Each fall across the country, college freshman dormitories fill up with new students ready to begin their college journey. Other high-school graduates, all set to enter the job market, move into apartments and condos with their friends. Some join the Armed Forces to be all they can be. Other young adults stay at home, at least for some time, but live very independent lives, mostly using their parents’ home as a place to sleep but little else. What do the parents of all these adult children have in common? They’re entering the second half of their marriage.
Are You Near the Second Half?
How can you know if you’re near or in the second half of marriage? Check out these symptoms:
•You have kids who will soon leave the nest or who just moved back home.
•You exercise more and burn fewer calories.
•Your parents are aging.
•Your arms are too short to hold your reading material.
•They’re playing your song on the Golden Oldies station.
•You get an invitation to join the AARP.
•By the time you get your spouse’s attention, you’ve forgotten what you wanted to say.
Basically, the first half of marriage involves launching your marriage, building your career, and parenting your children. It is often dictated by your circumstances — children, jobs, homes, etc. The second half offers a new freedom to choose, and to change. You are also able to seek fulfillment for your hopes and dreams. But it’s not without risks.
Second Half Risks
No one warns you of the crises ahead, and because of the initial shock, empty-nest marriages are breaking up in record numbers. Perhaps one reason is that people are living longer and think they can’t face the next 40 years in a less-than-satisfying marriage. The glue that held them together (children) is gone.
They simply don’t know how to stick together. There are also other second-half issues that produce marital stress. Aging parents and the undeniable awareness of the couples’ own aging processes are cause for concern and discouragement. Many second-half couples are in their second marriages and are trying to deal with younger children from previous marriages. Many second-half marriages are labeled the “Pampers and Depends” generation. They have young children and aging parents all under the same roof.
While the future of marriages statistically may be at risk, the good news is you don’t have to become a divorce statistic. Actually, your marriage can be far more rewarding and enjoyable than in the first half. But one thing is for certain: The inscrutable passage of time will usher in the empty-nest years.
Our Own Story
It was more than a decade ago when the Dominos Pizza man called us. He wanted to know if we were OK. It had been weeks since we’d ordered pizza! I (David) assured him that all was fine. Actually we were overdosing on lima beans, broccoli, and brussels sprouts — all those vegetables our son hated. Why the change in menus? We had recently dropped our youngest child, Jonathan, off at Wheaton College. Now we could eat what we wanted to eat and when we wanted to eat it. Now our time belonged to us. No longer was I (Claudia) the family air-traffic controller. No more junior tennis tournaments or soccer practices. And no more impromptu teenage parties. Our house was ours again — including the kitchen and menu decisions.
Please don’t misunderstand us. We love our three sons and enjoyed the parenting years — well, most of them. Yet our initial reaction to the empty nest was relief. Parenting three teenage boys hadn’t been easy. But with a few good parenting principles, a sense of humor, God’s grace, and more than 20 years of forced labor, we made it through the adolescent years.
Being in Control Again
Now it was our turn to enjoy life. After all, we were once again in control — or so we thought! It didn’t take long to realize that transitioning to the empty nest wasn’t the breeze it first appeared to be. It was more of a tornado. After binging on vegetables, we struggled with just eating regular meals. Without kids around, we found ourselves working until 9 or 10 at night. We were even forgetting to eat dinner. Our late night Frosted Mini-Wheat gourmet meals threatened to become an empty-nest tradition.
While our three sons were growing up, we resisted the urge to travel around the country leading seminars. Now was our time to fly, and we immediately filled up our schedule with too many speaking engagements and marriage seminars, and signed too many book contracts.
Sitting at our kitchen table one morning over two cups of coffee, we agreed something had to give. We were just as tired and emotionally drained as we’d been when we had three adolescents in our home. We realized we needed help. It was time to regroup, refocus, and refresh our own relationship. To help us retool our marriage, we decided to research this passage into the empty nest and beyond. That day we began what now has become a 10-year journey.
Surveying the Second Half
Our research included conducting a national survey of long-term marriages. As we talked to couples around the country, one of the most encouraging discoveries we made is that for couples who make it through the empty-nest transition, marital satisfaction rises and stays high if spouses keep working on their relationship. Likewise, for those who don’t take the risk to grow together, their marital bond slowly weakens over the years.
In our book, The Second Half of Marriage (Zondervan), we listed the following eight empty nest challenges. We’re convinced if you work on these eight challenges, your marriage will be enriched. Check and see how many of these challenges you’re presently facing.
Eight Challenges for the Second Half of Marriage
1. Let go of past marital disappointments. Forgive each other, and commit to making the rest of your marriage the best. Are you willing to let go of unmet expectations and unrealistic dreams? What about that missed promotion? What about your mate’s little irritating habits that don’t seem to be disappearing? Giving up lost dreams and accepting each other’s imperfections is a positive step toward forgiving past hurts and moving on in your marriage.
2. Create a marriage that is partner-focused rather than activity-focused. Once kids leave, the tendency is to focus on new activities rather than on each other. Such activities easily become the new buffers that keep you from crafting a more intimate relationship with your spouse. How can you transition to a more partner-focused relationship?
3. Maintain an effective communication system that allows you to express your deepest feelings, joys, and concerns. What can you do when the communication patterns that seemed to work while your kids lived at home don’t work as well now that they’re gone? One explanation is that the children were buffers — you could always talk about them. Now that it’s just the two of you, how can you upgrade your communication skills?
4. Use anger and conflict in a creative way to build your relationship. For most couples, the issues that cause conflict essentially stay the same year in and year out. But as you enter the empty nest, issues you assumed were resolved tend to resurface. Certain negative patterns of interaction that develop over the years can be deadly for your empty-nest marriage. How can you learn to deal with issues and process anger in ways that build your relationship?
5. Build a deeper friendship, and enjoy your spouse. With active parenting concerns now in the background, you can deepen your friendship. What are you doing to build your friendship with your spouse? Are you taking care of your health? What are you doing to stretch your boundaries and prevent boredom? How can you put more fun in your marriage? This is a great time to jump-start the dating habit.
6. Renew romance, and restore a pleasurable sexual relationship. Many people assume that as people grow older they lose interest in sex. Research shows otherwise. Amazingly, our survey results suggest that sexual satisfaction increases rather than decreases with number of years married. At this stage, the quality of your love life isn’t so much a matter of performance as it is a function of the quality of relationship.
7. Adjust to changing roles with aging parents and adult children. Just as you need to release your children, you need to reconnect with them on an adult level. At the same time, your own parents are aging and have health issues, so you need to balance the relationships with all of your loved ones.
8. Evaluate where you are on your spiritual pilgrimage. The empty nest is a crucial time of life to draw together spiritually. Research shows that most people become more spiritually minded as they age. Researchers speculate that this is because people think more about death as they get older. Our challenge to you is rather simple: Consider this time of transition as an opportunity to talk more openly and regularly about your relationship with Christ and what it means for your marriage.
It’s natural to strive for success in your career, in parenting, and in daily life management, but have you focused on what you need to do to make your marriage successful and fulfilling for you and your spouse for a lifetime? Little steps, if taken in good faith, can turn the tide. Simple acts of kindness, making unselfish choices, and being willing to forgive each other are steps to take to nurture your relationship. No matter what challenges you previously faced, this can be a time of incredible fulfillment. It can be a time of learning about each other and about God’s long-term plans for your marriage. Trust us, the second half can be the best!
This article is shared with us courtesy of Living with Teenagers Magazine and the great resource web site of Lifeway.com. It is written by Claudia and David Arp, MSW, are founders and directors of Marriage Alive International and authors of numerous books.