Mind Matters - September 2006
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

Retired Partner Syndrome
by Ron Sterling, M.D. -- September 2006

    Dear Dr. Ron:

      Some time ago you wrote an article called Retirement Repercussions which discussed problems and solutions related to retirement. However, you did not talk about what I think is one of the biggest problems, the potential for challenges related to married couples adjusting to spending more time together. Signed: Need Breathing Space.

    Dear "Need Space":

      Thank you for writing! You bring up an important consideration about retirement. Even long and happy marriages can be challenged by retirement. The challenges can come from many sources and depend a lot on what the relationship was like before the retirement. For instance, if a couple has been accustomed to spending a lot of time apart, spending more time together can present problems. This may be especially true for partners who were highly invested in their careers and occupations and favored a lifestyle that was based on not spending that much time together.

      A very famous story about the "Retired Husband Syndrome" (RHS) appeared in the Washington Post in October 2005. Although Nobuo Kurokawa coined the syndrome name in a presentation to the Japanese Society of Psychosomatic Medicine in 1991, it has relevance to retirement in the United States. In Japan, it is very clear that husbands have been making wives sick in unprecedented numbers for many years.

      A typical RHS scenario included husbands who had previously worked long hours and whose entire social life had revolved around work. Their wives had developed their own lives. After retirement, the husband ended up almost never leaving the house, reading, watching television, and "barking" orders to his spouse. Often, the RHS husband would not allow his wife to even go out with her friends. After retirement, the wife's life was completely changed and she ended up being "over-managed" by the constantly at-home spouse. Sound familiar? Talk about needing breathing space!

      The stresses produced by these circumstances led to a high number of wives developing ulcers and other stress-related disorders. The solution in Japan has consisted of wives getting into psychotherapy and retired husbands getting into "support" groups. Reportedly, there are more than 3,000 support groups aimed at ''retraining" retired Japanese men to be more independent and communicative with their wives. One such retirement group is called "Men in the Kitchen."

      RHS occurs in the United States, but it is generally less common and less dramatic. In general, our culture has less rigid gender roles. However, it is a well-known phenomenon. A popular U.S. joke is "Retirement is twice as much husband and half as much money." In my opinion, the condition should be called "Retired Partner Syndrome" (RPS), because, depending on the circumstances of the marriage, it can affect one or both partners in any long-standing relationship. What are the solutions?

      In Japan, the solution has been therapy and supportive services for the wife and education and social groups for the retired husbands. RHS husbands in Japan needed to (1) learn how to stop micro-managing their wives, (2) listen and communicate with their wives, (3) get a social life again, and, (4) learn how to take care of themselves (cook, clean, wash clothes, and the like). In the United States, the same solutions apply. However, in the United States, there has not been the same focus on establishing formal programs for assisting RHS husbands with their retraining and education.

      Education and preparation is the key to a smoother transition to retirement for any couple. Reading about RHS should be required reading. Once you know in advance (or even belatedly) about the typical repercussions of retirement for relationships, you can, as a couple, prepare or fix problems related to those changes. Obviously, such positive preparation (or repair) relies on both spouses accepting that they may need to change some things about themselves and how they structure their time.

      Please visit www.MentalWellness.ws and scroll down to "The Psychology of Retirement" to view links to resources about retirement. I hope this helps. -- Best wishes, Dr. Ron.

        Author Bio:

        Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Seattle. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. The content offered through Mind Matters is for information only and is not intended for medical, psychiatric, or psychological diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard professional advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read in this column. Read our Disclaimer. If you wish to understand more about Dr. Sterling's potential biases in health care advocacy, please check his Conflicts of Interest Disclosure Statement

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