3 Relationship Tips for Empty Nesters by Jackie Pilossoph for Chicago Tribune Pioneer Press
The best word I can use to describe how I felt the first day I dropped off my daughter at preschool is “free.” I felt liberated! Both of my toddlers were in someone else’s care for a whole hour and 45 minutes, leaving me the freedom to do whatever I wanted, and boy did I appreciate the time alone.
Fast forward 15 years, or so. The first time you drop your kid off at college is an entirely different story. Not that I know firsthand, but 35 years later, I can still vividly remember the tears my mom cried on the way home from the University of Michigan, having just taken my sister there. Saying goodbye and leaving your child in a dorm room far away cannot be easy. It is a major life change that not only affects the kids, his or her siblings and each parent, but that also has a huge impact on the parent’s relationship with a child.
What happens to empty nesters, or even parents of high school kids? Do they lean on each other, enjoy the uninterrupted time together, and become even closer as a couple? That would be great! But some couples realize during this time that they are no longer connected, causing them to either continue living separate lives or make the decision to split up.
Jessica Waxman is a Northbrook-based licensed marriage and family therapist. Waxman said every couple handles life transitions differently, but that nine times out of 10, couples who have big relationship problems as empty nesters saw the signs long before.
Waxman said there are several reasons why sending the kids to college can put stress on a marriage, aside from the financial burden.
“Each partner is grieving. When a child leaves for college, it can trigger emotions you didn’t know you were going to have, such as a past loss or unresolved loss,” she said. “That affects the marriage. Rather than holding those feelings in, there is value in leaning on and supporting one another. Couples can use the transition to emotionally connect and talk about feelings they didn’t know they were going to have.”
Also, some couples become defined by their role as parents and by the demands of their kids. So, when the kids are gone, it’s almost as if they have forgotten their identity as a couple.
Additionally, depending on age, sending kids to college can coincide with menopause, a midlife crisis, declining health or the declining health of their own parents. This can unfortunately cause additional stress, which affects the marriage.
Here are Waxman’s relationship tips for empty nesters:
1. Prepare for college long before the kids leave. When kids start getting older and needing you less, focus on socializing more, taking trips, planning date nights, doing charity work together. Try to remember what you did before you had kids and do it. This is your chance to reconnect with old friends and hobbies. Think of it as a gift.
2. Treat each other with respect. Don’t underestimate the power of a kind greeting when your spouse walks in the door. When you’re an empty nester, he or she is only one walking in the door on a daily basis. Take advantage of the time alone to talk, become friends and have dates, even if they are in your own home.
3. Consider therapy. Many years of not communicating wants and needs to a spouse can result in a lot of buried hurt, anger and resentment. But, there is hope of reconnecting if the two people are willing to try to work out their issues with a professional.
According to Waxman, some couples who want a divorce think it’s best to wait until the kids leave for college. However, college kids don’t experience divorce any easier than younger kids.
“Going to college is such a huge transition for kids, and it’s stressful enough even if their parents’ relationship is solid,” she said. “They want to know their home life is staying consistent. They don’t want to have to worry about their mom and dad being newly separated.”