Life After Full-time Work Blog

Learn about preparing for life after full-time work through posts from Don's upcoming book.

#34: How Healthy Is Your Romantic Venn Diagram?

We’re all different; we’re all individuals. Even in marriage, becoming one team, we still retain our own personalities. This post focuses on times when it’s important to recognize those differences.


If you did something romantic for Valentine’s Day, or even if you didn’t, here’s a perspective that will make you stop and think …


This is my somewhat unconventional advice to newlyweds.

Make a circle with each hand, using your thumb and forefinger. Move your hands together until the circles overlap partially. (A Venn diagram, most young couples recognize.) Think of one circle as representing your interests, and the other circle as representing your partner’s interests. There’s an overlapping area, in addition to the outer parts of the two circles. When you first met, you probably went all soppy over the things you enjoy in common. And more and more of your lives will be spent in that overlapping area of your Venn diagram.

Typically what happens is that you have children, and gradually they take over that area, perhaps even to the extent that the two outside areas no longer have anything in them (except your work). And that’s dangerous, because one day the children leave, and sometimes couples find that they no longer have anything in common, and that can lead to instability in the relationship or even divorce.

So, on each anniversary, when you hold each other close and express your love in whatever way suits you, the most romantic words you can tell each other are these: “Honestly, all the parts of our Venn diagram are healthy.”

Our son tells me that the Venn diagram is still remembered by the friends who attended his wedding. (Yes, that’s what the father of the groom told the guests. I had promised him that I wouldn’t use PowerPoint and wouldn’t say anything about him, to which he very properly said, “Anything you say will embarrass me anyway, so go ahead and say whatever you like.” He also adds today that he and his wife find the Venn diagram useful to classify their attitude to vegetables!)

This isn’t wisdom that occurred naturally to me – my mind isn’t that wise – but a friend mentioned it when we were chatting at the 40th anniversary of our university matriculation (Tony Parsons, if you ever see this, my eternal thanks for your wisdom), and I’ve thought of it gratefully ever since.

I mention it here because I think it applies not only in marriage but also in retirement. And in particular, at three possible times.

The first time is right at the start of retirement. That’s an opportunity to re-shape your life, to reinvent yourself. And if you have slowly grown apart, retirement could become a wake-up call to one of the partners. No matter what the specific cause (boredom, money issues, sex, whatever) the empty overlapping part of the Venn diagram draws attention to it. Linda Melone ( advises what you can do before it’s too late: put the relationship first (to me, that means keeping all the parts of your Venn diagram healthy), take care of yourself, assess your role in the problem, talk about sex, talk about everything else too.

The second time potentially comes when two people are thrown together by circumstances later in life, and they discover so strong a mutual appeal that they decide to live the remainder of their lives together. Filling what might have been a void in each life is a wonderful feeling, and the couple’s overlapping area is now overflowing with love and joy. But typically each brings an existing family into the new relationship, two non-overlapping parts of their new Venn diagram, and it’s not unusual for these two parts not to care for each other, and to cause financial complications. This leads to tensions and conflicts for the couple, who might want to live only in the overlapping area but can’t. Advice to second-time-around couples tends to stress taking time, and seeking financial advice, before commitment. See, for example,,,

The third time is even later, and it comes if one partner becomes the caregiver for the other. At this time the caring needs can become so overwhelming that there’s no time left to look after yourself, and your whole life gets drawn into the overlapping area of your Venn diagram. Of course it’s an act of love to be the caregiver, and it does provide emotional satisfaction to know that you’re doing all you can (even if, sadly, your partner may not be aware of it). But this is when it becomes particularly important – for your sanity, for your own pleasure, perhaps even ultimately for your life – to keep the non-overlapping part of your Venn diagram healthy. There are often community services available for you. One source I found informative is

A friend who is both thorough and compassionate noticed that I made no mention, in this third set of circumstances of the Venn diagram’s relevance, of paying attention to the care-needing partner’s non-overlapping area.  Very true.  There may be things that can be done to create activities in that area, such as finding others to make home visits, using transportation services for outings, occasional day-care centers for occasional activities — that sort of thing.



A couple is not just a couple; you’re also two different people.


I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.

4 Responses to “#34: How Healthy Is Your Romantic Venn Diagram?”

  1. J. J. Woolverton says:

    Don, just to let you know, I tried the Venn diagram on my last wife. Not only did the circles not overlap, they were not even on the same page. I told my current wife that instead of a gift on Valentine’s Day, Don says we should create a Venn diagram of our common interests. She did not think that was as good an idea as I had thought, so now there is no overlap where I get any. Thanks.

  2. Tom says:

    Thanks Don, a very thoughtful and useful article.

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