For Parents, Empty Nest Can Be Full of Promise
The youngest child leaving home for college or a career also can be a step into the unknown for the parents who are left with an empty nest.
“After a couple spends 20 years raising their kids, parents often find they don’t really know each other anymore once it’s just the two of them,” said Ron Cox, Oklahoma State University Extension marriage and family specialist.
Ensuring a child’s well-being is a fulltime job, which many researchers have attributed as a significant reason why studies show that marital quality on average takes a hit when kids alter the family dynamic. In essence, parents’ lives are filtered through the needs of their offspring.
“The decline in marital quality is normal as couples figure out the routine that comes with raising children and maintaining a household,” Cox said. “Meanwhile, couples may not spend as much time on their own relationship, so it frequently gets neglected.”
Once children strike out on their own, husbands and wives are forced to consider another major shift and decide what they want out of their marriage. For many couples, it’s an opportunity for rediscovering activities and interests that enhance their quality of life through shared experiences, Cox said. For other couples, it may feel as though the glue binding them together was their children.
There is a small spike in the divorce rate around the 22-year marriage anniversary mark, proving just how difficult it can be to go back to the days before diapers, soccer practices and homework.
“With the kids gone, you’ve a lot of time to fill, and it’s important to spend most of it doing things you enjoy,” Cox said. “Maybe you take up a shared hobby, seek out other couples with whom to socialize or begin planning your retirement home. Figure out whether you want to pursue old dreams you put on hold as a couple to raise a family or chase new ones.”
Nor do couple have to wait for the kids to completely clear out to begin identifying activities they can share.
“Start by setting aside a date night or scheduling lunch together once a week,” Cox said. “Consider getting involved in a cause, perhaps through a social service agency or a church. Giving back in a way that is meaningful to each of you not only helps renew the bonds of your relationship, it also benefits a cause in which you both believe.”