Approaching the “Empty Nest” Stage of Marriage

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Shipping the kids off to school marks a danger zone for your marriage—but it’s possible to make these your best years yet.

When your kids are in the last years of high school, life seems a whirlwind of homework, extracurricular activities, community service projects, ACT and SAT prep and testing, college visits and applications, and scholarship meetings. But somewhere in the midst of this frenzy, it hits you—the kids are leaving. The nest will be empty.

As far as life changes go, this is a big one. It’s like finding yourself unemployed, or, worse, fired. A lot of time, love, and effort went into those offspring, and suddenly the hands-on, daily part of the job is over. You can’t help feeling a little sad and lonely, and no matter how well the kids turned out, you probably have some regrets.

Marriage Adjustment

But your toughest assignment won’t be adjusting to missing the kids. It’ll be adjusting to your marriage. Couples realize they’ve let their lives revolve around the children, and once they’re gone, the big question is, “Now what?” “All of a sudden the two of you are sitting there thinking, ‘What do we talk about?'” says Ingrid Melrose of Houston, whose youngest child recently started college. “You have to readjust to having conversations with your spouse.”

Chances are, family activities revolved around the kids, too. Remember the last time you went out as a couple, just for fun? No? You’re not alone. “Your marriage has been child-centered, and one of the big challenges is to go from that child focus to a partner focus,” points out Claudia Arp, marriage educator and coauthor of Empty Nesting and The Second Half of Marriage. “Issues you think are long buried resurface. It’s easy to be lonely and stressed out. An empty nest is a time of particular danger for an affair.”

Empty Nesters

Consequently, without intentional focus on the marriage, empty nesters may find they have no reason to stay together. The overall U.S. divorce rate has declined slightly, but couples married 30-plus years are splitting up 16% more often. Reason? The empty nest. “I’ve seen friends who were totally wrapped up with their children and found they didn’t have much in common and no outside interests or commitments,” says Cal Chaney, general counsel for a physician’s group in Dallas and parent of two college-age sons. “Some of those marriages break up.”

But fortunately, the empty nest also has the potential to be one of the best times of married life. “You forget in 20 years what it is like to choose what you want to do every night,” says Audrey Jackson, mother of three sons in college. “We can cook what we like or go out to dinner if we feel like it. Our weekends are free to do what we want.” With a little preparation and planning, you can enjoy your empty nest, too.

Stare Into the Emptiness:

As your kids prep for college, you need to do some of your own prepping —and you shouldn’t wait until they’ve moved into the dorm. Make a list of the positive and negative aspects of your soon-to-be empty nest. Write down your personal interests besides your children and set goals for this next stage of life. List the things you’ll never do—and need to let go of—and things you want to do when the kids are gone. Don’t be completely realistic here, and do include things you want to do with your partner. Dr. Clare Chaney, for example, plans to accompany Cal to some of the many conferences he attends, and they’re booking a cruise with old college friends.

Fill the Void

The idea is to anticipate the void your kids will leave and find ways to fill it, now. If you aren’t working, consider a part-time job or make plans to go back to school (just not the same one your children will attend!). If you’re working full time, volunteer, pick up an old hobby, or find a new one to take the place of all those kid-related activities.

And don’t forget the physical void: Make plans for the space in your home that will be freed up. You don’t have to make the kids’ rooms unrecognizable, but you can change things a bit. Think about downsizing into a smaller house. Or think about filling the space with a new pet. It’s positively uncanny how many couples do this, consciously or unconsciously giving themselves something new to take care of. Just be sure you both want to do this, and find a good pet sitter so you won’t be tied down.

Accentuate the positive.

You aren’t losing a teenager, you’re gaining a bathroom! And plenty of hot water. Clean towels. The food you like in the fridge (food in the fridge, period!). The television show you like to watch. You get the idea.

If you think you want to spend as much time as possible with your teenager—after all, he’ll be gone soon—consider that your teenager probably wants to spend less time with you. That’s healthy. “Disengaging is a two-way street, and parents who don’t do their part end up having more of a problem with their adult children,” warns Sheri Stritof, co-author of The Everything Great Marriage Book.

Instead, focus on your friends and start spending more time with your partner. The kids may be leaving, but you’ll be spending the rest of your life (you hope) with your partner. The greatest predictor of marital success is the level of friendship, Arp says, and one way to build that friendship is by going out on dates. Go out to dinner with another couple (this will help you talk about things other than the kids). Plan a parents-only vacation. Working on the senior prom with a group of other moms helped Clare Chaney let go of her son, and she enjoyed the bonds formed with other senior parents.

After The Fall:

Once your kid actually leaves, put your plans into action. Have a party to celebrate. If you drop a child off at college, you might not want to go straight home to an empty house. Take a few days at the beach to ease the transition. On the other hand, if you’re exhausted, go straight home and sleep for a few days. Then take a trip. When you get back, re-energize your love life. If you don’t remember what that is, check Arp’s latest book, 10 Great Dates for Empty Nester’s, for ideas.

To feel linked to your child’s new life, join the parents’ association at your child’s college. “That was one of the best things that happened to us,” says Mary Anne Barber, previous co-chair of the University of Texas Parents Association. “Getting involved with the college and meeting other parents who are in the same boat helped with the empty nest. One of the things I had missed the most was the interaction with parents of kids who were in school with mine.” Ask the Dean of Students’ office at your child’s college about parent orientations and publications for parents.

Grieve, Cry, Talk

And don’t forget to let yourself grieve. Go ahead and cry. Talk about your child and all the things you remember and what you’ll miss. To give yourself a tangible event to anticipate, make arrangements for future time with your college student, like his trip home for the holidays or a family getaway during the summer.

Most of all, enjoy yourselves. “We think this is the best stage of marriage,” says Arp. “We moved. We’re traveling more and rediscovering things we liked to do before the kids came along, like playing tennis. We’re having a blast.” You can, too.

This article comes from an American Airlines In Flight Magazine published in 2004. The original title is “TRY A LITTLE EMPTINESS”—written by Melissa Gaskill. MELISSA GASKILL, a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas, writes a weekly parenting column for the Austin American-Statesman and contributes to magazines such as Family Fun.

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Filed under: Marriage Stages Stages of Marriage

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