Divorce isn't unheard of even among couples who have been married for decades. The National Center for Family and Marriage Research has indicated that couples who are age 50 or older were twice as likely to divorce in 2015 as in 1990.
Sociologists and researchers have looked for reasons why divorce can happen after so many years, and one explanation that has popped up is empty nest syndrome. A couple has been comfortably — or maybe not so comfortably — coexisting for years, nestled into a busy home with their children.
Then, one by one, those kids sprout wings and take off. What's left?
Couples may realize that their children were all that kept them together. In their absence, marital may begin to glare. Those problems may have always there but they went unacknowledged. In other cases, problems begin rearing their heads for the first time.
The good news is that with some healthy communication and preparation for this phase of your marriage, the empty nest years can be tremendously enjoyable and full of new beginnings. They don't have to herald an end.
What Exactly Is Empty Nest Syndrome?
"Empty nest syndrome" isn't a clinical diagnosis, but it's somewhat prevalent all the same. You've dedicated years to raising your children. They monopolized the great majority of your time for the better part of two decades or more. And now ... they're gone. Your youngest child has moved out on his own. You and your spouse find yourself in the same four walls, but you're alone now.
Empty nest syndrome can be gradual or sudden. If you have only one child, it can be abrupt and jarring when he flies. If you have several children, empty nest syndrome will probably creep up on you. You might find that after the second to last child leaves the nest, you begin dreading the inevitable as your youngest matures and gets ready to move out on his own, too.
You'll Notice Right Away That Things are Different
Some changes will be fun and pleasurable, but others will be sad. Being aware of what's different and how those differences make you feel is an important step toward avoiding the negative aspects of empty nest syndrome. Talk about them with your spouse and about your feelings regarding them. Most empty-nesters experience some of the same emotions and reactions.
- You may feel a sense of emptiness and loneliness.
- You're delighted to receive emails, calls and text messages from your kids — in fact, you may rediscover an agility you thought you'd lost when you leap for your phone at the slightest alert that someone is trying to reach you.
- When those texts and emails include pictures, it makes your day. Or week.
- Your attic is full of boxes packed with mementos and belongings that your kids didn't have the time or inclination to take with them. Sort through them when you're ready. You might laugh, you might cry. There's no rule that says you can't place some of those items out and about in the house where you can see them on a regular basis.
Other changes can make you grin and kick up your heels a little if you pause to think about them:
- Your grocery bills are lower.
- The house stays neat after you've tidied up.
- You only have to wash clothes and towels once a week.
- Your home is quiet.
- There's hot water when you want it, and your water bill takes a dive.
- You can use the computer whenever you want.
- You can make love on the living room sofa in the middle of the day. Not a problem if you remember to close the drapes first.
Things to Discuss Now That the Two of You Are On Your Own
Take advantage of the time you and your spouse now have alone together to talk about things that might potentially become problems in your marriage. Try to find your common ground again. It was there, once, before you had kids. Take steps to rediscover it.
- Explore your hopes and dreams for the future. The future just became now.
- Discuss your expectations, both big and small. Talk about how you want the next year to go, as well as what you expect from tomorrow.
- Vent about the sense of grief you're both feeling at having "lost" your kids.
- Talk about financial changes. What are you going to do with the extra money that's now available in the family budget?
- Discuss current and potential health issues, including menopause and andropause.
- Explore the possibility of downsizing. Do you really need all that house? Where do you want to live for the rest of your lives?
- If you downsize, what happens if one or more of your kids want to or have to come home due to divorce or job loss? Will they be coming home alone, or will they be bringing your grandchildren with them? Consider decluttering and simplifying your life instead without actually moving.
- Talk about day-to-day life and make adjustments to avoid getting in each other's way and on each other's nerves. Establish boundaries and respect the ones your spouse may set. It may have gone unnoticed during years in a bustling household, but now it's probably going to be pretty apparent if one of you is habitually late coming to breakfast because you wanted to read the newspaper first.
Empty Nest Coping Tips
There are many things the two of you can do to prevent empty nest syndrome from taking a toll on your marriage.
- Seek counseling if your empty nest feels like it might be causing problems in your marriage.
- Accept that this kind of grief can hit men just as hard as it hits women. Empty nest dads may feel a sense of regret over things they didn't do and time not spent with their children.
- Don't put this on your kids. Limit how often you call them and avoid guilt trips, especially during holidays if you find that they just can't make it home.
- Develop a flexible mindset and be open to change.
- Make a list of things you've never done but have always wanted to do — there just wasn't time before.
- Make some short-term and long-term plans on how you want to spend your money and time.
- Schedule "date nights."
- Don't rush into volunteer roles, travel, taking classes, moving or emptying out a kid's bedroom. Let the dust settle first and explore what you want to do most — ideally together.
Marital burnout doesn't happen to all empty-nest couples. Don't fall into the trap of believing that developing problems in your marriage after the kids leave is inevitable. Couples who don't dig up old, forgotten issues, who continue to respect and love each another, and who communicate well with each other often get through the empty-nest stage of marriage just fine.