lot of time on your hands – ideally you should start to prepare yourself for this some five years ahead of time - that way, you will have developed hobbies and interests so that by the time you stop working you have other things in place to put energies into.
“It’s healthy to have separate interests but also talk to your partner about what interests you can develop together so that you spend time together and have interests in common that you can share.”
Relate provides impartial and non-judgemental support to individuals and couples at all ages and at all stages of relationships, Visit www.relate.org.uk to find out more.
Real life: “What we do separately becomes something we share.”
Rob Nutting and his wife Margaret are perfect examples of parallel players. They both agree that while they share many interests – such as travelling and long distance walking together – they also enjoy doing their own thing.
Margaret, 67, who retired six years ago, says: “I had a fulfilling career but I’m still independent and healthy - and I still want lots of new experiences. Retirement gives you an opportunity to develop new interests that you never had a chance to pursue before.’
Rob, 68, who retired three years ago, agrees. He says: “You shouldn’t change when you retire – retirement should be a continuation of your previous lives. After all, you’re the same people with the same attitude to things.
“I think it’s very important that throughout your relationship and into retirement you have independent interests, provided they don’t disadvantage the other person. That way you can develop as an individual as well as a couple.
“For instance, I’m very interested in football and cycling. Margaret is more interested in studying things in a structured way.
“But the advantage of our having separate interests is that when Margaret comes home from her course on Victorian literature she will talk to me about it, just as when I go out on my bike I’ll come home and tell her about the things I’ve seen.
“Then what we do separately becomes something we share.”
Retiresavvy is brought to you by Skipton Building Society. This article has been commissioned by retiresavvy and any opinions voiced are the author's own.