The house was deadly silent. Chuck and I looked at each other across the breakfast table. “A prelude of things to come,” I muttered.
He nodded, knowing my concerns without my verbalizing them.
Our oldest was living in North Carolina; our middle girl was working and preparing for college in the fall; and our youngest was out with a friend. We both felt the foreboding shadow of the empty nest years creep across the table.
“I hope we’re ready for this,” I mused.
“We will be,” Chuck reassured.
Most couples share a similar anxiety when the last child leaves home. Often, the empty nest coincides with mid-life challenges and the care of aging parents, setting up the couple for multiple loss situations. Changes in routine, roles, and time, call for adjustment. In his book, Recovering from the Losses of Life, Norman Wright comments that, “sometimes an additional loss occurs if the couple lunges toward each other to fill the empty spaces in their lives. They may end up pushing each other away because of their intensity and a feeling of abandonment can result” (148).
On the other hand, some couples eager to fulfill postponed goals and dreams delve into their work or hobbies to the exclusion of their mates. Intimacy suffers. Some spouses may go looking for another person to fill that void, and thus ensues an affair. Others aren’t looking, but the secretary is such a good listener that before he realizes what is happening, an unhealthy attachment is formed. Keep your eyes and ears open at all times. Keep a healthy sense of balance in your relationship.
A marriage is vulnerable when the nest empties. With the children gone, the couple focuses on their relationship, maybe for the first time since they said, “I do.” They might not like what they see. Some may choose to run. Others choose to stay in the marriage and commit to a stronger second half. The couple who has made their marriage a priority from the beginning will discover the transition much smoother.
Nonetheless, even the best relationship needs a boost during these transition years. Try the following tips to infuse new life into your marriage.
Date your mate. List activities you enjoy, then number them in order of your preference. Take turns sharing your hobbies and special places of interest. Through our daughters’ growing years, we made it a goal to go out alone together weekly. We put it on the calendar. Otherwise it would not have happened. Don’t let other activities crowd out your couple time. You are experiencing emotions that are unique to this season of life. You both need this weekly refresher for the two of you to share thoughts and feelings, and simply enjoy each other’s companionship and support.
Find your own outlet. With the potential to overly cling to one another as you work through this transition time, it’s important to “test the waters” and find an activity that excites your soul. There’s always a plea for volunteers in many wonderful community organizations, as well as at church. For me, writing has given a new platform in this season of life. For Chuck, golf has provided a much-needed diversion. Remember to include some time each day giving back to others. That’s the secret to true joy and fulfillment.
Balance time together with other pursuits. Dave Peterson, founder and president of Total Life Counseling, Inc. of Roanoke, Virginia encourages couples to regularly evaluate their involvement in eight different areas. Consider the following as you plan out your activities on a daily basis.
• Spiritual (spending time alone with God, church work)
• Emotional (sharing feelings with my mate, outside friendships, journaling)
• Physical (recreation, exercise)
• Cultural (visit an art museum, attend the symphony, or plan an overseas trip to tour or work on a mission project).
• Financial (set goals for present as well as future needs).
• Marital (making time for each other, working on communication skills)
• Social (hosting parties, maintaining outside friendships, both individually, as well as a couple)
• Governmental (deciding what part you play as a Christian citizen, such as voting, lobbying, praying, making calls, writing letters)
Some of the above areas may overlap. You may decide to spend more time in one category than in another. Take your thoughts before God and ask His input. Remember man plans, but God directs his steps. It may be helpful to make a chart on which you list each category and the time spent in each pursuit. Reassess your activities weekly, monthly, and yearly. Reevaluate. Set new goals. Share your individual plan with your mate and talk about it together.
If your life was complete before your children left home, your adjustment will be easier. If your life was never complete, you have a major task ahead. If you haven’t been a healthy individual, you won’t be now. This additional life challenge will only make things more difficult. You may need professional assistance as you wade through overwhelming thoughts and feelings.
On the other hand, if you have a social network in place or extended family relationships from which you can receive empathy, support, and suggestions, you will handle this transition as a bump in the road, not a major crevice that causes you to stop your car, repair the road, then cross.
(Excerpt taken from When Mourning Comes, Living Through Loss, Chuck and Eileen Rife © 2002)
Eileen Rife, author of Second Chance (OakTara), conducts marriage seminars with her husband. The above article was excerpted from her book, When Mourning Comes, Living through Loss. www.eileenrife.com, www.eileen-rife.blogspot.com