Have your grown children flown the coop, or will soon? The empty nest can be a lonely roost, or create a fuller relationship for such couples. Counseling and other strategies can help, experts say.
If the thought of an empty nest sends a shiver of anxiety down your spine, you’re not alone. Many people find themselves unsure of what to make of their newfound independence, once their youngest child moves out of the house and they’re living alone with their spouse for the first time in decades. Couples even struggle with what to say or do with their significant others, now that they are no longer just “Mom and Dad.”
“It’s a major transition for a couple,” says Michael C. Smith, PhD, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “But it’s a change that can be quite positive, if you know how to navigate it.”
Here’s how to adjust to an empty nest and rediscover your partner in the process:
• Don’t overthink the awkwardness. Sure, you and your spouse may feel a bit strange not having the kids as the focal point of discussion (or distraction) anymore, and you may have trouble finding things to talk about at first.
“That’s completely normal – it’s not a sign your relationship is doomed,” says Smith. Give yourself a few months, and don’t expect every conversation to be meaningful. “It’s OK to chitchat about the weather or what you read in the paper,” he says. “Small exchanges lead to bigger ones.”
• Take the “glass-is-half-full” approach. Focusing on the positive aspects of an empty nest can help. “It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that you no longer have a child to care for,” Smith acknowledges. But look at it this way: Your child is out of the house and working toward becoming an independent adult, which means you’ve accomplished your goal as parents.
• Find other interests you can enjoy together. Look for new activities to do with your partner to re-establish your bond. Now that your schedule isn’t jam-packed with child-centered activities, take the opportunity to try new things – whether it’s taking swing dancing lessons, volunteering together at a local food bank or embarking on a fitness program.
• Take a vacation. Long Island, N.Y.-based stress-management expert Debbie Eisenstadt Mandel recommends traveling together. “When you’re away from daily annoyances and stressors, it’s easier to reopen the doors to romance,” she says.
• Consider counseling. If, after several months, you still feel that your relationship is strained, see a psychologist or marriage counselor with your partner. “It’s not always easy – or even appropriate – to go back to the way the two of you used to be after years of focusing on your children,” says Smith. “A professional can help you work through it.”