Why do some couples embrace the empty nest while others end up in divorce court?
“There are lots of sides to the empty nest that are complicated,” says psychologist, Dr. Susan Hickman. “Many experience depression, feelings of sadness, anxiety, identity crisis and significant grief. I remember when our daughter loaded up the van and headed to Oregon. I sat on the curb and sobbed - I was inconsolable for several days.”
There are various responses to the empty nest varies from couple to couple. Women and couples with an only child, however, seem to experience the loss more intensely.
“A huge part of dealing with the transition to the empty nest comes down to how strongly a person identifies with their parenting role to the exclusion of their own self-identity,” Hickman shares. “When things come to an abrupt end, if all you have done for 18 years is focus on your child’s needs, many parents struggle to remember the kinds of things they enjoyed before children came into the picture.”
Additionally, it's normal for each person to experience the empty nest with differing emotions within the couple relationship. One person may openly grieve the loss. Others may throw themselves more into work or a project as a distraction. This has created significant conflict in many marriages.
So what is the key to transitioning to the empty nest with your marriage strong and ready for the next phase of life?
“First and foremost, avoid focusing on your children’s needs to the exclusion of your own needs and the needs of your marriage,” Hickman says. “Having children does not mean you give up your friends and the best interests of your marriage. When parents put children at the center of their world, they send the message that their children's needs trump everybody else’s needs in this community.”
When your children are older, you may want to prepare for launching a new career when they launch. There's nothing wrong with taking a class or two, which in turn requires the kids to step up and help with chores and dinner preparation.
Remember, you are modeling how to do marriage well. If it is always about the children and never about the relationship, what message are you sending your children?
Anything you don’t cultivate will die. Children demand a lot, but you don’t want to ignore your marriage relationship. It is the foundation for a stable home which research shows children need to thrive. Many parents complain they can’t go anywhere because their children just keep calling them and driving them crazy. Hickman contends that parents train their children how to treat them. Setting clear boundaries and expectations is essential.
“Preparing for the empty nest starts when your child is born,” Hickman asserts. “Your well-being and the well-being of your marriage are as important as the well-being of your child. Recognizing from the moment you find out you are pregnant that you have 18 years with this child, but you have the rest of your life with your spouse can help you cast a vision for keeping your marriage a priority.”