My Spouse is a Stranger: Adjusting to the Empty Nest

By Debbie L. Cherry, Ph.D.
Author of Child-proofing Your Marriage

Jan sipped her coffee as she looked across the breakfast table at her husband. John was reading the newspaper like he’d done every morning for the past 28 years…nothing different…and yet Jan felt like everything was different. So many things had changed.

Their youngest child had left for college last fall, and she still hadn’t seemed to be able to fill that hole that he left in her heart as he waved good-bye. She remembered when the children were young and she and John would dream about what life would be like when it was just the two of them again. But none of those dreams seemed to be coming true. As a matter of fact Jan wasn’t even sure if John wanted to do any of those things with her anymore. They hardly ever talked and they seemed to spend as little time together as possible. Jan couldn’t help but feel like she was married to a stranger.

Jan is not alone in her thoughts. It seems that more and more couples are beginning to realize how far they have grown apart through the years. And unfortunately this seems to be resulting in some sad statistics that indicate that divorce rates are on the rise for couples who have been married thirty or more years.1

Conflicts between couples definitely seem to increase once the children leave the home, and this seem due in large part to the fact that many couples have spent the past decade or two completely focused on raising their kids. When all your time and energy goes into your children, eventually your children are going to be the only connection you have. When the kids are gone, the emptiness between you will be evident, and the distance between you will grow.

Some empty-nest couples soon realize that their children had become an effective means of avoiding conflict within the marriage. But once those buffers are gone, the conflicts begin to increase. Old unresolved issues begin to rear their ugly heads again and tension mounts. Without the use of healthy conflict-resolution skills, this could become the kiss of death to some marriages.

The most important thing you can do for your marriage at this stage is to redefine your relationship. As you do this, you need to begin to set new goals and share new hopes and expectations with each other. Think about both your individual goals for this second half of marriage as well as some new couple goals. Work to reach a compromise if there is a difference in what each of you wants to accomplish. Strike a balance between self, couple and social time that works for both of you. But most of all, learn to enjoy the time you now have together.

If you are finding yourselves struggling to reconnect and reclaim your empty-nest marriage, here are a few things you can do:

1. Fill the Hole. This should include filling both the physical space and the time space that your kids had been occupying. Talk about how you would each like to fill those spaces and then start doing it.

2. Enjoy the chance to be spontaneous again. You have finally reached the stage where you get to do what you want to do, when you want to do it. So go and have some fun at the drop of a hat.

3. Let go of the past. Share your memories with each other, but don’t get stuck in the belief that all the good times are in the past. You have a bright new future ahead – focus on that. Also be sure to resolve and forgive any past hurts that have occurred between you so that you can move into your future together refreshed and renewed.

4. Renew your romance and enjoy newfound sexual freedom. There are no more distractions, interruptions or excuses…Just plain old freedom to really enjoy each other completely. As you do this, be sure to talk about changes in your needs and desires that may have occurred over the years.

5. Don’t be afraid to communicate. With more time on your hands, you may find yourselves with time to talk but nothing to talk about. One or both of you may resist talking out of fear that it will lead to arguing. Commit to learning healthier communication skills and to keep talking.

6. Focus on the positives. Take time to notice all the little wonderful things about your spouse, and dwell on these. Consider writing your spouse a love note that expresses what he/she has meant to you over the years, and how you want to spend the rest of your lives together.

7. Validate each other’s feelings. No two people experience this stage of marriage in exactly the same way. Talk about how you are feeling, and be patient with each other as you adjust to this new stage of life.

9. Focus on your spiritual growth. Consider starting a Bible study together, join a small group, or pray together daily.

1 David Arp, Claudia Arp, Scott Stanley, Howard Markman and Susan Blumberg, Empty Nesting: Reinventing Your Relationship When the Kids Leave Home (San Francisco; Jossey-Bass, 2001)

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