Home for Lunch

14th September 2018

Adjusting to a new domestic routine post-retirement can be tricky; especially when it comes to the midday meal, as Heather Harris attests…

For better, for worse, but not for lunch.

I’ve been married for 25 years, and for 25 years on weekdays I have eaten lunch either alone, with friends or with a variety of offspring (my own and other people’s). Occasionally, the dog will join me.

The menu ranges from cold parsnips (leftover from Sunday roast) to breakfast cereal at my desk or fish fingers with the kids. Sometimes it may involve bread.
On 22 December 2017 this all changed.

My 56-year-old husband took early retirement and at noon uttered those three little words: “What’s for lunch?”

In itself, this culinary query may not seem that bad. But symbolically it marked a seismic shift in our lives and one that I’ve found hard to adapt to.

And I’m not alone. Indeed, Sandra Howard, wife of former Conservative Party leader Michael, took to the newspapers to warn of the flashpoint of midday sustenance. “Just thought I’d mention,” she reports Michael saying to her one day… “It is 1pm… er… I can easily get my own, of course, but…”

That sentence had Sandra echoing my own feelings. “It may be a corny old cliché but much as I love him dearly, and for life, I do not want him home for lunch!”

Such sisterhood is good to know. And even more satisfying is the revelation that what Sandra and I, and milllions of women like us, are feeling has an official acronym: RHS. That’s ‘Retired Husband Syndrome’ to the rest of you.

A study of 660 retired couples by Skipton Building Society revealed that while the majority of people enjoyed being retired, a quarter said that ‘managing their relationship was more tricky and difficult than they imagined it would be.’

For decades, day to day, the report continued, ‘couples might only have had an hour or two of quality time together. Suddenly when faced with the prospect of spending 24 hours a day together, seven days a week, without work or children to talk about, [they] can find it hard to adjust.’

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

RHS is not confined to our shores either. Japanese women have reportedly been showing up at doctor’s surgeries with psychological reactions like rashes, nervous tics, upset stomachs and headaches, which medics concluded were ‘a result of a spouse’s recent retirement’. And in Italy, a relationship survey revealed that nearly half of women with newly retired husbands complained of increasing levels of stress, depression and sleeplessness.

The survey went on to suggest that having children at home makes it easier… but for whom, I wonder.

My 18-year-old son was studying for A-levels earlier this year. Having his dad cheerily popping his head around his bedroom door to ask “how’s the revision going?” at regular intervals throughout the day tested their previously cordial relationship. As my son succinctly explained, “I was used to living with a grunting accountant whom I saw after 8pm… now I’ve got Coco the Clown on tap!”

Because that’s the thing – the only resident more annoying than a miserable, tired husband and father is a constantly cheerful one.
My friend’s son shares my son’s sentiments. He has taken to permanently wearing earphones now that his 59-year-old lawyer Dad is at home “and constantly looking for someone to drag to the driving range…”

It’s a simple case of mathematics – too many adults under the same roof during daylight hours adds up to friction (that’s the premise behind Big Brother, after all…).
But the alternative can be even worse, as 54-year-old Angela has identified. “Our only child is leaving for university in September and I’ll be heartbroken, but my newly-retired-at-55 husband is counting the days until it’s just us.”

And that’s where men and women differ. Rob Pascale, author of The Retirement Maze explains, that retirement can make men feel ‘lost, lonely and even over-dependent on their spouse to keep them socially connected’, which can naturally add stress to a marriage. ‘Men define themselves primarily by their career, women maintain lots of different roles and are generally more socially integrated.’

Angela admits she is already telling her husband that he has to accept that she has a life of her own, and one which she doesn’t want him to become part of.
Part-time care home worker Sarah feels the same. On week one of her husband’s retirement he asked if he could join her on her regular dog walks with her female friends. “I thought he was joking,” she recalls, “but I think he was genuinely hurt when I said no.”

Here Pascale has some words of advice. “It’s important for spouses to communicate how much time they want to spend together and apart. The key is not to personalise it. Just because someone doesn’t want to have lunch with you (or walk the dog) every single day doesn’t mean they don’t love you to pieces.”

Jane, a 56-year-old Citizens Advice Bureau adviser from London, is a prime example. She found it hard to make her husband understand that just because he had decided to give up work, she hadn’t. “He wants to take an extended trip to French Polynesia but I don’t want to go. I like my life, being close to my family and I have a job of my own. I can’t just take off.”
For working women there’s also an unspoken belief that the newly at-home husband will take over the domestic duties.

“But by the time I’ve told my husband what toothpaste to buy and he’s asked for an in-depth explanation of the difference between a satsuma and tangerine, I might as well do the shopping myself,” says Sarah, adding that she has no idea how her husband managed to hold down a stressful legal career when a solo trip to the supermarket demands such a major briefing.

The fact is that psychologists agree that average working men are inherently selfish. They have to be, to succeed in their career. They have to detach themselves from their family and focus on their work-related tasks. Mothers meanwhile – even if they work – always have part of their brain focusing on their offspring and their next emotional or physical demand – be that a meal, a lift or help with a school project on the Roman Empire.
And even when the male retires, this mindset takes time to change. Comparing notes with other sufferers of RHS, we all agreed that our husbands will happily come back from the shops with just enough food for their own lunch, whereas none of us ever returns with less than three bags full – including one normally dedicated to cleaning products and pet food.

In our house, my accountant husband has taken an unhealthy – and frankly irritating – interest in the precise symmetrical stacking and restacking of the dishwasher: a job that I can do in minutes while simultaneously making a phone call and sweeping the floor.

Retirees will also happily arrange a sporting pursuit (the lure of the lycra or the pull of the putting green often replace the demands of the boardroom) without considering whether it fits in with domestic demands – such as mealtimes or visiting relatives.

“It actually makes me laugh to hear John pretend he’s just nipping in to town to do some ‘vital jobs’ when I know he’s really heading to the gym,” says Angela.

One friend even went to counselling to discover how to save her marriage after her husband’s retirement, as she felt that these seemingly minor irritations were getting out of proportion.

That’s not unusual. Divorce over 50 – also known as ‘grey divorce’ – is on the rise. So, what’s the answer? Relate relationship counsellor Barbara Bloomfield, who has seen many couples through RHS since 1994, says it all comes down to making the right choice on how to progress as a couple. “The best option… is where the couple has talked long and hard about how they see the landscape post-work and made some constructive and flexible plans for the future that involve doing things separately and together.”

Or, as one anonymous reader from the north east told Woman and Home magazine, “There are times when he gets on my nerves – but I remind myself that life isn’t always a bed of roses. I’d much rather have him here and under my feet than under the ground.”

Even at lunchtime…

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