This fall, as colleges around the country have filled their Freshman dormitories with a fresh group of in-coming students, there are parents who are experiencing many bittersweet emotions. These emotions are felt more deeply and profoundly by parents whose last child has picked up and left home for college leaving behind an empty room. Gradually, these quiet moments spent between two partners who have yet to adjust to the transition of the “empty nest” begin to notice its affect on them and their marriage.
You may find the communication patterns that seemed to work during the first half of your marriage to be inadequate and lacking in the second half. With the children absent, there may be more silent spaces between you, with less to say to each other. You may ask yourself, “We made it this far, why is it now so difficult to have a really personal conversation?”. When you begin to talk about really personal matters, it’s easy to feel threatened. Midlife is a time when it is vitally important to develop interpersonal competence-the ability to converse on a personal level by sharing your deepest feelings, joys, and concerns.
Consider the top ten issues listed by couples experiencing the empty nest syndrome, number one being the most severe problem area, number two, the next most severe problem, and so on:
Top Issues in the Empty Nest Years
1. Unresolved Conflict
8. Aging parents
9. Retirement planning
10. Lack of mutual goals
It’s interesting to note that the top three issues in the empty nest-conflict, communication, and sex-are also among the major problem areas for younger couples. People take their issues along with them as they transition through the different stages of a marriage. At this stage of life, money issues are not rated as high as for younger couples, but health issues are rated higher. The fact that fun and recreation are rated so high indicates that perhaps couples are having trouble figuring out what to do together that’s enjoyable for both or finding fun things that both will take time out for. For years their shared recreational activities may have been centered around their children, and now they don’t know what to do to have fun together.
So, what’s the solution? Begin to transform your relationship to adapt to this new stage of life. If you haven’t already, start to create a partner-focused marriage. In the past you may have focused on your children 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. Keep in mind that 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. Accept this transition as being an opportunity to explore and strengthen those qualities in your partner and your relationship that drew you both together to begin with. Go on dates, plan a romantic get-a-away or just spend more time talking about your dreams and concerns.
It’s important to note that not all parents face the Empty Nest Syndrome. In fact, there is a line of research, which suggests that once children leave home, some parents experience a sense of freedom and an improvement in their marriage and other relationships. Research studies by Karen Fingerman from the Purdue University reveal that parents may experience greater satisfaction once their children leave home. Seeing their children as successful adults gives them a sense of pride. They also have more time to pursue their own activities and hobbies.
If you are facing the empty nest syndrome and find yourself feeling lost or sad and unable to find the support you need from your partner or close friends and family members, it might be helpful to reach out to a mental health professional with whom you can share your concerns in a neutral setting. Many colleges also offer resources for parents who are struggling with the transition of sending their child off to college. The important thing to remember is that you are not alone and there are people and places you can turn to that can help ease the pain and offer suggestions for how to reconnect with your spouse and reinvest in yourself.