Midlife is full of changes and challenges. There are physical and hormonal shifts, financial pressures like college tuition payments, aging parents who may soon need care. People start looking ahead to retirement, thinking about what the future holds. They may feel aware of their mortality for the first time.
But perhaps the most significant adjustment couples face at midlife is their children leaving home. Empty nest, as it’s commonly called, can bring intense, conflicting feelings—excitement about what lies ahead and grief for the monumental phase of life that is suddenly drawing to a close.
Though not a clinical diagnosis, Empty nest syndrome is a genuine phenomenon. According to the Mayo Clinic, past research has suggested that the profound feelings associated with an empty nest may leave parents susceptible to depression, alcoholism, identity crisis, and marital conflict. Parents may experience sensations of loss, sadness, loneliness, confusion, lack of purpose, and worry about the wellbeing of their kids out in the world. And the fact that two people in a marriage can experience—or not—empty nest’s effects very differently may add to the sense of loneliness and disorientation.
It’s not just the children that are suddenly missing from your daily existence—it’s all the things that life revolved around because of them. You’ve suddenly lost the school routines and activities, sports teams and music lessons, holiday concerts, the built-in social circle—everything that gave your family life its particular rhythm. This aspect of an empty nest can be tough on a stay-at-home parent, who may need to find a purpose that can redefine themselves, while the parent who worked outside the home has more continuity.
It’s no wonder that an empty nest can be very hard on a marriage. Though not limited to empty nesters specifically, the so-called “gray divorce” has risen dramatically in recent years. Data from the Pew Research Center reveals that over the past 35 years, the divorce rate has doubled among couples 50+, and tripled for those over 65.
What factors contribute to the demise of some marriages when the kids fly the coop?
Staying together for the children
Going separate ways feels inevitable now. In some cases, a couple has already known that the marriage wasn’t working for a long time. Whether or not it was an official decision—or even the best choice—they stuck it out until the kids were out of the house.
Grown apart / Nothing in common
For 18 or more years, the primary focus has been the children and busy family life—sometimes at the expense of nurturing the marriage. Partnership, intimacy, and having fun as a couple may have been neglected. When they find themselves alone together, spouses may realize they’ve grown apart. After all the time and energy devoted to the shared love and interest in the kids, they may discover that they’ve forgotten what activities and passions drew them together in the first place. And their interests or abilities may have changed over time.
All the intense feelings associated with this phase of life and what an empty nest can reveal about what’s missing in a marriage may lead spouses to cheat after the kids leave. They may seek excitement, romance, companionship, or comfort from the pain of loss in someone else’s arms.
But there is some hopeful news. According to recent studies, the Mayo Clinic also reports that an empty nest may reduce work and family conflicts. The research suggests that once the kids move out, this freedom from day-to-day responsibilities may provide parents with many other benefits such as an opportunity to reconnect with each other, improve the quality of their marriage and rekindle interests.
If you’re going through a difficult transition to an empty nest, there are things you can do to help yourself and your marriage:
- Stay in touch. Maintain regular (not obsessive) contact with your kids. Give them—and yourself—healthy space, but keep nurturing the parent-child relationship in its new form.
- Allow your newly launched children freedom to be themselves and find their way on their timetable. Concentrate on how you can offer support to help them succeed.
- Lean on family and friends. Be intentional about social life, staying connected, having fun.
- Cultivate your interests. Focus on your plans, dreams, and new pursuits for this next phase of your life. Tackle an exciting new personal or professional challenge. Think about what new roles you want to fill.
- Practice self-care. Eat right, find a new form of exercise you love, boost your healthy habits so you feel strong and vibrant.
- Reconnect with your spouse. Rediscover what you love to do together. Enjoy the newfound freedom to travel, have date nights, and make plans.
- Allow yourself time to grieve and feel, adjust and heal. If it’s not getting better, talk to a mental health professional.
Choosing the right family law firm can have an enormous impact on the outcome of your case. Our firm’s commitment to professionalism, civility, and open and honest communication allows us to provide our clients with the highest level of professional service. And if it’s time to end your marriage, the family law experts at SFLG can help you navigate the specifics of an empty nest divorce.
By Debra Schoenberg