As excited as you may be to have your kids head off to college or move in to their own apartment, a part of you is probably a little nervous as well. “Empty nest syndrome, the experience a parent or parents have when the last child leaves the home, is well-known,” says Stan Tatkin, Psy.D., author of We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection, and Enduring Love. “Symptoms can include depression, grief, despair, anxiety, obsession, dread, and so on.” Yes, your grocery bill will be smaller and you won’t have to spend your weeknights watching basketball games from the bleachers of the high school gym, but suddenly you’ll have a lot more free time to spend with your spouse. “As a couples therapist, my concern is not empty nest per se, but the couple’s readiness to become a couple again without the daily role of being a parent.” Fortunately, you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) wait until your children leave the nest to prep your marriage for this next stage. Here are six things you can do right now to ensure the longevity of your relationship.
1. Address existing issues.
Sometimes relationship problems are put on the back burner when parenting and other matters like job struggles, elder care, and medical issues get in the way. “If partners were feeling disconnected before the children are gone, couples may feel an increase in distress without having children to take some of the pressure off of the relationship,” says Allen Sabey, Ph.D., licensed marriage and family therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. “If a relationship is already unstable, the transition can easily lead to an increase in conflict or distance and ultimately to separation.” Now is the time to tend to any issues you’ve been ignoring, and don’t be afraid to seek the help of a couples therapist.
2. Open up about your concerns.
Set aside time to talk about your empty nest and the feelings it triggers for you, even if that means chatting while you’re in the car driving somewhere. “Share what you are looking forward to, what you will miss, and what will be difficult,” says Sabey. “The transition, as relieving as it may seem at times, can include feelings of fear and grief, which is normal.” Opening up and listening to each other not only strengthens the relationship, it also helps you deal with the emotions you’re feeling.
3. Find new ways to connect.
Use the time you used to spend at dance recitals and scout jamborees to do fun things that you can bond over. “Together, pick up old hobbies, try new interests, rekindle old friendships, make new social connections, create new rituals together, and find opportunities to volunteer,” suggests Sabey. “Spend time getting to know each other again. Relationships without children around can be so satisfying and some couples even view it as a reward after all of their sacrifices over the child-rearing years.”
4. Go on adventures.
That trip to Peru you always wanted to take? Now’s the time to book it, but don’t invite the kids. “Start going on adventures with each other and do so without friends or family,” advises Tatkin. You may even want to consider moving to another home or another city. “Throw yourselves into a novel environment where you have to work and learn together,” he says.
5. Embrace your new parental role.
As much as they may crave independence, this transition can be difficult for your now-grown kids as well. “Take your cues from them and respond to what they are needing as best as possible,” says Sabey. “Communication with your child may be more or less than what you would want, but it’s your job to find joy in both their independence and when they visit and talk.” Today, technology makes it easier (and more fun) than ever to stay in touch with video chatting, social media, and group texts. “Work together as a couple to be flexible and find your new rhythm,” he adds.
6. Renew your vows (yes, really).
There’s something to the trend in vow renewals—you’re not the same people you were when you tied the knot years ago. “Re-marry each other now with vows that are relevant to the present time,” says Tatkin. “That was then and this is now. It’s a new day, a new arrangement, a new reason to remain a couple.” Think about what you’d like to change and re-negotiate your future together. He recommends asking yourselves why you want to continue as a couple, what your purpose is going forward, and who or what you serve. “Make sure your vows read to ‘we do’ rather than ‘I do’ and that you’re both pointing in the same direction,” he adds. There’s no better time than now to re-invent your relationship and ensure it provides you both with many more years of love.
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