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Finding joy in the empty nest stage of marriage
The time the last child leaves the home is often a tough one for marriage partners. The marital relationship in an empty nest takes on a different chemistry and presents different challenges. - photo by Linda and Richard Eyre
The time that the last child leaves the home is often a tough time for marriage partners. The marital relationship in an empty nest takes on a different chemistry and presents different challenges. With no one left to take care of but each other, it can be a wonderful and revitalizing time for a marriage, but without any plan, it can also be a time of real strain. Issues that were tabled or buried while the kids took up our attention and energy can emerge as bigger concerns.

Our observation is that couples who simply react to this new time of life do not do nearly as well as couples who are proactive and deliberate about planning what their life together will be like.

It is ironic that so many of us plan so carefully for every other aspect of our upcoming retirement second life but think and plan so little for what matters within our most important stewardship and is the key to our happiness: the quality and durability of our marriages.

As the empty-nest time approaches, or if it has already arrived, it is wise to do some solid conceptual planning about this new phase of married life. In our case, even as we dreaded the day our last one would leave, we relished and looked forward to having the opportunity to do some things that werent possible (or at least not practical) while the kids were with us, from simple things like more reading to complex things like more travel and humanitarian service.

Its best not to leave these visions and dreams to chance or to generalities. Sit down or take a trip together and make some conceptual plans about what you want to do as a couple after the kids are gone. Give yourself some things to look forward to, to balance and counteract the dread you may feel about your children leaving. Learn to see the empty nest phase as a natural progression and a great opportunity.

One couple we know anticipated their empty nest phase with some apprehension. They had seen other couples pull apart after their kids were gone, so they had a little plan in place. The first thing they did after the last child left was to go away together themselves by taking a two-week second honeymoon in the Caribbean. It was a relaxed, peaceful time to get to know each other again not as a mother and a father, but as partners and lovers.

They talked a lot about each others needs and actually avoided talking about their kids. (Theyd done plenty of that in the immediate weeks before.) They made new commitments to each other and took the time to really talk about their life as a couple, both in the past and in the future. They made plans about things they would do together and how they would spend their time. They talked about their biggest hopes and fears entering this new phase of life and decided to be patient with each other and to acknowledge that it would take a little time to make this adjustment.

Another couple did something similar but in a very different way. They didnt go away together, they just talked over the course of several evenings just after their last child left for college. They worked at formulating a new plan in a very organized and systematic way, and while the discipline and structure of it might not appeal to all of us, their approach is certainly thought-provoking.

First, they each made a separate, independent list of things I want to do before I die places they wanted to visit, adventures they wanted to have, people they wanted to meet and contributions they hoped to make. They didnt worry much about what was realistic they just each created a dream list.

Then they combined their lists to see how many matches they had and to try to win each other over into unanimity on differences.

Then they tried to calendar the ones they agreed on, chronologically in terms of when they thought they might be able to do them.

Then they set their completed, collective dream list aside and made a second list, which they called a hope list, and it had two columns. On the left, they listed the things they still wanted to take care of and felt some responsibility for (their children were at the top, followed by their aging parents and then by things such as their health, their small company, their church, their house and their little summer place). In the right column, they wrote the hopes they had for each thing listed on the left.

Finally, they had both lists artistically laid out on parchment paper by a calligrapher and framed. They hang side by side on the wall of their library.

The husband told us that he had read somewhere that all happiness starts with hopes and dreams. He said their hope list and their dream list had become a sort of reference point for their plans and their goals and that, since they had created them together, the lists seemed to keep them in sync mentally and spiritually and lent a certain excitement and anticipation to their life together.