Being Happy Together When the Nest is Empty

How couples can make the most of life after the kids leave home

Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates

Moving into the empty-nest season is often an awkward transition. Like a coming storm, this unsettled time in life brings suitable conditions for conflict and misunderstanding.

Why? Transitions make us vulnerable and irritable.

Avoiding Pitfalls in the Empty-Nest Years

As you enter the empty-nest years, here are 3 ways to prepare so you can relate well to your spouse: be aware of pitfalls, express expectations and share your dreams of serving together.

One pitfall is a critical spirit. It is all too easy to fill the void left by the kids with criticism of our spouse. With the kids gone we tend to focus more on our marriage partner. It is easy to resent the way she is or is not, to find fault with what he has done or left undone, to revisit old wounds, to fret about the way we think things should be.

Why do we do this? Partly because we are hurting or sad for our losses. For wives, partly because we have been mothering for so long that we switch our attention from our kids to our husband without thinking. Unconsciously we become critical of him, and we don't even realize what we are doing. It's so subtle.

Once we do recognize what is happening, it's time to change course. Making changes can sometimes be as simple as deciding: I make the choice to give my spouse the benefit of the doubt, to not comment on everything she does or doesn't do, to focus on the things I appreciate about him, and to verbally express gratitude.

It will be most helpful if the 2 of you begin to discuss your expectations regarding the empty-nest season before you actually get there. If you are a wife, chances are that you have thought about your expectations for this new season more than your husband.

However, couples that have prepared ahead together for the empty-nest transition have had less marital friction. In fact, many women have said that this is the most fun they've had with their husbands in years. Expectations can be boundless, and many times you'll discover that your expectations do not become reality.

Sherry's husband was afraid that she'd take all of her attention and focus it on him. But their nest wasn't empty very long before he felt Sherry was too busy for him.

Serving God and Neighbors Together

Taking time as a couple to focus on one another is crucial to our sense of well being and important for a vital marriage. Yet it isn't enough.

Our ultimate focus is to be on others rather than on ourselves. This is the second part of the Great Commandment: to love God whole-heartedly and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Also, it is the key to joy.

Now is the time to consider the question: What is God calling us to do together that will make a positive difference in the lives of others?

It will take an army of men and women combining time and talents and treasures to bring about significant changes in our world. And we have an army.

Millions of us empty nesters who are 60-and-under could become world changers. Each one of us can -- and we believe should -- seriously consider what God wants us to do.

Jane and Don have raised 4 kids; they have always loved young people. As empty nesters, they decided to invite several young couples into a fellowship group with the purpose of mentoring them in growing strong families. It was a safe place for these young couples to ask questions. Jane and Don had "been there."

Most of all, they are having an impact on the next 2 generations.

Organizing Shared Dreams and Passions

Some couples find it helpful at this stage to draft a vision statement for their marriage. The exercise of drafting this statement can be helpful; it gives a couple the opportunity to talk about their hopes, dreams and expectations.

More importantly, a vision statement helps a husband and wife think about a purpose that they can pursue together.

One friend told us, "In a way, we've lived separate lives as my husband has focused on work and I've focused on family. Simply by talking about a vision statement, I realized we were beginning to think as we now rather than you and I. That was encouraging."

When you are ready to seriously tackle this marriage vision statement, begin by summarizing all you have learned about yourself into 4 topic statements as follows:

My life themes and passions are:
My top values are:
My spiritual gifts are:
My personality and personal strengths are:

One woman wrote, "I can see how it would be easy for us to just move on to separate activities in the empty nest. So now I'm thinking, As a couple what is our uniqueness? What are our top 5 values? What are we passionate about together?

Gary and Cindy approached their mission statement in a unique way by looking at older people. They listed traits and themes they wanted to emulate in 3 key areas: attitude, serving others and finishing well.

  • Here is what they wrote down for attitude:
    to make our home safe, welcoming and fun
  • to listen well
  • to share wisdom and advice when given permission
  • to be patient and not demanding
  • to be willing to take risks, make mistakes, try new things
  • to remain technologically savvy
  • to remain culturally relevant, so we can communicate with the next generation.

There is no limit to the new ventures that are available to empty-nest couples; and in planning for and pursuing these ventures together, your marriage can thrive. Ask God to give you wisdom and watch Him work in ways that will go beyond your plans and even your dreams.

Excerpted from Barbara and Susan's Guide to the Empty Nest
Copyright © 2007 Susan Yates and Barbara Rainey. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission of FamilyLife Publishing.

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