Tom and Maribeth are college sweethearts married 29 years. They feel they have a stable marriage that has involved raising four children. It has been a wild ride of parenthood with a few hair-raising experiences. Still, they both agree that all four have been successfully launched into adulthood. And now that their youngest has recently married, they are truly an “empty nest” marriage, not just the “shifting nest” of college years and a few years beyond.
The couple has been very involved parents from the moment their first child was born after two years of marriage. Life with four children was busy and parenting was often emotionally draining and exhausting. Many days they found themselves waving goodbye to each other as they split up to take the children to their separate events and activities. They seemed to never have enough time for each other and would talk yearningly about how things would be when the kids were grown and they were simply a couple again.
Now that time has come. To their surprise Tom and Maribeth aren’t sure just how to begin living it. They have devoted so much of themselves to raising a family, and much of their communication has been directed to that end. They find themselves experiencing a strange emptiness in their daily lives and even feel uncomfortable in their conversations together. They both are deeply committed to each other but aren’t sure just what the “good life” of being a twosome again will be for them.
No wonder Tom and Maribeth are feeling unsettled and out of balance. They are transitioning from one life cycle stage of their marriage to another major stage that involves new challenges as well as new adventure. This isn’t the first life cycle change they have experienced in their marriage. They have journeyed together through the newly married stage, first child stage, elementary school and adolescent stages, and the launching stage of beginning to see their children as adults. Each stage involves developmental, emotional, and spiritual tasks that take gradual readjustments.
Indeed, the couple has already renegotiated several new marriage relationships through these various life cycle changes. Each time, they have adjusted their roles and learned new skills as they moved into the unknown future of the next stage. Since they are facing change, they will feel unsteady and possibly tend to resist it, even if unconsciously. The more they understand how to navigate the predictable changes of this next stage, the easier it will be for them to make a smooth transition together.
In the best of situations, it is a challenge for married couples to stay in tune with each other in the midst of parenting tasks and responsibilities. Their communication style can suffer as they concentrate on daily busyness and fail to connect on a level of intimate friendship. Taking time daily to talk about each person’s ups and downs of the day is a good beginning. Some couples develop a habit of a daily walk together. Others sit on the patio after work. When partners communicate on a vulnerable level, sharing their important thoughts and feelings regularly, they reconnect and bonding occurs.
Redefining the Relationship
Sometimes a marriage has been too child-centered to the detriment of the couple relationship. It is important for couples entering any stage of marriage to commit to keeping the relationship “partner-centered.” In a “we-centered” marriage, the couple’s love relationship is central in their daily lives. This allows their love to flow outwards to their children and others. The Church makes it clear that couples are called to love one another in an extraordinary fashion. A good way to begin redefining the marriage is to reread your wedding vows to one another.
Reinvesting in New Growth
Allowing oneself to grieve the loss of particular roles enjoyed during parenting years is a healthy start to new growth. Discussing openly the strengths and limitations of the relationship and setting new goals together is also helpful. Letting go of old hurts and resentments is a necessary step towards growing healthier and holier in the marriage. Sometimes professional help may be needed.
Empty Nest couples, like Tom and Maribeth, are called to new choices, more freedoms, and new ways of loving each other in this grace filled stage of marriage. An excellent book for empty nesters is The Second Half of Marriage by David and Claudia Arp.
This article is reprinted with the kind permission of For Your Marriage, a website of the U.S. Bishop’s National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage.