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Before you retire, what does your family think?

How to navigate different expectations for retirement

You’re starting to think it’s time to retire and launch your next adventure. To celebrate, you’re buying a sailboat — one the whole family can enjoy on weekends and vacations. They’ll love it, right?

In reality, your family members (i.e. your grown children) might have different ideas about both your retirement and their free time. And until you communicate your plans with them, you’ll likely end up adjusting your expectations.

You might be thinking: Shouldn’t I do what I want to do? Since it’s my retirement, why consult my children about it?

The fact is, when your plans could affect their lives and time, it’s important to share with them what you’re thinking. Your adult children might have a different idea about how they want to spend their free time — which is in short supply.

Your expectations vs. their reality

Their idea of a fun weekend might not involve weekly boat excursions. Perhaps they’re juggling nonstop extracurricular activities for their children (your grandchildren) and don’t have the bandwidth to fit in another activity, no matter how fun it sounds.

Parents raising children today feel “an obligation to their children’s activities that is perplexing to the older generation,” says William Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and practicing marriage and family therapist. Because of this, “there are apt to be misfirings of expectations between the generations.”

There is a plethora of scenarios families will encounter that’ll challenge expectations. Doherty offers his insight on family dynamics and provides suggestions for how to navigate family members’ different expectations for retirement.

Gather input and avoid assumptions

If you’d like to make a big purchase — like a boat or a vacation home that the whole family can enjoy — talk to your loved ones and don’t make assumptions how they might feel about it.

And have the conversation before making “a big internal commitment, or [doing] anything external,” Doherty says.

“It’s the difference between saying, ‘We put a down payment on a great big place where we can all gather,’ versus, ‘we’ve been thinking about doing something that may or may not be appealing to you. So we’re talking with you. What are your thoughts about it?’”

Then, give each of your children time and space to think about it — and be prepared that your proposal might not be received like you had hoped.

Identify the goal

Try to find a middle ground by identifying the larger goal. Start by asking, “‘What’s the value, what’s the goal, what’s this about?’ It’s not about a particular house or boat, [which is] a means to an end. There might be more than one way to meet that goal, so be open to that,” Doherty says.

After stating your goals and preferences, let your kids make their proposal — and after taking some time to think about it, respond honestly.

Then you can find something to do that everyone will enjoy. “Co-own the value or the goal and ask others about some of their solutions,” Doherty suggests. This will help strengthen family relationships.

You might conclude that it’d be better to rent a house for a week in a different part of the world each year, rather than buy an expensive vacation home or another permanent, large purchase.

That way your family can plan ahead and enjoy a change of scenery without any pressure. Otherwise “it’s like, ‘Can’t you come up this weekend?’ And it’s, ‘No, Jessica has softball and Johnny has this.’ And then you’re in what family therapists call [a] pursuer-distancer pattern, where the older generation is continually asking for time and the younger generation is saying, ‘No, we can’t do it.’”

Communicate honestly

In retirement, your goal might be to focus more on personal interests. You might want to spend your free time playing golf, learning a new language or becoming a master gardener. And maybe your plan is to do it all.

On the other hand, your full-time employed kids might be thinking how great it’d be for you to babysit your grandkids on a regular basis. Communicate what you want.

“A lot of grandparents will approach this differently and say, ‘I want to babysit. Sign me up for every Thursday and Friday,’” Doherty says. “If that’s not what you’re prepared for, you’ve got to say it.”

In other words, don’t commit to something just because you want to avoid feeling uncomfortable. Clarifying expectations might cause hurt feelings, at first. But truthful communication is key.

“If you commit to something that you don’t really want to do, you’re going to be resentful,” Doherty says. “And whenever you have lingering resentments because you’re doing something you didn’t want to do, it’s going to come out in other ways.”

He adds, “And that’s going to do more damage to the relationship than a simple, ‘No, we don’t see ourselves doing that in our retirement. We’re available for emergencies.’ Always say what you’re prepared to do, not just what you’re not going to do.”

For the tough conversations and tricky negotiations, Doherty suggests that parents and children talk with each other directly, without involving in-laws. “Your son or daughter talks to you, or you to them, in order for the in-law not to be the bad guy here,” he says.

Embrace your retirement

You’ve come a long way when you arrive at retirement. And retirement has come a long way too, being a relatively modern concept.

“Back in [the early 1900s], the average parent died within two years of the last child leaving home,” Doherty says. “The so-called empty nest was about two years. [Today] we have people living longer and with more means.”

It’s exciting to think about enjoying your retirement for many years to come — doing the things you want to do with your loved ones. Of course, there will be times when your idea of something might differ from a loved one’s idea. That’s when you can “hold your ground while looking for common ground,” as Doherty says.

And you might even decide it’s worth it to buy that boat without buy-in from your extended family. After all, sailing the open seas solo can be an adventure all its own.

A different kind of retirement conversation

The choices you make in retirement can have a big impact on the rest of the  family — which is why sharing your plans with your loved ones is so important.

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