When the last child leaves the house, it’s common for parents to feel grief that perhaps the most meaningful phase of their lives – child-rearing – is over. For some, that grief shifts to excitement as people realize they are now free to pursue interests and activities they never had time for. For others, the Empty Nest is a time when spouses look at each other and wonder: Who are you? And why are we together?
According to census data collected in 2011, 28% of couples in their 50s divorced – that’s more than 1 in 4. Compare that with the 1990 census in which just 1 in 10 couples in their 50s divorced. Why does “Gray Divorce” happen, and why is it on the rise?
Without the distractions that children provide, long-standing marital problems can no longer be ignored. Couples realize that the only glue holding them together is the kids. They’re entering the next phase of their lives and may have different ideas about what that looks like.
Women often become more independent; they’ve had a lifetime of taking care of others and now want to harness their energy to pursue their own interests. Because more women work than ever before, they have the means to leave an unhappy marriage and start over. People are also living longer, and healthier, and may choose not to spend the last third of their lives languishing in an unhappy marriage.
If you’re approaching the Empty Nest phase, it’s important to take steps to strengthen your marriage now. Here are six things to consider before your kids leave home.
Start talking about plans before the kids leave. Don’t wait till the kids are gone to find out if you and your spouse have the same vision for your future. Begin the conversation while the last child is still in high school. If your life plans diverge – you want to move to Arizona and your spouse wants to stay put in New Jersey – see if there’s room for compromise (you rent out your house for a year, rent a smaller place in Arizona, and see how you like the change in locale). If you absolutely cannot get on the same page, even with the help of a therapist, this may indicate that the marriage has run its course.
Accept the grief process. It’s natural to feel a sense of emptiness when the kids leave home; you miss the daily routine with kids and you may wonder what your purpose is. Just when you feel that you’ve worked through the sadness, another wave of grief may wash over you. This is normal. The grief process is not linear and feelings you thought you “got over” may circle back. You may feel even lonelier if your spouse has a different reaction to the Empty Nest. Everyone manages grief differently and it’s important to respect you own process, as well as that of your spouse.
Start doing activities together. If you don’t have a bucket list, make one now. What are things you want to do before you die? It’s fine to have separate interests, but make sure you find things you can enjoy as a couple: traveling, political activism, hiking the Appalachian Trail…the opportunities are virtually endless now that you are no longer consumed by the daily grind of child-rearing.
Consider therapy. When kids leave the house, there is no longer a buffer between you and your spouse. Problems you’ve been able to avoid become glaringly apparent. Don’t let resentment, frustration, and disconnection erode your marriage. If you can’t resolve your issues between the two of you, see a couples therapist to help you navigate your challenges.
Reignite your sex life. Menopause and erectile dysfunction can cause couples to lose libido, grow disheartened, and avoid sex. Sexual response and functioning changes as we age, so talk to your physician about methods to improve your sexual functioning if this is an issue. If physical challenges are not present, but complacency is, think about exploring new sexual terrain together. When is the last time you sexted your partner?
Schedule date nights. If date night consists of binge-watching Netflix, find a different activity – out of the house! Add new activities to your date night repertoire. If you’re stuck in a Saturday night movie rut, try the symphony instead. Take a class together, or go on a double date with friends. Shaking up your routine by doing things you don’t normally do will strengthen your connection.
The Empty Nest provides an opportunity to evolve both individually and as a couple. Finding productive ways to cope with this loss is essential to lessen the odds of Gray Divorce, and to help you thrive in this next phase of your life.