Life After Children

by Jean Landphair, LMFT

The house seems so quiet – it feels so empty, just like my life. I didn’t appreciate the happy chaos in my home while we were raising our children. And now, sometimes I wish it were back. I feel at loose ends. And worst of all, I wonder who this person is I am married to. What happened to the passion and hope for a future together that we once shared? Is this what the rest of our lives together will be like? How do I fix my marriage now?

Sound familiar? These are the telltale signs of the Empty Nest Syndrome. It seems especially prevalent in our culture today. Marriage counselors are seeing a trend of couples breaking up after having raised children together due to this condition. This often shocks the couple’s children and even surprises themselves. How does a couple get to this place? How can they avoid it? And how can they prevent a divorce if they are already in that desperate place?

A large part of the problem is that parents in our culture today tend to center their lives around their children. We are constantly focused on the needs and wants of our kids, to the detriment of our personal and marital needs and wants. We want to raise great kids. We want to protect them from hurt. We want the best possible opportunities for them, and we work hard to accomplish all these things. But overdoing this child-centeredness is not healthy for either the children or the parents.

Beginning around age 2, children need to start seeing that the world does not revolve around them. They need to be taught to be respectful of the needs of others in their family as well as to express their own needs in an acceptable way. It is good for children to experience frustration sometimes and to have guidance from their parents on how to deal with not always getting what they want. Author and psychologist Dr. John Rosemond takes the position that a parent’s job is to provide everything their children need, and some of what they want. This helps prepare them for an imperfect world into which they will eventually be launched. It is a rude awakening when 18-year-olds leave home and encounter “no” for the first time. Not only is it a blow when they hear “no” from others, but they have not learned the discipline of saying “no” to themselves.

Child-centered families take their toll on marriages as well. A common pattern seen in marriage counseling situations is when a mom has devoted herself to her children, and her husband has felt neglected and disconnected with her during their child-rearing years. He feels there is nothing left of his wife for him. Once the children are gone, there is a lot of hurt to be healed when that happens.

Sometimes, both parents are too focused on the children to the neglect of their marriage. Relationships need attention in order to grow and be fulfilling. Getting married and then neglecting to nurture the relationship is like a weed seed that gets deposited along the side of the road. If it happens to hit a spot of bare dirt, and happens to get some rain at just the right time, it might germinate. And if it gets enough sunlight and enough rain and doesn’t get crowded out by other weeds, it might survive. But it will be a scraggly weed that will be of no value to anyone.

Contrast this with a hybrid tea rose, lovingly planted in soil enriched by compost, in just the right spot to get adequate sunlight but protected by extreme weather. The gardener prunes it the proper way at just the right times to encourage healthy growth. The gardener tends it by making sure it has enough water and the needed soil nutrients. The gardener is constantly checking for pests or diseases and treating it with the right remedies. The reward is a lush plant with shiny green leaves and blooms that have velvety petals and a wonderful fragrance.

If parents want their marriage to look more like a gorgeous rose than a scraggly weed, they need to intentionally carve out regular times to be alone together. (In this regard, regular early bedtimes for children may be more for the good of their parents than for the children!) Married couples need daily time together to process their thoughts and feelings and to keep their love alive. They need to share with each other what is going on with their emotions, their thoughts, and their spiritual lives; with their work, play, and social connections. This can only happen when their attention is focused solely on each other for a time. (Yes, this means no distractions from electronic media!)

They also need periodic special times together – dates to keep the romance vibrant. Married couples with children must be vigilant about their physical intimacy as well. Married sex life often takes a major hit once children enter the picture. But it is an important part of a happy marriage. Couples need to make time and save energy for it. Some couples find it useful to set a date and time for coming together. This may seem regimented; but one can also look at it that we make time for what is important to us. And scheduling time for sex tells one’s partner that that is a priority. In addition, the anticipation of it and preparing for it can be part of the fun of it!

If a family is already in the teen years stage and the marriage has been neglected, it is not too late to avoid the Empty Nest Syndrome. As teens become more independent and begin to create a life of their own outside the family, it is a wonderful time for parents to rediscover each other. As children become more independent, their parents have more time to try new activities together, to practice spending time connecting emotionally and sexually, and to plan for their future after the children are gone. Married couples can begin to re-experience some of the freedom they had before their children were born, without making their teens feel abandoned. This is a balancing act that may take some practice but will pay off. It is good for teens to see their parents attending to their relationship and being romantic. It gives them a sense of security knowing that their parents’ marriage is strong. And it models for them how to have a healthy marital relationship when the time comes for them.

For couples whose children are already grown and gone and find themselves feeling lonely in their marriage, there are some strategies that can revitalize their relationship. One is to have adventures together often. These can be as simple as hitting garage sales on a Saturday morning or as involved as taking ballroom dancing lessons together. It is also helpful to cultivate couple friendships. One recent study showed that double-dating tends to increase one’s feeling of romance towards one’s own partner. Couples in this stage need fun activities to look forward to and new experiences to talk about together.

Another good strategy couples can use is to make lists to remind themselves of the positives in their marriage – lists such as what a partner appreciates about the mate, what the mate does to make the partner feel special, and what things attracted the partner to the mate in the first place. Keeping such lists handy and referring to them when one feels discouraged in the marriage can help keep hope alive.

If couples are at a loss of what to do to re-connect, 40 Unforgettable Dates with Your Mate offers a wealth of ideas. This book is written by psychologist and founder of America’s Family Coaches Dr. Gary Rosberg and his wife Barbara. It not only has suggestions of what to do on dates, but also tips on how to prepare for them to make them special. It even offers talking points to get a good conversation going during the date. When a couple has been married for a long time, it is easy to feel that they have talked about everything already and have nothing more to say to each other.

Couples who feel they have lost touch with each other can also re-bond by simple behaviors like showing affection every time they meet and separate. They can be intentional about verbally affirming their partners often. In addition, holding hands and showing deference to each other in public can spark more feelings of connection. It says to the world, “You are mine, and I am yours.”

Sometimes, there is too much water under the bridge for a couple to repair the damage on their own. This is when a qualified marriage therapist can help. Couples should look for a therapist who has had specific training in marriage counseling, with whom they feel a bond after a few sessions, and who can respect the perspectives of both partners during the process. Marriage counseling can be a difficult and sometimes painful endeavor. But a marriage counselor can help couples know how to stop a divorce. A successful marriage counseling experience can bring a lifetime of change for a rich and rewarding marriage.

No one gets married to feel alone. Couples especially don’t expect that after a long history together. Following the above strategies can help couples to avoid getting to that place. And couples who are already experiencing the Empty Nest Syndrome don’t have to choose between either living a lonely life within their marriage or getting a divorce. The hurt can be healed, and couples can rediscover their emotional attachment if they are committed to the marriage and open to change.

The hardest step is first making the call. Let me help by calling 615-785-5107 for a free phone consultation about marriage counseling.

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For more articles about Marriage Counseling be sure to read the following:

How to Know When to Seek Counseling

The Importance of the Parent/Child Bond

Top Risk Factors for Divorce