The Empty Nest Syndrome

According to an article from the Wall Street Journal, divorce among individuals over 50 is on the rise.  Apparently, the primary reason is a lack of commonality or connection between spouses which is exacerbated once children leave home.  This is a term known as the “empty nest syndrome”.

Unfortunately, when children leave home, a couple is faced with a gap or hole- not only in their daily schedule, but in their very identity as individuals and as a couple.  A couple’s primary focus much too often is to cultivate the lives of their children.  While doing this; their personal relationship is often placed by the wayside.

Once the children leave home, a couple is frequently faced with the question: “who is this person” (my spouse), “what do we have in common” and “why are we still married”?  Many spouses choose to separate during this time because they look back over the years and realize it was their children who kept their marriage together.  When the children are grown and self-reliant, parents have greater freedom to pursue their own interests and desires (which doesn’t always include their spouse).

When a couple experiences an empty nest, feelings of grief can abound.  A mother may struggle to redefine her primary identity and a father may experience regret over wasted time with his children.  It is important that a couple take time to verbalize thoughts and feelings and genuinely listen to each other.  Having a flexible mindset and an openness to change is vital as the family readjusts.

Discussions between spouses may cover topics such as:

  • Feelings of loss and grief
  • Expectations for new and changing roles
  • Expectations for new “adult” relationships with children
  • Financial responsibilities (paying for college)
  • De-cluttering the house (what to save and donate)
  • Selling the house in order to downsize or relocating
  • Caring for elderly parents or grandchildren

The best way to avoid marital strife or divorce during the empty nest is to cultivate your marriage while your children are still at home.  David and Claudia Arp have written a book titled The Second Half of Marriage (1998), and have given suggestions on how to do just this.

  • Take five minutes each day to focus on each other
  • Kiss 10 seconds every day
  • Write love letters
  • Give “marriage vitamins” -give encouragement, kindness and love (even when your spouse annoys you)
  • Create a wish list of your dreams for your future
  • Have a 24 hour get a way two times per year, which will reignite intimacy, romance and laughter (try not to talk about the kids)
  • Build your friendship with each other- lighten up, learn to laugh together, and have regular dates
  • Pray together, thanking God for each other and place your worries in His lap
  • Plan- what you aren’t going to do (for example, you aren’t going to give up time with your spouse or spend money you don’t have)…. also discuss what you envision life to be like without your kids
  • Persevere- understand raising children can be physically and emotionally draining… make your marriage a priority

Is your marriage headed down the wrong path?  David and Claudia Arp recommend individuals to Stop– take time alone to reconnect, remember why you chose to marry, discuss fond memories and what you used to do for fun.  Look where your marriage is and what you want it to look like during the “empty nest” years.  Listen!  Too often, individuals fail to listen to their spouse or work on their anger and marital conflict.  Individuals need to calm down and strengthen their relationship.

Have you failed to cultivate your marriage appropriately?  Are your children already gone and your marriage suffering?   Many of the above tips can still be helpful.  Marriage counseling is also an option.

Keep in mind, the “empty nest” years can be enjoyable and full of new beginnings.  You can enjoy a quiet house, less household work, pursue interests and hobbies you never had time for and have greater sexual freedom.



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