By Claudia and David Arp
Soon parents all over the country will be getting ready to drop their kids off at college and head home to face a new and often risky stage of marriage – the empty nest! While some couples look at this time as a second honeymoon, just like the first honeymoon, it will end and couples will face the challenges of reinventing their marriage for the second half. For many, this can be a hard time on their marriage. Why?
First, most couples at this point are exhausted and their marriage may be on the back burner. Think about it. You’ve just survived the adolescent years. You may be emotionally drained and feel disconnected from your spouse. Without the kids around now you have time to talk and this may be uncomfortable. A quiet evening at home can become too quiet!
Second, all those things you’ve been postponing are just waiting for you, thus the tendency is to “get busy” and void facing the challenges of this new stage of marriage. If you fill up the empty spaces the kids left with other activities that do not directly relate to the marriage, the marriage is weakened even more. For many couples it can be a real time of insecurity.
We know this first hand. As marriage educators we thought this transition would be a piece of cake. When we were raising three adolescent sons we looked forward to the empty nest. But when we got there, we filled up the empty spaces with all the things we had delayed until the kids left home. We accepted too many seminars and signed too many book contacts. Before we knew it, we were just as exhausted as when we had three teenagers in the house. One morning we looked at each other over two cups of coffee and said, “This isn’t working!” We knew we needed to regroup. We had always dreamed about taking an empty nest trip to New England the fall of our empty nest. We were leading a Marriage Alive seminar in the Washington, D.C. area in a few weeks, so after the seminar we headed to Camden, Maine. The first couple of days we just slept. Then we began to take long walks together and talk about “us.” Looking back, we call that time our “Empty Nest Checkup.” We talked about what was good about our marriage – we had made it through the teenage years; we were still somewhat connected; and our common values and faith in God were important to both of us. We also talked about our liabilities – we just didn’t have the energy that we used to have and it was easy for us to get over-committed. We talked about what we needed to do to jump-start our empty nest marriage. We came home determined to slow down, reconnect, and make the second half of our marriage the best.
We decided to research this stage of marriage, put together our own national survey, and began what has become a 20-year journey to help us and other empty nest couples reinvent their marriages. Later we conducted a second survey with our colleagues at the University of Denver and co-authors of Fighting for Your Empty Nest Marriage, and came to similar conclusions. The good news from our surveys is that couples who hang together through the empty nest transition, find that martial satisfaction can begin to rise again and stay that way if you risk growing in your relationship.
EMPTY NEST FIRST AID TIPS
If you’re facing the empty nest, here are some first aid tips to help you get off to a good start:
• Slow down and get some rest! Take a nap! Go to bed at 8 p.m. Sleep around the clock. You’ll never be able to refocus on your marriage until your life comes back into focus.
• Celebrate! You made it through the active parenting years! It’s time to celebrate. Although it is not at all uncommon to become aware of some sense of loss and regret at this time of life, you can counter any of those sentiments by promoting a strong sense of celebration for where you have come and of excitement about your future. Go out to dinner. Have some fun. Have a great date.
• Acknowledge that this is a time of transition. Say to each other, “Things are changing right now and that’s okay.” Change can bring out insecurities that are festering below the surface. Just acknowledging that things are changing can help with the transition. Transitional times can be stressful but they also give you the opportunity to redefine your relationship and to find new fulfillment, intimacy, and closeness.
• Resist making immediate decisions about your future until you have some perspective. Realize that things are changing and that you can change with them – but you need
to take it slowly. Unfortunately, some spouses who are disappointed with their marriage bolt right out of the relationship as soon as the last kid leaves home. This is a time when the divorce rate soars. Give yourself time to get to know each other again and to revitalize your relationship. Don’t accept new responsibilities for at least three months.
• Plan an empty nest getaway. Go off together. Talk about what is great about your relationship and the areas that needed work. Make a commitment to work on the weak areas and reinvent your marriage.
EMPTY NEST CHALLENGES
Once you’ve made it through the initial transition into the empty nest, you need to surmount the long term challenges of the second half of your marriage. In our Second Half of Marriage program we look at eight challenges of the empty nest years including the following:
• Let go of the past and forgive one another. Let go of past marital disappointments, missed expectations, and unrealized dreams. You need to forgive each other and choose to make the best of the rest. You may even want to make a list of things you will never do or will never do again. But then make a list of things you want to do in the future. Accept each other – with both your strengths and your weaknesses – you’re simply not going to change each other now.
• Create a partner-focused marriage. In the past you may have focused on your kids and your job. Now is your opportunity to focus on your marriage. You can build a closer more personal relationship in the second half of life. In the first half of marriage we tend to live our lives in response to circumstances such as parenting and career demands. In the second half of marriage you aren’t as controlled by your circumstances and have the freedom to reinvest in your relationship.
• Interestingly, a gender role shift often takes place at this time of life. Men become more nurturing. Women, on the other hand, who generally have been more responsible for the kids, now become more expansive and may choose to go back to school, get a real estate license, or start a new career. It can seem like you are moving in opposite directions, but on a continuum you are actually moving closer to the center. Realizing this can help you capitalize on it and refocus on each other.
• Energize your love life. Many people assume that as people grow older they loose interest in sex. Research shows otherwise. Amazingly our surveys suggest that sexual satisfaction increases rather than decreases with the number of years married. Your love life in the empty nest can be better than in the parenting years. Look for ways to romance your mate. Think of your love life as a stroll, not a sprint! Enjoy the slower pace. If medical issues arise, be willing to talk to your doctor. Often help is available.
• Adjust to changing roles with adult children and aging parents. Just as you need to release your children, you need to reconnect with them on an adult level. At the same time your parents
• Adjust to changing roles with adult children and aging parents. Just as you need to release your children, you need to reconnect with them on an adult level. At the same time your parents.
• Connect with other empty nest couples. William J. Dougherty, author of Take Back Your Marriage, in a recent Family Perspective article encouraged couples to connect with other couples and to encourage church and community- based marriage initiatives. The empty nest is a great time to get involved in encouraging other couples in their marriages. Consider starting your own empty nest group or becoming mentors for a younger couple. Volunteer to start a marriage program in your parish or community. For a wealth of great programs see www.smartmarriages.com.
The best part of helping other couples is the positive influence it will have on your own marriage. The empty nest years of your marriage can be a time of incredible fulfillment, no matter what challenges you previously faced. You can reinvent your relationship, renew your friendship, and create a vision for the rest of your marriage. We’re convinced that Robert Browning was right when he said, Grow old along with me, the best it yet to be!
(This article is adapted by the authors from their books “The Second Half of Marriage” and “10 Great Dates for Empty Nesters.”)