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How will my relationships change in retirement?

As in any major life transition—taking your first job, getting married, making career changes—the decision to retire involves major changes in the routines, commitments, and relationships that you have come to rely on. At this time of ambiguity and change, ask yourself: how well does my current set of relationships align with my preferences and interests? As my co-author, Wendy Murphy, and I argue in Strategic Relationships at Work, being proactive in realigning your developmental network is essential to finding satisfaction in every successive stage of life.

In my current study with several colleagues involving interviews with 83 individuals in the midst of building a retirement life structure, we have seen three tactics that participants have used to bring their relationships into alignment with who and how they want to be. First, many said that they were happy to limit or let go of their relationships with former colleagues. For some, maintaining limited ties with former colleagues helped them to keep a sense of connection with their professional selves as well as access to potential part time employment. For others, there was a strong desire to let go of work relationships with former colleagues because these had become stressful due to changes in the workplace culture and practices during their last few years of employment. Still others found that they could not move on to create new activities and commitments without completely letting go of relationships that kept them too involved with their former workplaces.

Second, we found that many of our interviewees experienced retirement as an opportunity to deepen relationships that they had neglected during years of prioritizing intensive involvement in their careers. Most frequently, these relationships were with spouses or children. The demands of fulltime professional work had caused them to invest less time and energy in these significant others who were very important to them. In one instance a couple purchased an RV and began traveling together, whereas another couple moved to be more actively involved with their grandson. In contrast, in some instances there was an obvious need to adjust to having more time together if one or both were newly retired, and this redefining of boundaries in the relationship had the consequence of deepening mutual understanding of their partners’ emerging vision for retirement. We also heard of efforts to reconnect with childhood and college friends after years of distance due to persistent demands at work.

Finally, often this life transition triggers a desire to engage in meaningful service work or to start one or more activities that are entirely new, or dormant since earlier in life (e.g. music, motorcycling, painting). Many found value in starting new relationships that would provide access to and support for a new hobby or service opportunity. In seeking a meaningful opportunity to give back to his community, one of our participants did online research to find a nonprofit that very much aligned with his personal values. He visited the organization and developed a relationship with the owner, who has become a very good friend. Similarly, another decided to invest more time in his love of music, joining a band which led to new friendships that supported his passion for music.

As you begin to clarify your vision of the activities, contexts, and commitments that you want to sustain or bring anew to your retirement life structure, consider what you can do to nurture relationships that will support your current interests and desires. The research on high quality relationships strongly suggests that when we consciously attend to relationships, we will reap the benefits of increased zest, greater knowledge, sense of worth, personal effectiveness, and a desire for more connection. Why not be intentional about it?

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