Surviving the Empty Nest

Marriage Dynamics InstituteCommunication, Conflict, Connection, Empty Nest, Reconnecting

The eighteen years or so that a child is at home are filled with all kinds of activity, and a wide range of emotions.

And when that child leaves home—for college, or the military, to move into their own apartment or get married—the house may seem incredibly empty. If weekends have been filled with sporting events, dance competitions, youth group activities and the like, parents may find themselves with lots of extra time on their hands.

When a child leaves home, parents may go through a season of grieving. Husbands and wives often express grief differently. So it’s important for couples to listen to each other and support one other when the empty nest inspires feelings of sadness.

But when the last child leaves home, and the grief subsides, many couples enjoy reconnecting at a deeper level as husband and wife. This can be an exciting time to rediscover how much they enjoy each other’s company. And it’s a great opportunity to explore new activities and hobbies together or plan a get-away vacation for just two.

Other couples may find that they don’t really know each other anymore. They’ve been so wrapped up in their children, and in their children’s activities, they’ve neglected their marriage. Time alone together may seem uncomfortable. For these couples, the empty nest years can be dangerous.

Warning Signs

Experts say the biggest warning sign that a marriage is in trouble during the empty nest years is withdrawal. When one marriage partner spends a great deal of time alone, or pursues hobbies and activities that keep them busy and take them away from the other partner most of the time, the marriage may suffer.

Other couples may experience an increase in arguments. With no children around to hear, couples may give vent to their feelings in unhealthy ways and further damage a strained relationship.

Couples who have lost touch with each other during the child raising years must take intentional steps to invest in their marriage when the kids are gone. If they don’t, they may grow further and further apart.

Some couples lose sight of any reason to stay together and convince themselves they will be happier and better off if they end the marriage.

But the empty nest doesn’t have to bring an unhappy ending to a marriage that tears a family apart. Couples can change directions by moving toward each other instead of away from each other.

Three Ways to Re-Engage

  • Turn back the clock. Get out your wedding album or video. Revisit the place you met or went on your first date. Find ways to remind yourselves of the fun you had together before you had kids. Revisit the romance.
  • Schedule weekly activities that each of you like. If you and your partner are not passionate about the same things, find some aspect of their favorite activities that you enjoy. Ask questions. Be willing to learn something new. Shared activity gives you an opportunity to connect around something other than your children.
  • Develop a long-term strategic plan. Talk with your spouse about what you want from your marriage now that the kids are gone. Set goals together. Make a bucket list. Spend some time talking and dreaming about the future. Then develop your plan for making those dreams reality. (If you start planning when the youngest child is still in high school you’ll be much more  prepared for that empty nest when the time arrives.)

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

If you, or someone you love, is finding it hard to navigate the empty nest years, resources are available to help couples reconnect. The A New Beginning workshop is a three-day weekend designed to help couples find their way back to each other.  Led by a professional counselor, the workshop equips couples to grow a  lasting relationship that is deeply satisfying.

Here’s what one participant said after completing A New Beginning:

It was a great workshop and it provided the right tools, atmosphere and knowledge to give my wife and I a chance to reboot our marriage. I don’t feel like we are just staying committed for the kids, but for the love for each other. It made us look into ourselves to see where we needed to improve and how to effectively communicate safely with each other to draw us back together.

The empty nest years offer challenges and opportunities for marriages. It’s possible to reignite passion and rediscover meaningful connection that makes these years incredibly fulfilling, and a lot of fun.

About the Author

Marriage Dynamics Institute

Marriage Dynamics Institute (MDI) wants to cultivate healthy families, churches, and communities by helping create marriages full of joy, meaning, and purpose. Having served more than 75,000 couples since 1994, MDI offers workshops and seminars for marriages at every stage, including those in crisis.