Empty Nest Relationship Advice

This month I spoke with Tra’Renee on KATU’s Afternoon Live about how to revive your relationship after the kids grow up and leave home. Click the play button above to watch the full interview or read below for a more detailed description of our conversation! 

Empty Nest Syndrome.

Have you heard of it? What does it make you think of? I envision a mama bird’s nest filled with tiny baby birds… until the baby birds become adult birds and fly away. Then mama bird is left with an empty nest. When we superimpose our human feelings onto the mama bird, we assume she must feel sad and lonely. This emotional experience is commonly referred to as Empty Nest Syndrome.

Now let’s talk about humans! Parents spend 18 years (or more!) raising their children. The emotions they experience when the children leave home can be devastating. There are lots of resources for parents on how to deal with feelings of loneliness and sadness as you adjust to your children leaving home. This website has some great suggestions.

But you know what isn’t as widely addressed? How Empty Nest Syndrome impacts COUPLES.

If your marriage made it through 18+ years of parenthood, congratulations! If you divorced and remarried during this time, congratulations to you too! Regardless of the longevity of your current relationship, becoming an Empty Nester will impact your spousal connection.

You may be thinking, what is our “spousal connection”? Great question! Did you know that you and your partner actually have two distinct relationships? You have a relationship as parents and a relationship as spouses. Even though you’re the same people, these relationships are totally different.

Think about your relationship as parents. What are the parameters of this relationship? You probably negotiate carpool schedules, collaborate on discipline strategies, plan for your children’s financial futures, etc. This teamwork is so valuable to creating a strong bond between you and your partner… but it is totally lacking in romance, eroticism, and spontaneity! These are the expectations within your spousal relationship. As spouses, you want to create and maintain an intimate, passionate connection. That’s hard to do when you’re making lunches and changing diapers.

The trap many couples fall into after having children is that they begin to neglect their spousal relationship and over-focus on their parental relationship.

If this is true, you will experience a period of chaos in your relationship after the kids move out. You’ll look at each other and think, “Who the hell are you?!” I hear this all the time as a couples therapist, and I totally get it. If you’ve neglected your spousal relationship for 18 years and then expect it re-emerge overnight, you’ve got another thing coming.

Here’s the good news: It is absolutely possible for Empty Nesters to rebuild the spousal connection. It won’t be easy. It will feel scary. But it is possible.

The first step to rebuilding your spousal connection is to look at each other and admit that you’ve got some work to do.

You can do this with no judgment. Neither of you are to blame for having neglected your intimate relationship. Do you wish it could be different? Of course. It’s okay to feel sad and even angry at the lost years of closeness and passion. Can you commit to working together to create a new relationship that you both desire? If so, read on.

The second step is to take an honest assessment of what is missing from your relationship.

Do you have unspoken resentments or disappointments about your relationship? Are there pet-peeves that have been grinding on your nerves for years? Do you want more sex and adventure together? Whatever it may be, voice it. It’s time for transparency and collaboration. Expect this to be painful. You’re going to unearth some profound emotional shit that you’ve been burying under the weight of parenting for a very long time. The clearer you are about what your problems are and where you want to be in the relationship, the easier this journey will be.

The third step is to create a plan of action to help you and your partner heal the hurts and create a relationship you love.

This is where the rubber hits the road. I highly recommend investing in a couples therapist to help you with this task. Marriage counseling creates a structured space where you and your partner can hash it out and use research-based strategies to rebuild your connection. What’s not to like about that?!
If you can’t commit to therapy at this time, don’t worry, it is possible to continue on this journey without professional guidance. Start by making a list of all of the issues within your relationship. Then make a list of your relationship goals. Now put your heads together to figure out how to get from Point A to Point B. Do you need to spend more time together? Learn how to stop fighting? Invest in some sexy items to spice up life in the bedroom? The possibilities are endless.

Be open to these dialogues with your partner and prioritize time to work together on the relationship.

Again, I want to tell you that I know this process can be hard, painful, and scary. I know that one blog post is not going to answer all of your questions about rebuilding your spousal relationship. In fact, it might have just created a dozen more questions for you! The most important piece of advice I can give you is to start the conversation with your partner about what you both need in order to be happier in your marriage. Change is possible. Growth is possible. It’s all possible – we just have to make it happen.

And hey, congratulations on launching your children into the world! You’ve obviously done something right as a couple! You’ve done a great job at this parenting thing, and while that work is never completely finished, you now have more time to focus on your relationship with each other. That’s a pretty beautiful thing.


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