Are you adjusting to an empty nest? This series will help! Part 1 and Part 2 offer parenting strategies for strong relationships with your adult kids. In part 3 we examine how to strengthen your marriage in this new season. (Stay tuned for a follow-up later this fall, when we’ll reveal what our adult kids say they need from us, courtesy of a brand-new short survey!)
When our daughter was in school, we had lots of friends among the other “volleyball parents.” We spent countless hours sitting together on uncomfortable bleachers, driving to games, and grabbing meals at odd hours. We shared a lot of life, struggles, heartache, and joy.
A few of those friends also went to our church. We had a broader relationship. We saw them at other times and did other things together. Our relationship was not defined by volleyball or the kids.
Guess which friends are still close friends now that the kids have graduated and are no longer the center of our relationship?
And guess what the lesson is, for all of us married couples whose kids have graduated and are not at the “center” of our relationship?
We’ve known the formula all along: God first. Marriage second. Kids third. But somewhere between our children’s’ thumb-sucking and boundary-bucking years, many parents slip into a pattern of putting the kids front and center. And that slippage is totally understandable since time with them is often front and center: carpools, sports, theater shows, late-night science projects, advice for the first love (and the first breakup). So much time has been spent shaping our kids’ faith, values, and character.
Then suddenly they move out. They have their own lives. Even for couples who prioritized each other over time, there’s a tendency to look at each other and go, “Wait, who are you again?”
Whether you feel like you’ve drifted from your spouse, or are just looking to jumpstart this new season, these three action steps will help you rediscover the fulness of married life with a best friend beside you in that empty nest.
Action step #1: Be careful to not point at your spouse’s mistakes (but at what they did right!)
You and your spouse are on the same side. You’ve probably always been on the same side. I’ll be writing a blog later this fall on defensiveness (subscribe to my email list to ensure you don’t miss that crucial post!), so I won’t unpack that here. Just one important point to mention: As you consider the “new world,” you may see things that should have been done differently in the old one. You or your spouse may be tempted to mention those things. And this is likely to lead someone to get defensive.
When we get defensive, we stop learning and growing, and instead begin protecting our mistakes – which makes it tempting to point our fingers at the mistakes of our spouse. As you can imagine, this will not lead to the happiest start to your new season of life.
Consider the case of Tim and Cecilia and their youngest son, who moved out in a defiant teenage blaze of glory. Their plan had been for their son to live at home while he went to community college, so they could help him live a healthy adult lifestyle. Instead, he found roommates and, to use his words, “got the heck out” at age 18.
They were shocked and, they admit now, defensive. During their son’s high school years, they had developed a pattern in which conflict-avoidant Tim yielded most of the discipline to Cecilia, who grew increasingly frustrated with both her husband and their son. Now, with their nest unexpectedly empty, Tim and Cecilia were left pointing fingers at each other (“You were too hard on him!” and “You didn’t help me!”).
The truth is, both Tim and Cecilia could have done things differently. Counseling has put them well on the way to relating to each other in healthier ways. And maybe a little geographic distance was the good thing for their relationship with their son, who recently told them, “I know I pushed you guys to the limits, but I want you to know that without you I wouldn’t be where I am in life.”
None of us are perfect parents. If we’re going to point out anything, let’s point at what our spouse did right. Consider one of my favorite verses in the Bible:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)
You are not the only one missing your child so much that your heart aches. Your spouse probably is too. So what do they need to hear from you today about what he or she did right as a parent?
Action step #2: Purposefully create and spend time together
At a marriage retreat, one husband lowered his voice to share something.
“I feel like I’ve lost my wife,” he said. “And I don’t know what to do. We were both so wrapped up in the kids, it defined how we related to each other. Now our youngest has gone to college, my wife is depressed, and we don’t know how to relate to each other. We’re having to learn each other all over again.”
Even though it was born from a hard realization, I liked this husband’s “learn each other” language. Ideally, we’re doing this as we go along – staying connected as couples during the parenting years. But if we’re suddenly faced with taking a “crash course” in each other when the kids move out, one of the only ways to ace the course is to become friends again … which requires creating and spending time together.
You can be super busy and still find ways to do that – but that’s the key: you have to find ways. Jeff and I love watching college football together (go Blue!), joining friends for lunch after church, or simply sharing coffee to start the day. As I told the man at the marriage retreat, whether you two volunteer at church, take walks, or start a new hobby, our research has found that time together is key.
(A quick aside to the couple who feels like time together is strained or that they don’t know their spouse anymore; our research also found that getting back to being friends is one of the most vital keys. Because with a friend … you can work through almost anything.)
Action step #3: Pursue each other
Remember when you were dating your spouse, and you couldn’t wait until the next time you talked? (Some of us remember a landline. In the living room. With a cord attached to the wall.) Empty nest is a great time to go back to the beginning. To pursue our spouse again. To let them know we want their time, attention, and sexual intimacy.
Those of you who have read my new book, Secrets of Sex & Marriage, probably giggled with me at the opening story of Jackie and Trent – a 12-year married couple with three kids who had a delightful, playful relationship (even the police officers who stopped them thought so)! Their brush with the law notwithstanding, Jackie and Trent illustrate a powerful principle. They pursue each other.
Empty nest can be like a new season of dating. The specifics of how we pursue each other will look very different for each couple, but the why it’s important is clearly outlined in our research.
As I wrote in For Women Only, men are powerfully driven by the need to feel desired by their wives. If they feel like their wives truly want them sexually, they feel alive, powerful, confident, and loved. (If they don’t, they feel … depressed. And many women, of course, feel that same way.)
In our For Men Only research, we found that women are driven by a longing for closeness and affirmation of our man’s love. (Guys, when is the last time you sent your wife a text message telling her you love her – and why? Try it!)
So, there we have it: Put our pointer fingers away (unless we’re pointing out the good stuff), spend time together, and pursue each other. That’s a really good start, and many of you have other good ideas. So: what has enlivened your marriage in the empty nest years? I’d love to hear from you in the comments. (If you’re reading this in my weekly email, click over to the blog to share your thoughts.)
And in the meantime, remember: There were no children in the garden. Adam and Eve enjoyed sweet fellowship with each other and God before kids came along. Maybe it’s time for us to go back to the beginning, too.
And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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More from Shaunti’s Blog:
- Solutions for Sarcasm? Yeah, Right. (Nix the Negativity Series, Part 3)
- From Grumbling to Grateful! (Nix the Negativity Series, Part 2)
- Always Suspicious of Your Spouse (or Others)? Here’s What To Do! (Nix the Negativity, Part 1)
- 7 Date Night Do’s and Don’ts (Part 2)
- 7 Date Night Do’s and Don’ts (Part 1)
- Broken Trust in a Relationship? Here’s What To Do