What can we do to get ready for the departure of our youngest child? He'll be going off to college after the end of this year, and my spouse and I will be left "on our own" as empty nesters. I've heard that many couples in our position face serious adjustments and are at risk for marital problems and even divorce. How can we prepare for this transition and avoid the potential pitfalls?
The time to think about a life-altering transition of this magnitude and significance is before it happens. Couples in your position are wise to start examining their options now. Acknowledge to one another that the "empty nest" is coming. Sit down together and discuss your expectations for the post-parenting years. If you don't, you could end up being blindsided by a wave of unforeseen conflicts and misunderstandings within a few days of the last child's departure.
You can begin by reflecting, individually and as a couple, on the quality of your marriage. Conduct a thorough inventory. Take stock of the methods and strategies you use to confront interpersonal conflicts and challenges. Look for patterns that might become problematic when there's no one else around to act as a buffer between you. Try to see your relationship as it is. Strip away the layers of busy-ness and outward activity that go along with raising children and let your marriage stand on its own merits.
It would also be a good idea to spend some time thinking about your "love styles" and modes of attachment. You can learn a great deal about this aspect of your marriage by taking the Adult Attachment Interview. This test can be administered by a professional marriage counselor. In the process, you may want to ask yourselves some of the following questions: Are you controlling and "clingy," or ambivalent and avoidant? Does conflict frighten you? Do you fly off the handle whenever things don't go your way? Are you comfortable giving and receiving care? Are you good communicators, or has it been years since you last had a meaningful conversation? Do you know what it means to love someone from a position of security and strength, or is your "love" simply a manipulative way of getting your own needs met? Can you negotiate interpersonal differences with respect for the other person's point of view? The answers to these questions will take on new significance when you and your spouse are left alone in the house.
You should also be aware of your temperaments and personality types. If you're a driven, motivated, high-powered Type-A individual, you may find it harder to surrender your personal agenda and adjust to new circumstances. Corporate executives sometimes have trouble shifting gears when faced with an "empty nest" at home. That's because they're used to running a tight ship and keeping a predictable schedule at the office. By the same token, a woman who has been a wife, mom, and homemaker her entire adult life may feel completely at a loss when the children launch out on their own. In both cases some extra effort may be required to navigate the transition successfully.
Another factor that deserves attention is the nature and quality of your relationships with the departing kids. If dad is losing a "favorite daughter" or mom a "favorite son," this dynamic could aggravate the situation in unexpected ways. The problem is magnified when a shaky marriage has transformed this child into a sort of "surrogate spouse." In such cases, professional counseling is a must if you want to preserve and revitalize your relationship during the "empty nest" years.
Here's the long and short of it. A transition of any kind is always risky. But we're confident that your marriage can survive and thrive after the kids leave home if you and your spouse are willing to make it happen. This means (among other things) developing your communication skills. It involves learning to listen and giving your spouse a "voice." It's a matter of putting forth an intentional effort to "date" one another on a regular basis. The goal in all of this is to rediscover what attracted you to each other in the first place and find new ways to fan the flames of romance. It's a tougher assignment for some couples than for others, but it can be done. The fact that you're raising these questions at this point in time leads us to believe that your chances of success are high.
If you'd like to explore the option of professional counseling, our staff would be happy to provide you with referrals to qualified marriage and family therapists in your locality who specialize in this area. They would also consider it a privilege to discuss your situation with you over the phone. You can contact our Counseling Department for a free consultation at this number.
The Second Half of Marriage (book)
Thriving in the Empty Nest Years (broadcast)
Tackling Midlife Transitions in Marriage (broadcast)
Empty Nest Syndrome (book)