The first major adjustment in a marriage comes when kids are born and the second major shift comes when those kids are on their way out of the house, said Ron Cox, associate professor and Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension marriage and family specialist.
“Think about it, a couple has been raising kids for 20 or more years, and that all changes once it’s just the two of them again,” he said. “It can be a tough time for parents when their last child leaves home.”
Every parent knows focusing on their kids’ well-being is a full-time job, and Cox points to a robust body of research showing marital quality declines somewhat when children come along.
That dip is normal as couples settle into the routine of raising kids and keeping the household running. Meanwhile, the couple’s relationship often gets neglected. However, when the children are grown and ready to strike out on their own, it forces husbands and wives to renegotiate their relationship.
“It can be a wonderful time of rediscovery for them or it can become a problem where they don’t feel like they know each other anymore,” Cox said.
There is a small spike in the divorce rate around the 22-year marriage anniversary mark, proving just how tricky it can be to revert to days sans pacifiers, soccer practices and homework.
But, for lots of couples, the empty nest represents a bright, shiny chance to start anew.
One key to couples successfully managing the transition from full house to empty nest is finding positive experiences they can share together, such as taking up a shared hobby, seeking out other couples and socializing and beginning to plan your retirement home.
“With the kids gone, you’ve got all this time to fill, and it’s important that a sizable percentage of it is spent doing things you both like,” Cox said. “Maybe you put your dreams on hold to invest in your kids. As your role as a parent becomes less demanding, you and your spouse have a chance to start pursuing old dreams or chasing new ones.”
Actually, couples do not have to wait for the kids to clear out to start seeking things you and your partner can do together. Start by setting aside a date night or scheduling lunch together once a week.
Cox also suggested couples consider getting involved in a cause, perhaps through a social service agency or a church.
“Giving back in a way that is meaningful to both of you not only benefits someone else, but also serves to bring you together as a couple,” he said.
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