Couples plan and even fantasize about the day the kids are all grown up and off to college, eagerly awaiting to reignite the spark that brought them together, in what seems like a lifetime ago. Although retirement age is supposed to make the living easy — free from daily stresses and strains of working life — inversely, it can be a stressful experience for couples, specifically housewives. According to a recent study published by the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Bonn, Germany, women are more likely to suffer from “retired husband syndrome,” (RHS) feeling stressed and depressed once their spouses give up work.

RHS is a term coined by Dr. Charles Clifford Johnson, who largely based it off anecdotal evidence of wives of retired men telling him, “I’m going nuts,” “I want to scream,” or “he’s under my feet all the time,” he wrote in a 1984 commentary published in the Western Journal of Medicine. The clinical description of Johnson’s RHS theory includes: headaches, depression, agitation, palpitations, and lack of sleep. The stress-induced condition has gained much media attention, but has not been studied on a larger scale.

To explore the validity of this theory, Marco Bertoni and Giorgio Brunello, Italian researchers at the University of Padova, sought to conduct an extensive study that would prove or disprove this “worldwide phenomenon.” The duo based their research on Japan because of the country’s traditional gender roles, which creates a division between housewives and their working husbands. “After a life apart and progressive estrangement, many Japanese couples are forced to start spending time together when the husband retires," wrote Bertoni and Brunello, in their paper.

The researchers used Japanese micro data and the exogenous variation produced by the 2006 revision of the Japanese Elderly Employment Stabilization Law, which mandated employers to guarantee continuous employment between mandatory retirement age, and full pension eligibility age, to effectively measure the effect of the husband’s retirement on the wife’s mental health. Typically, in Japan, wives stay at home and husbands spend their long working hours as well as leisure time after work with colleagues. It is in this way both partners spend a life apart in "progressive estrangement." Bertoni and Brunello focused on both full-time housewives and women in the labor force to examine the impact of a spouse’s retirement on these two groups of women by giving each one an RHS “score,” depending on the extent of their emotional problems.

In line with anecdotal evidence reported by the press, and clinical literature, the findings revealed the husband’s retirement affects the wife’s RHS symptoms by increasing her stress, depression, and inability to sleep. For every extra year the husband spent in retirement, the score increased by six to 14 percentage points. This shows the effect is sizeable, meaning the age of both partners, in addition to the husband’s cohort of birth, and the years spent in retirement by the husband, increases the wife’s susceptibility of developing RHS symptoms.

Surprisingly, the researchers saw the estimated effects of the husband’s retirement are stronger for employed women who are already stressed by their job. This suggests being a full-time housewife may actually attenuate rather than exacerbate RHS in Japan. “We have found that retirement effects are stronger for employed women, who are already stressed by their job and have less time to comply with the additional requests by their retired husbands,” said Bertoni and Brunello, The Local reported.

However, women may not be the only ones suffering from the syndrome. The Italian researchers noted the estimated effects are almost identical among both partners, implying the concern with RHS should not just be focused on wives, but both partners. For example, if a husband’s mental health begins to decline when they retire, this will have a negative impact on the wife, affecting overall well-being of both partners.

The duo’s research may focus on Japan, but the syndrome affects women (and men) “around the world.” Japanese doctors began to see the presence of the syndrome when wives started to display symptoms of stress after they were forced to deal with their recently retired husbands who demanded subservience. According to ABC’s Good Morning America, divorce rates among couples married for 20 years more than doubled between 1985 and 2000, in Japan. This implies there is a necessity for better planning.

Retirement is something both partners have to make an adjustment for. Plan ahead to avoid a crisis.

Source: Bertoni M and Brunello G. Pappa Ante Portas: The Retired Husband Syndrome in Japan. IZA. 2014.