Relationships: How being empty nesters can affect a marriage
Dear Lori and Jeff,
My husband and I have been married for over 20 years and our youngest child left for college this past fall. We got along well throughout the years and both feel as though we’re good parents. But now that the kids are out of the house, we don’t know how to interact anymore. We seem to be getting in each other’s way and there is little patience, lots of annoyance, frustration and we need to find a way to reconnect or we may end up as silver-haired singles. Any thoughts?
— Empty Nester
Dear Empty Nester,
Lori and Jeff: Children leaving home is one of the major transitions in a parent’s life. It’s the culmination of years of working to find the balance between providing the best possible life for your children and still managing to meet some of your own needs. It’s also a reminder that you’re getting older and need to start planning for a future that’s more uncertain. All of these changes serve to shake up many of the established roles for both you and your husband such as breadwinner, caretaker, house manager and activities coordinator. It’s a time to redefine each of your needs and renegotiate the roles necessary to get those needs met.
Jeff: One of the most common complaints we hear from couples with kids is that they no longer have the time, space or energy for connecting with each other — physically through sex and emotionally through tender acts of kindness. While kids can certainly be a barrier between parents, they also serve as buffer from the dysfunctional aspects of a marriage, distracting you from deeper issues, with the “common goal” of raising kids becoming the focus rather than the health of the relationship.
When both the barrier and buffer are gone, it’s time to re-establish what strengths the relationship has and what might need to be addressed in order to move forward. You may now have more time and space to reconnect but aren’t sure how to go about doing it. If your kids were the primary thing that kept you from connecting with each other, reawakening your bond may just take some time. But if they were a distraction from underlying fissures and an excuse not to connect, then some deeper digging may be required.
Lori: Many empty nesters struggle with feeling disconnected. Early in relationships, partners are everything to each other. So much of your time, energy and curiosity is funneled into knowing this person and being known by them. The connection is deep because the intention and effort is there holding you to one another — it’s an active process of following your intrigue. After 20 years of being in the same patterns and routines together, your curiosity about yourselves and one another may have become a little stale.
In order for two individuals to connect deeply, each needs a sense of their own identity. If “mom” and “dad” are no longer your primary identifiers, who are you? The most exciting part of being an empty nester is the opportunity to play and explore, and to recapture your curiosity about yourself and your partner. With your new free time, pick an “out-of-the-box” activity every week to try together: tango, watercolors, volunteering or stargazing. Commit to doing more of the ones you enjoy, and share a good laugh about those that were terrible. Most importantly, choose to look at your spouse with fresh eyes, and wonderment about who they may grow into in this new chapter of life.
Lori and Jeff: For many parents, children become the primary source of emotional connection. When they leave the nest, a profound emotional void can be created. It’s important not to immediately expect that you and your partner can fill that space for each other. Instead, focus on attending to the missing parts of your own foundation so that you can bring the best, most authentic version of yourself back to the marriage.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.
Chris Anthony’s documentary film project chronicles post-war activities of the 10th Mountain Division.