By BARBARA MARTIN
Navigating marriage with an empty nest
QUESTION: My spouse and I just became empty-nesters, and it is a little weird being in the house just the two of us after so long with our kids. How do we figure out how to love each other in this new phase of life?
My husband and I have three sons. All are married and have children of their own. I remember well the sadness and loss I experienced as each son left home after graduating from high school. It wasn’t that I really wanted them to stay at home — because I truly believe launching a young adult out of the nest is a good thing — but a shift had taken place in a role I had carried for over 20 years. This is a challenging time for individuals but also for couples.
In 2007, the AARP noted a new trend: Divorce among those in longterm marriages was on the rise. This phenomenon has a name: Gray Divorce. During this time in marriage, people begin to look at their identity outside of being co-parents or a professional at work, and they begin to assess their marriage. “Do I know the person sitting next to me? Have we nurtured this relationship? Is this it? Have we fed the marriage enough to survive the empty nest? Is the ‘we’ that we have become where I want to be for the next 20 or more years?”
This is a time to examine the internal dynamics of your marriage and then determine what it is going to take to restore balance, wholeness, passion, romance and mutual love.
Here are some suggestions for managing this transition:
- Make sure your spouse is doing OK even if you don’t see a problem. Ask. Don’t just assume everything is fine.
- Now that you aren’t in the daily battle of putting out “fires” with the kids, start stoking the fire between the two of you that might have started to go out. This is best to do before the last child leaves the nest, but can certainly be achieved afterward. It will take being deliberate, but it’s important.
- Have a real conversation about your expectations and dreams for the next 20 or more years. Begin talking about shared goals and roles each of you want at this stage. This might mean putting a weekly date night on the calendar; then each of you takes a turn choosing where you want to eat. It might mean three nights a week you watch TV together and the other nights you might do something on your own, like catch up with friends or spend time on business that wasn’t finished during the day. But get on the same page with your spouse in this area.
- Remember the friendship component of your marriage. Just like you would do with a friend, stay up to date with each other’s world and know what’s important to your spouse. What struggles are they currently dealing with? What is it that brings them happiness now? Express interest in what interests them. Be curious about your spouse again. If you have been focused on co-parenting for over 20 years, there is a good possibility that your spouse has changed. I often hear from spouses at this stage of life that they have nothing in common anymore. My suggestion is try to discover some new interests that you can explore together. This might take some effort initially but if you are willing to expend the energy, you might realize that the adventure of becomes a unifying and revitalizing experience.
- Make an intentional effort to improve communication in your marriage. If this is difficult, I would suggest working with a professional counselor. It is worth the time and effort, especially at this stage of life, to invest in and pursue good communication.
- Get involved in social activities together. Choose a church fellowship group or a ministry project to enjoy side by side. Develop shared friendships. Connect with other “empty nesters” who are facing similar challenges. Together, find those places.
If you feel you need professional help in this season of life, seek it. Don’t wait, thinking it will all just work out own its own or that you are too old to seek help. This can be a sweet time for many marriages. Take the time to invest in yours!
Barbara Martin, LPC, LMFT, clinical coordinator of the Counseling Center at Reformed Theological Seminary, has her own private practice at RTS.